19 November 2006

Way to Party, Dude!

From today's Philadelphia Inquirer, this touching story via the LA Times:

Last goodbye, Vegas-style

Pa. Green Beret who died in Iraq had set aside money for bash.

By Bob Sipchen
Los Angeles Times

Shortly after Jeffrey "Toz" Toczylowski's last mission in Iraq a year ago this month, friends received a message.

"If you are getting this e-mail, it means that I have passed away," the missive said. "No, it's not a sick Toz joke, but a letter I wanted to write in case this happened."

The Army Special Forces captain, 30, who was raised in Montgomery County, Pa., said he would like family and friends to attend his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, "but understand if you can't make it." The message, distributed by a fellow Green Beret after Toczylowski's family had been notified of his death, added: "There will also be a party in Vegas with a 100k to help pay for travel, room and a party."

Last Saturday, Jeffrey's mother, Peggy, hustled about Las Vegas' Palms Hotel and Casino, making final arrangements for a bash that drew family and childhood friends of her son's from suburban Philadelphia, young men and women from his days at Texas A&M, and comrades in arms who had bonded with "Toz" on missions they could not discuss with civilians.

By 7 p.m., the last of 120 or so invited guests were offering hotel bouncers the password and trooping into the Palms' 10,000-square-foot "Hardwood" entertainment suite.

Two young women in skimpy outfits poured liquor from the fully stocked bar. Disc jockeys blasted rock and rap from a loft decked out with a pool table, a wide-screen video-game console, and a circular love seat that rotated out of view.

At 9 p.m., six Green Berets swarmed an unsuspecting colleague on the suite's attached basketball court. A few feet from where one chef carved rare prime rib and a sushi chef sliced hamachi and spicy tuna rolls, the men wrestled their comrade onto an 8-foot stepladder, secured him with a few hundred feet of duct tape, covered him with whipped cream and cherries, spray-painted his hair red, poured whiskey down his throat, and then hoisted the ladder into a vertical position and stuck a microphone to his face.

"The first time this happened we were in Bosnia," detachment Cmdr. Ryan Armstrong, 31, said, spitting booze and dessert toppings. "Jeff was a sniper team leader. I was the assault team leader... . That time they left me taped to a dolly for a couple of hours... . Toz was the one who cut me loose."

A limbo contest erupted, and a full-size cutout of Toczylowski in a red flight suit appeared to hold the pole as a long line of partyers wobbled underneath.

Around midnight, the Toz cutout, wearing a Russian fur cap with goofy earflaps, joined in the dance contest, wriggling between couples to show off moves of dubious propriety. Inspired by this boldness, several former girlfriends danced suggestively with the photo.

At 3 a.m., music still thudded, folks were still hurling basketballs at the hoop, and the Toz cutout hovered over the suite's glass-enclosed Jacuzzi.

Jeffrey's mother had placed photos of the missing host - hoisting a big fish, grinning beside a waterfall, posing with his motorcycle - near the chocolate fountain, around the pasta station, and throughout the opulent bedrooms and baths.

Likewise, though most of the wall-mounted flat-screen TVs showed football games, the main room's largest screen featured home videos that Jeffrey's sister Pam, 34, had assembled.

Early in the evening, the footage was of Toczylowski as a child, frolicking in the snow with his sister, helping his father build a backyard pool, playing football and soccer. As the night wore on, the young man went skydiving across the screen, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and helped lock a friend in an outhouse.

Peggy, 55, had wanted all the images to be joyful. But well past midnight, someone put in a more current DVD. Tracer bullets streaked across the Iraq sky. Buildings exploded in fireballs. And there was Toz, crammed into a helicopter with Special Forces comrades.

The screen filled with footage of Toz's memorial service at a dusty base in Iraq. Taps sounded.

Off and on, Peggy Toczylowski got teary.

A manager at a design studio, she'd been in her office on Nov. 4 last year when three uniformed soldiers came to tell her that her son had been killed on a combat mission in Anbar province. A few weeks after Jeffrey's Nov. 14 burial at Arlington, a team of Special Forces soldiers arrived at her home and presented an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on the details.

On Nov. 3, a string of Black Hawk helicopters had been roaring across the desert on a nighttime counterinsurgency raid, carrying Special Forces soldiers to hunt high-value targets who had been making improvised explosive devices.

Flying over the desert at night is disorienting. Toz apparently believed the helicopter had touched down. He stepped out. It was more than 100 feet off the ground and thundering ahead at 100 m.p.h.

His mother took comfort in learning that the mission had been a success. Her son's e-mail precluded any resentment.

"I died doing something I believed in," he wrote, "and have no regrets except that I couldn't do more."

Toczylowski, a graduate of Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster, went through the ROTC program at Valley Forge Military College, then turned his Texas A&M criminal-justice degree into an assignment as platoon leader with the military police. He completed the Special Forces training course in 2003.

After a sergeant in his company died of a heart attack, Toczylowski got serious about his own mortality, fellow soldiers said. He earmarked money from his savings and insurance policies to assist friends and help cousins with college tuition and to fund a scholarship at Valley Forge, his mother said.

The party was the challenge for the family. But Peggy and Pam say Jeffrey was wise, and they're convinced he knew that assigning them planning duties would keep their minds off losing a son and brother.

By the time a waiter arrived with a breakfast cart full of juices and pastries, Pam Toczylowski ventured to guess that the party would probably come in just under $100,000, including airfare and rooms for her brother's teammates and a few friends.

She said it was worth it.

"Jeff was the kind of person who lived every day as if it would be his last," Pam said. And he would want them to make his farewell bash "a party that when people leave, they will talk about it forever."

And if that's not a party people will talk about for a lifetime, I don't know what is.

Godspeed, Capt. Toczylowski!

tags: death / Iraq / life / war


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