Vaughn R. Larson
Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs
MADISON, Wis. - One day before the nation observed the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders joined fellow Guard members, family members and friends in remembering Sgt. Ryan Jopek, who was killed in action near Tikrit, Iraq on Aug. 2, 2006.
Jopek enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 2003 at the age of 17, one year away from graduating Merrill High School in Merrill, Wisconsin. A member of the 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry Regiment, he deployed in 2005 with Company A of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment to Camp Navistar, Kuwait, where the battalion would escort military convoys to bases throughout Iraq. He spent 208 days "outside the wire" performing 78 convoy missions, some lasting a week or longer.
"Ryan was respected by his unit," said Capt. Jason Reiman, Jopek's platoon leader during that 2005-06 deployment. "Dedicated to the mission, always humble, and put his unit before himself. He was the quintessential Soldier."
As a show of respect to its fallen Soldier, the 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry dedicated its drill hall in Jopek's memory, "in recognition of his ultimate sacrifice to his community, state and nation." A steel placard bears his name, and a bronze plaque bears his story.
Ryan's father Brian Jopek, a retired Wisconsin Army National Guard staff sergeant and an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran himself, noted that 16 years before his son's death, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then a member of a combat engineer unit in the Kansas Army National Guard, the elder Jopek missed deploying for Desert Storm by a matter of weeks. After 9/11, he knew he would be called up, and in fact deployed with the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment to Mosul, Iraq in 2004.
"I just had no idea, no way of knowing, at that time that less than five years [after 9/11] my eldest boy wouldn't be with us anymore," Brian said of Ryan.
Brian said he greatly appreciated the ceremony, though Ryan would likely protest all the attention.
"To be honest with you, as much as I love and respect you people, I wish we didn't have to do this," Brian said. "I hope you understand where I'm coming from."
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin's adjutant general, acknowledged that there are no words to take away the pain of losing a family member in combat.
"I am reminded of how unfair, how much disproportionate burden Gold Star families have to bear when our country goes to war," Dunbar said.
Dunbar said that when he joined the military the country was at peace.
"But nobody, nobody in 2003 could raise his or her right hand - for benefits or any other purpose - and not realize they were quite likely going to the combat zone," Dunbar said. "That took a special kind of courage for that young man, still in high school, to make that commitment. I think that picture shows an awfully confident young man.
"On this 10th anniversary, as we dedicate this hall, I can't think of a more purposeful, meaningful, appropriate thing for the Wisconsin National Guard to do - or for the Light Horse Squadron to do - than to remember this exceptional Soldier in perpetuity."
Reiman announced the squadron had created an annual award in honor of its fallen comrade. The Sgt. Ryan Jopek Memorial Stetson - the signature black hat worn by Cavalry members - will be awarded each year to the enlisted Soldier who best displays Ryan Jopek's outstanding motivation.
Standing in formation with other Cavalry Soldiers was Sgt. Steven Jopek, Ryan's younger brother. Steven was still in school when Ryan deployed in 2005, and described the command remembrance ceremony as "surreal."
"They're all recognizing the 10-year anniversary of his death, and I feel like it was just yesterday when time just kind of stopped," Steven said.
"It means a lot to stand in formation with my unit, and be a part of the unit he loved," Steven continued. "It's been my dream since I was 15 to be in this place and serve with the people that Ryan loved so much."
Chaplain Joseph Ledger said Ryan's life was characterized by great commitment to family, friends and the nation.
"Our hearts are heavy even 10 years after his death, yet his memory lives on," Ledger said. "He loved life and taught us how to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost. He was willing to invest his life into others, even when faced with adversity. He is greatly missed."
Brian said Ryan volunteered for his last convoy mission, in part to see Mosul and in part to help train the Soldiers taking over the mission.
"His time in Kuwait and Iraq showed him what it means to be there for the men next to you," Brian said. "I know he picked that up from his time in service."
"This young man showed us all what it's like to be a Soldier," Dunbar said. "And if you think about this flag that we serve, we owe our founding, and we owe the country that we are today, to men like Ryan Jopek who are willing to raise their right hand, earn the right to wear a uniform and, when needed, when called, not shirk that responsibility but go forth and do that job."
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