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Saturday, Dec 15 2012 09:00 PM

Wounded soldier recalls the moment 'the world was put on pause'

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    By Courtesy Samuel Van Kopp

    Samuel Van Kopp during one of his last days in the intensive care unit, right before a drainage tube was removed from his skull.

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    By Courtesy Samuel Van Kopp

    Samuel Van Kopp with his family at Thanksgiving dinner in Washington, D.C.

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    By Courtesy Samuel Van Kopp

    Samuel Van Kopp and his brother Miles at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., recently.

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    Samuel Van Kopp

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

He remembers his 10-man platoon was in "an old corn field, hunkered down in the half-flooded furrows."

He could hear in the distance the sound of small arms fire and the distinctive "womp, then the BANG of impact" of rocket-propelled grenades.

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He'll be home for Christmas -- and his family is "ecstatic."

1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp, who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan in September, is scheduled to arrive home in Bakersfield on Monday for a 30-day leave. This will be the Bakersfield High School graduate's first chance to be home with his family since he was struck down by a suicide bomber in the midst of a firefight three months ago.

"We're ecstatic he is able to come home," said Cliff Van Kopp, Samuel's dad. "He had to get a medical release."

Following the 30-day leave, Sam expects to return to Walter Reed for continued treatment and therapy.

His plane is scheduled to arrive at just after 9:30 p.m. at Meadows Field, and efforts were already under way last week to have a crowd there to greet him.

The 2010 West Point graduate was wounded Sept. 26 when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest, sending a single ball bearing into Sam's brain. He says he's lucky to be alive.

The steel ball will likely remain where it is, as removing it through surgery would probably do more damage than leaving it alone, Samuel said.

He's still plagued by what he describes as "seasickness," marked by nausea and vertigo. He is not cleared to drive.

But there have been many encouraging improvements over the past six weeks. For example, Sam can now read, which was nearly impossible for a time. Although he said he can see only about 70 percent of a page of text, he is able to use context -- and sometimes rereading -- to get through the rest.

And he's gaining back some of the weight he lost during those long days of bed rest. Weighing in at 190 pounds during combat duty, Van Kopp's weight quickly plummeted to 155 after he was wounded.

"I'm 170 now," he said. "Doing much better."

So much so that Sam has been able to live in a small apartment on the Walter Reed campus, and go in each day for physical therapy and other rehabilitation.

His mother, Kristi Van Kopp, has stayed in the Washington, D.C., area for the past three months to be close to Sam. So Monday will be a homecoming for her as well.

"I miss her a bunch," said Cliff Van Kopp. "She's been like a mother bear watching over her cub -- even though her cub is 25 and has been on his own for some time."

Samuel said he's ready to see Bakersfield again.

"I'm happy to be coming home," he said. "It is home for me."

Originally hailing from Bakersfield, 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp had graduated from the Army's elite West Point academy two years before. Now he was a leader of men -- a platoon leader -- "hunkered down" somewhere in Afghanistan. It was Sept. 26, 2012.

"I hesitate (to tell this story) only because I fear my recollections give the impression of the 26th being an unusual event, like the battle scene in some old movie," he wrote in an email.

But it wasn't unusual at all, said Van Kopp, who turned 25 on Friday. On the contrary, being engaged by the enemy -- a polite term for taking lethal mortar fire, pot shots from hidden machine gunners or threats from improvised explosive devices -- was almost an everyday occurrence.

Once or twice a month, Van Kopp said, his crew would share what he called a "communal 'near-death experience'" that shook people up.

"I'm not talking about striking an IED in a vehicle -- that's a 'non-serious engagement' because though people get concussions, the gunner might get bruised up a bit and it's all very exciting, and certainly the vehicle is rendered non-mission capable for a bit, no one dies or is in danger of dying from the blast alone.

"A 'near-death experience firefight,'" he continued, "is one that starts as an ambush, when by all rights you should have died, when you can literally see the 7.62 rounds ricocheting off the mud brick in front of you, when a mortar round or RPG with your name on it rams into the hill right next to you, when you run like hell to the nearest cover."

Unfortunately for Van Kopp and his men, Sept. 26 would turn into that kind of day -- and worse.

Careful not to divulge sensitive information, Van Kopp's account leaves some questions unanswered. But it's a frightening reminder of what many American soldiers and Marines face every day in the non-traditional battlefields of this ancient arid land.

"My platoon kicked out our dismounts (the men who are designated to leave the vehicles and put boots on the ground), who started moving through the woods by the river about 800 meters south of our vehicles on the road. It's a very slow process," Van Kopp continued.

The acting senior scout, a staff sergeant, handled the movement of the section. As platoon leader, Van Kopp coordinated the movement of his unit with adjacent units.

About an hour into their patrol they heard "enemy contact" coming from two directions.

"In front of us, maybe a kilometer away, two teams of RPGs were busy lobbing rounds at our vehicle convoy," he said.

"Behind us came the sustained rattle of maybe two or three medium machine guns and maybe four or five AK-47s keeping steady contact at some unseen target, again probably the convoy."

In the cornfield, Van Kopp conferred with his staff sergeant about a plan to wait for the insurgent elements, who had split their force and would likely have to cross the platoon's field of fire. Both men saw an opportunity.

"Don't believe what's sometimes written," Van Kopp said. "A platoon can more readily lose its platoon leader than it can a good staff sergeant."

The two men agreed to the plan, so they stayed low and Van Kopp crawled back to his spot watching the unit's northern flank.

"A few seconds later we came under fire, probably a machine gun or two and a couple AKs," he said. "The fire was close but not too close."

The radio traffic -- frantic since the attack began -- became crazed, he recalled.

"I turned around to see if I needed to move my guys and caught a glimpse of an old man walking across the river bank, moving in our direction."

He saw his staff sergeant move to intercept the man as machine gun fire raked the embankment beside the unit's southern flank.

"I turned back to the radio, again and again calling up our position, that we were under fire," Van Kopp remembered.

"Then an explosion -- and the world was put on pause."

When the blast hit, it caught Van Kopp from behind and knocked him to the ground.

"In the dust cloud that surrounded us there was no sound," he remembered. "I could taste blood and felt it streaming from my ears but I heard only ringing.

"I tried to stand but couldn't balance. I couldn't see well. I could feel myself losing consciousness, the world slowing down. We were still under fire. I crawled to a trench and got on the radio. I sent up our position -- my GPS was still good.

"The explosion had shut up the radio chatter," he said. "I reported that we had been attacked and that we needed immediate relief and medivac. I sent up the first half of the army's medivac report and lost consciousness."

Van Kopp didn't know it at the time, but his staff sergeant was already dead, killed instantly in the explosion. Another man was mortally wounded and two others were seriously hurt. In the aftermath of the explosion there were no screams.

Van Kopp regained consciousness two days later in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C.

"I thought for a few days that the explosion had been an RPG, and the doctors, fearing my condition and reaction, told me I was the only man hit," Lt. Van Kopp recalled.

He later learned that the explosion originated from a suicide bomber, the old man his staff sergeant had intercepted.

"It must seem ridiculous, a civilian walking around the battlefield," Van Kopp said. "But in reality this area abutted huge tracks of farmland and we often encountered civilians caught in the middle.

"Beyond a doubt, had his two men not moved to intercept the suicide bomber before he got to the middle of their formation, many more men would have died that day," he said.

"I owe them my life."

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