Next Wednesday would have marked the 30th birthday of Sergeant Ryan D. Jopek; son of Tracy Jopek and Brian Jopek, and brother of Steven Jopek,26, of Minneapolis and Jessica (Holmgren) Jopek, 28, of St. Cloud, MN.
Ryan’s life ended abruptly at the age of 20; while answering the call of duty to his country on Aug. 1, 2006 near the city of Tikrit, Iraq as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Word spread quickly, following official notification at the Jopek family home on East Main Street. While a family struggled with the shock and horror of losing a son, brother, nephew and grandson, a community rallied around them.
“The day was literally like a horror movie for our family,” says Jessica, Ryan Jopek’s younger sister.
“There is so much of it I have blacked out, many of us have. There are parts of that day we just can’t remember, but will never forget the sudden and overwhelming support of the community.”
As Holmgren explains, an account was established by a local bank and donations began to pour in almost immediately.
“There were donations coming from everywhere, from people we had never met before and still have never met. It was unbelievable, to this day it’s still unbelievable the response we received.”
Donations eventually topped out at just over $20,000.
“We decided to use a portion of the funds to begin restoring Ryan’s beloved truck, Walter,” adds Ryan’s mother Tracy, referring to Ryan’s 1966 Chevrolet ½ ton pick-up.
“We transferred the remaining $18,000 to a fund at the Merrill High School and created a scholarship in Ryan’s memory.”
The first $1,000 Sgt. Ryan Jopek Memorial Scholarship was awarded in 2007 to MHS grad Matt Landolt. Since then, the fund has awarded $1,000 annually to other deserving MHS grads. In 2011, in honoring the fifth anniversary of Jopek’s sacrifice, the fund awarded four additional $250 scholarships; totaling $10,000 awarded to local students embarking on the next chapter of their lives.
In an effort to replenish the fund to allow continued assistance to local graduates, the Jopek family along with several local sponsors, organized Saturday’s SGT. Ryan Jopek Ruck – Run &Remember.
“We want to keep the scholarship fund going for as long as we can, we are hoping the proceeds from Saturday’s event will help us keep the fund active for another 10 years, that’s our goal,” Tracy adds.
A native of Nebraska, Ryan and his family lived in Kansas for a short time before relocating to Merrill on Ryan’s 16th birthday.
“Ryan always enjoyed helping people and especially meeting new people,” Tracy continues.
“He always wanted to help and serve in some way and I think that’s where his aspirations for the military began. Our family has also always been very military oriented. Ryan’s father Brian served in the National Guard for 21 years, so I’m sure that played a role too.” It was after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, when family members noticed Jopek’s military aspirations become more focused.
“9/11 had an effect on him, he became pretty serious about it after that. He also saw the benefits of the National Guard helping him to pay for school as he wanted to become a Park Ranger.”
In the summer of 2003 at the age of 17, Ryan Jopek’s aspirations became a reality when he officially enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. The following summer, Ryan departed for One Station Unit Training (OSUT) as a Cavalry Scout at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He returned home in September of 2004, attached to the now disbanded Merrill ANG detachment; E Troop, 105th Cavalry Regiment and soon after began pursuing his career aspirations at UWMarathon County.
Then in December of 2004, Ryan received deployment orders for active duty service in southwestern Asia.
In June of 2005, he departed for readiness training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi and returned home for two weeks, before his departure for Iraq with the 2nd BN-127th Infantry Regiment.
“It all happened pretty fast…” Tracy recollects with a sigh.
“He went off to training at Fort Knox, then he was home for 3-months before he got his orders. A few months later he was gone, then came back for a few weeks and he was gone again.”
Jopek’s unit departed in August for deployment to Camp Navistar, on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and
began their 18 month tour.
“He wasn’t able to contact us very often,” Tracy adds. “And when he was able to contact us it was usually by phone or skype. He couldn’t really say much about what he was doing and I think given the kind
of guy he was, even if he could have talked about it he wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have wanted us to worry us. So we would just talk about things going on here at home and keep him up to date.”
“He wasn’t a man of many words,” Jessica adds quietly, with a bit of a smile on her face.
