ST. PAUL — Ben Kopp knew he wanted to become an Army ranger before the hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers.
From the time he was young, Kopp sought to emulate his great-grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran. And he was resolute in his goal of fighting for his country.
But the actions of terrorists hardened his resolve to enlist, his mother Jill Stephenson said recently, almost two decades after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, shocked the nation and set in motion the United States' two longest wars.
"I knew it was a part of who he was. I believe it was part of his purpose for being here and for living was to join the military," Stephenson said. "There was just no turning back from 9/11, 9/11 sealed his fate."
Now, 12 years after Kopp died after taking Taliban gunfire to his leg protecting his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, Stephenson and other members of a little-known state task force are set to lift up the memories of Minnesotans killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the War on Terror. And they'll present a documentary and exhibition series highlighting the impact the conflicts have had on the state.
"It's really important for the people in our communities and in our state to know and to see that we haven't forgotten that 9/11 was a turning point in our country," the Gold Star mother, who raised her son in Rosemount, told Forum News Service. "And a lot of lives have been given up in these 20 years, and what we're doing in Minnesota is recognizing specifically the lives in Minnesota, and I think a lot of people aren't aware of how many losses there have been."
For the last year, veterans who fought in the War on Terror, family members of those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks and in combat, historians, elected officials and others have sought to preserve the memories of Minnesotans' role on Sept. 11 and in the battles that followed.
They'll debut a documentary illustrating many of those Minnesota stories on Friday, Sept. 10, and welcome thousands to the Capitol complex for a day of remembrance on Saturday, Sept. 11.
"We are trying to develop a remembrance and honor ceremony that would include not only those people that we lost, of course, on 9/11 itself, but for those who were involved with the Global War on Terrorism for the last 20 years," Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke said.
Herke said that more than 40,000 Minnesota military members served during the two decades after 9/11 and 97 active duty, reserve and National Guard members were killed during that time frame. While some memories have faded in the 20 years since the attacks, Herke and others said they were hopeful that taking steps to seek out Minnesotans' stories and preserve them could keep the perspectives alive for future generations.
Randal Dietrich, executive director of the Minnesota Military and Veterans Museum and project lead on the documentary, said the state has a chance to write the record of how Minnesotans stepped in and stepped up after Sept. 11. And he has spent years sorting through memories and sitting for interviews with survivors, veterans and others.
"We're providing viewers a chance to connect with key milestones over the last 20 years via a Minnesotan who was right there," Dietrich said. “Our hope is that we can do something ... so we don’t wait and neglect to be actively drafting and gathering those stories for the benefit of future generations in 40, 50, 100 years from now, so they have a written document about what Minnesota’s role in this conflict has been."
The documentary and exhibitions will be on display at the Remembrance event Saturday and will later be available for students and other interested groups around the state. And they'll ultimately be housed in a permanent gallery at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minnesota. Dietrich noted that the project will continue to evolve as more Minnesotans share their memories and as military members and refugees from Afghanistan come to the state.
Task force members said they hoped that sharing the memories of Minnesotans who perished in the attacks or who served in the wars would help educate a new generation about 9/11 and prevent those stories from being erased or forgotten.
Mariah Mills Jacobsen learned after his death that Tom Burnett Jr. was her biological father and she said she has since sought to lift up the memory of his courage. Burnett led a group of passengers on United Flight 93 in taking back the plane from terrorists who hijacked it and preventing them from crashing the plane in Washington, D.C. Burnett and all on board the flight perished when the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
"The fear is that if we let another 20 years go by, we're going to miss some of these stories," Jacobsen said. "Today's kids, today's teenagers weren't even alive when 9/11 occurred. And we risk losing a lot of Minnesota perspective and information and stories if we don't start capturing different perspectives now."
Mills Jacobsen, Stephenson, elected officials, military leaders and others are set to speak at the memorial event on Saturday.
What to know before you go
- The documentary Resolute: Minnesota Stories of 9/11 and the War is set to air on KSTP-TV, WDIO-TV and KAAL-TV at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10.
- The 9/11 Day of Remembrance is set to begin with a bell tolling and reading of the names of the Minnesotans lost on Sept. 11 and in the War on Terror at the Minnesota Capitol ground in St. Paul s at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 11. An official ceremony is set to follow, beginning at 9 a.m. and additional activities are set to run through the afternoon.