Shortly after Jeffrey "Toz" Toczylowski's last mission in Iraq a year ago this month, friends received a message. "If you are getting this...
LAS VEGAS — 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, 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.”
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Last Saturday, Toczylowski’s mother, Peggy, hustled about Las Vegas’ Palms Hotel and Casino, making final arrangements for a bash that drew family and childhood friends from her son’s hometown in Upper Moreland, Pa., near Philadelphia, men and women from his days at Texas A&M University, 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 guests were offering hotel bouncers the password and trooping into the Palm’s 10,000-square-foot Hardwood entertainment suite.
Two 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 loveseat with remote controls that rotated it 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 young yellowtail and spicy tuna rolls, the men wrestled their thrashing comrade onto an 8-foot stepladder, secured him from chin to shoes with a few hundred feet of duct tape, covered him with whipped cream and strategically placed 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,” said detachment leader Ryan Armstrong, 31, 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. With help from soldiers from the Special Forces base near Stuttgart, Germany, a full-size cutout of Toczylowski in red flight suit appeared to hold the pole while a long line of partygoers 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, guests were hurling basketballs at the hoop (the three Murphy beds in the court’s walls had yet to be unfolded) and the Toz cutout hovered over the suite’s glass-enclosed Jacuzzi, as if gawking at the whooping, squealing stew of young women and soldiers.
Toz’s mother had placed photos of the missing host — hoisting a big fish, grinning beside a waterfall, posing with his motorcycle — near the gurgling chocolate fountain, around the pasta station and throughout the opulent bedrooms and baths.
Likewise, although most of the wall-mounted flat-screen TVs aired football games, the main room’s largest screen featured home videos Toz’s sister Pam, 34, had assembled.
Early in the evening, the footage was of Toczylowski as a child, frolicking in the snow, helping his father build a backyard swimming pool, playing football and soccer.
As the night wore on, the young man went skydiving across the screen, ran with the bulls in Spain and helped lock a friend in an outhouse at a car race.
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.
A soldier who had served on Toczylowski’s 12-man A-team was making seductive overtures to an A&M alum when the screen filled with footage of his teammate’s memorial service at a dusty base in Iraq. Taps sounded. The Green Beret turned away, weeping.
Off and on, Peggy Toczylowski got teary, too.
A manager at a Pennsylvania design studio, she was in her office on Nov. 4, 2005, when three uniformed soldiers came to inform her that her son had been killed on a combat mission in Iraq’s Anbar province.
A few weeks after her son’s Nov. 14 burial at Arlington, a team of Special Forces soldiers arrived at her home and gave an hourlong PowerPoint presentation on the details.
On Nov. 3, a string of Blackhawk 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 mph.
His mother was impressed with the professionalism of the Army’s presentation and took comfort in learning that the mission had been a success. Her son’s e-mail precluded any resentment.
“Don’t ever think that you are defending me by slamming the Global War on Terrorism or the U.S. goals in that war,” Jeffrey Toczylowski wrote. “As far as I am concerned, we can send guys like me to go after them or we can wait for them to come back to us again. I died doing something I believed in and have no regrets except that I couldn’t do more.”
Toczylowski had gone through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Military College and then turned his Texas A&M criminal-justice degree into an assignment as platoon leader with the military police. He had completed the Special Forces training course in 2003.
After a sergeant in his company died of a heart attack, Toczylowski got serious about his 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.
Honoring his wishes
The party was the challenge for the family. But Peggy and Pam say Toczylowski 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 pushed through the door of the suite with a breakfast cart full of juices and pastries, Pam Toczylowski ventured to guess that the party probably would come in just under $100,000, including airfare and rooms for her brother’s teammates and a few friends who otherwise might not have been able to attend.
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.”