Jopek arrived home for two weeks of leave in mid-May of 2006, before returning to Iraq to finish his tour which would have been completed in December.
“There isn’t much I remember about that day, other than it being so hot in the house,” Jessica, now 28 recollects of the early morning hours of August 1, 2006 (August 2nd Middle eastern time)
“Steven and I had fought over the couch in the basement due to it being so hot, so I hadn’t slept well. It was around 6 AM when I heard the knock on the
door upstairs. When I first answered and seen two men in uniform at the door, I assumed for a minute maybe they were here to tell us Ryan was coming
home early. But when I woke mom up, she knew it wasn’t good news. She knew right away something had happened…”
“I think I knew before they even said anything,” Tracy said. “They told me the Humm-Vee Ryan was riding in had been struck by an explosion from an IED
(Improvised Explosive Device) near the city of Tikrit. They said the incident had been investigated…and it was confirmed…he… Ryan ..had been killed in action.” Tracy explains among a few pauses, her voice trembling a bit.
“He was the only casualty.”
“I don’t remember much after that and to this day I don’t have any more details of what happened, and that’s best I think. I can function with the details I have learned so far. I have to be able to function so I don’t want to know any more.”
Despite this time of year being a sensitive one for the Jopek family, both mother and daughter agree on taking solace in the preservation of Ryan’s memory by the local community aswell as via his memorial scholarship fund.
Reputable character, dedication and attendance are just some of the required criteria for the Jopek scholarship, as well as an essay and recommendation from an MHS staff member or coach.
Or ‘lunch ladies’ as Tracy jokingly mentions.
“We hold lunch ladies in high regard in this family!” she adds with a chuckle.
“Over the years we have received so many letters, compliments and even condolence cards from various lunch ladies about how good of a kid Ryan was. That’s always meant a lot, the lunch lady isn’t someone you would expect that from. So we have learned if the lunch lady has good things to say, it must be true!”
As Jessica explains, along with keeping Ryan’s memory alive and honoring his sacrifice, the Jopek Scholarship is intended to recognize the same strong character traits Ryan was often admired and recognized for.
“Ryan always worked hard at everything he did no matter what. When he was in high school he really wanted to play basketball. Even though he didn’t make the varsity team, he still went to practice every day and cheered the team on. He worked hard to get better. When he was a senior he made the varsity
team but still didn’t get to really play much. Even then he stuck with the team for the whole season and kept cheering the team on the whole time.”
“Students with that kind of dedication, commitment and work ethic are the students we look for to receive Ryan’s Memorial Scholarship. Straight A’s and good grades are great of course, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. But showing showing dedication and commitment are.”
Saturday’s event kicks off with the 10K “ruck” portion to begin at 8 AM (7:30 AM registration)on South Park Street with the option to continue on the 5K Run Walk (registration 8am) set to begin at 10 AM around Council Grounds State Park, for a total of 6.21 miles.
When asked of how the idea for the event was born, Jessica laughs but keeps it simple.
“Let’s just say mom has lots of ideas and we agreed this one was pretty cool! The ruck portion was all Steven’s idea.”
“Saturday will be pretty meaningful in many ways…” Tracy adds with a smile.
“Next week would be Ryan’s 30th birthday, he always enjoyed working out as did his friends, the Council Grounds was one of his favorite places to be and we think it’s a great addition to the annual Memorial Day celebration. It gives us a chance to come together as a family with the community who supported us during the most difficult time of our life, and who has supported us since.”
Also included in the events planned for Saturday will be a roll call of the names of all Lincoln County veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Included in the roll call will be that of US Army Infantry Spc. Grant A. Dampier of Merrill.
A native of Wisconsin Rapids, Dampier and his family relocated to Merrill in the summer of 1996.
“We had met shortly before he moved here,” explains Dampier’s widow Heidi.
“I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. I loved his personality from the start and he was a great looking guy, very cute!” she adds with a chuckle.
The couple dated for a short time and reconnected a few years later at the age of 18. It wasn’t until Dampier was in his early 20’s when he began considering the military as a career.
