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MIAMISBURG, Ohio - Jill Stephenson lost her only child Ben Kopp, a 21-year-old U.S. Army Ranger, when he was shot during a 2009 firefight with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. For her, the militant group's takeover of Kabul this weekend came as a gut punch.
Stephenson is among the American families given gold star status by the U.S. military after losing a close relative serving in a war or other conflict. Her son was 13 when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and he vowed that evening to become an Army Ranger. He eventually deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Here we are 20 years later, and so you do question why did we even bother," said Stephenson, one of two Gold Star mothers who spoke to Reuters as Taliban insurgents swept across Afghanistan following President Joe Biden's decision to end the U.S. military mission there.
Stephenson, who lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, worries many Americans will now lose sight of the service of the nearly 2,500 members of the U.S. military killed during the 20-year conflict. "I hope their sacrifice doesn't get forgotten," she told Reuters.
As the Taliban emerge victorious from a conflict that started with al Qaeda's hijacker-led plane attacks on the United States, Stephenson and other Americans are speaking out about the sacrifice of their loved ones and pondering the lessons of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, the American flag was lowered and removed from the embassy compound in Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, and Afghans who assisted the United States are trying to escape amid chaotic scenes at Kabul's airport.
The Taliban triumph occurred just over 12 years after Kopp saved six fellow soldiers during a battle in southern Helmand Province in which he was shot in the leg. He suffered cardiac arrest on the operating table in Afghanistan and was left brain dead.
On July 18, 2009, eight days after he was shot, Kopp was taken off life support - but not before his heart, kidneys, liver, skin, bone and tissue were donated. His heart today beats inside Judy Meikle, 69, who was diagnosed with congenital heart disease a few months before Kopp died.
"It's an amazing gift," said Meikle, who spoke to Reuters from her home in Winnetka, Illinois.
Stephenson says she copes with the loss of her son by focusing on the blessings of his life and his organ donations. His major organs have saved the lives of four people, said Stephenson, who is now an organ donation advocate.
The Gold Star mother said she has never felt anger about her son's death. At a camp for Gold Star families and other veterans in Miamisburg, Ohio, Stephenson said: "I believe Ben's mission was completed in the time that he was here and he would not have been able to fulfill that mission had he not been an Army Ranger, had he not deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, had things not turned out the way they did and him becoming an organ donor."