“He lost a job he really enjoyed and started looking at joining the army. His goal had always been having
a good job to provide a better life for his family than he had growing up. He thought the Army would be a good way to provide that and I was pretty excited for him.”
Dampier enlisted as an active duty infantryman and was off to OSUT at Fort Benning, Georgia in September of 2004. The couple planned to marry upon Grant receiving 2-weeks of leave between the time he graduated from OSUT and the day he was required to report to his duty station at Fort Carson, CO.
As Hedi explains, the Army decision makers decided to change things up, leading to an interesting chain of events.
“The day he graduated he learned the Army had changed his plans and decided they wanted him to report to Carson within 48 hours!” she adds with a laugh, shaking her head.
“I was furious! We had made all these plans only to have them changed at the last minute. So he did as he was told and reported to base. But once he had processed in and all that stuff, he jumped in the car and went AWOL to come home and marry me. We ended up getting married on April 1st,, 2005…’April Fools’ day.”
The Dampier’s third daughter Kylee was born two-weeks later.
The following fall Grant received deployment orders to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In December he deployed to Balad, Iraq-just north of the capital city of Baghdad- attached to the prestigious 4th Infantry Division with decorated lineage dating back to World War I; including engagements in major historical operations such as “D-Day”, “Battle of the Bulge” and the capture of Saddam Hussein in December of 2003.
“He didn’t get to call much or e-mail” Heidi recollects.
“I know he was in a busy area and phone use was very limited. We would hear from him once in a great while and when we did it was 2 or 3 AM our time. But we did the best we could with the situation. We would send him a lot of packages and make things for him with the girls. One of our favorite things to do was to draw the girls’ outline on poster paper and then the girls would color in and write little messages for him. He really enjoyed that and so did we.”
Sunday, may 15th marked the 10th anniversary of Dampier’s ultimate sacrifice at age of 25.
Similar to the Jopek’s, Heidi admits most of that day’s events have been blacked out from her memory while others are difficult to put together.
“I remember being gone most of the day and was just getting home to our house on Prospect Street shortly before the kids got home,” she explains.
“As I pulled up in front of our house a van pulled up behind me. Before I really even had a chance to process what the fact he was in his Class-A dress uniform, he asked me to come into the house to talk. We were joined by a woman…..they told me Grant had volunteered for an assignment to drop into an area by helicopter with other troops, and transport a group of captured insurgents by truck. While transporting them, the truck was struck by an exploding IED and Grant was killed in the explosion.”
“The last time we spoke to him was the day before he died,” Heidi adds with a sigh.
“He called to wish me Happy Mother’s Day,..26 hours later he was killed.”
“I was….shocked, devastated, I was in disbelief for a long time,” she adds after a brief pause.
“It’s hard to explain, you experience and feel so many things at once. Then you have to try and work through it as then all of a sudden this long process begins. I was contacted by a casualty officer the next day to take me where I had to go get the whole process completed.”
“I wasn’t allowed to do anything alone, she had to be with me the whole way. It was very nerve wracking and difficult”
Grant’s funeral service was held a week later and was laid to rest at Merrill Memorial Cemetery, where he was joined three months later by Jopek
“I think it’s awesome they are organizing the Ruck Run on Saturday.” Heidi adds.
“It’s a great idea to honor those we have lost and to keep Grant’s and Ryan’s memory alive.”
Advanced Registration for the Ruck Run is $20 for registration only; $30 for registration with a T-shirt; $25 for Military & Seniors; $50 for Family with 2 Shirts and $50 registration on the day of the event. Online registration is available at Active.com-“Sgt. Ryan Jopek 5K Ruck – Run – Remember” or on Facebook.
Registration forms may be picked up at the Merrill Parks and Recreation office.
Proceeds from the event will be added to the Sgt. Ryan Jopek Memorial Scholarship fund at Merrill High School and a portion of funds will also go toward the travel and maintenance costs for Ryan’s 1966 Chevy pick-up truck, “Walter”.
“This is an emotional time of year for our family is it was this time of year when we last seen him ten years ago.” Jessica adds.
“My last memory is going to Dairy Queen with him, his friends came over and hung out on the front porch with him. It was a special time and ended up being our last.”