Rounds of sadness and joy

Times Staff Writer

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 this: “There will also be a party in Vegas with a 100k to help pay for travel, room and a party.”


Last Saturday afternoon, Jeffrey’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 suburban Pennsylvania, 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. DJs blasted rock and rap from a loft decked out with a pool table, a wide-screen video game console and a circular love seat with remote controls that rotate 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 hamachi 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,” 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. 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 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, including a young woman from England who had dated him only a few times, freak-danced suggestively with the photo.

At 3 a.m., music still thudded, folks still hurled a dozen 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. Most wore bathing suits or at least underwear. Then a Special Forces team leader stripped and did a running leap into their midst.

Older party-goers averted their eyes. “That’s a bad naked!” a Green Beret shouted.

Jeffrey’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, though most of the wall-mounted flat screens aired 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 swimming pool, playing football and soccer.

As the night wore on, the young man went sky-diving across the screen with maniacal abandon, ran with the bulls in Pamplona 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, fitted with enough high-tech gear to fill a BestBuy.

A soldier who’d served on Toczylowski’s 12-man A-team was making seductive overtures to an attractive 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’d been in her office on Nov. 4 last year 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 Jeffrey’s Nov. 14 burial at Arlington, a team of Special Forces soldiers arrived at her home and presented 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 bad guys who had been making improvised explosive devices.

Flying over the desert at night is as disorienting as flying over a black ocean. Toz believed that 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,” 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 went through the ROTC at Pennsylvania’s 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.

A soft-spoken woman whose sensibilities would appear to be slightly more refined than her son’s, Peggy said she picked special cards for each recipient of her son’s generosity and presented them in person.

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

Toz’s mother “is one of the warmest, most remarkable women I’ve met,” said Jay Gambill, 29. The medic on Toczylowski’s 12-man team, he had tried to save his friend in the desert that dark morning. At first he didn’t think it was right to take money for the trip, he said. Then he decided it was what Toz’s mother and sister wanted. Needed.

Gambill had been on missions worldwide. He’d never been to Las Vegas.

“If you’ve seen our pay charts, you know we don’t make the money to have a vacation like this,” he said.

AFTER the long flight from Germany, one Green Beret awoke after the plane landed and found a note on his chest from a civilian seatmate. “The drinks are on me,” it said. It contained $500. On Friday, management let a large group of soldiers bypass the hours-long rope-line wait at the Palms’ trendy Rain nightclub, and on Sunday they received VIP treatment at the hotel’s Playboy Club.

The Hardwood Suite party was the weekend’s centerpiece. By the time a waiter pushed through the door 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 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.”

Her brother also knew, she said, that the weekend would be more than a blowout -- that it would bring people together from the different parts of his life, bonding his friends and biological family with his Green Beret clan.

Touching the Special Forces pin on her black sweater, Pam said she felt as if she had a bunch of new big brothers looking after her, that her mother had a brood of new sons.

Among them was Armstrong, the Green Beret who’d been taped to the ladder. Having showered in one of the suite’s posh bathrooms and dried himself with its plush towels, he rejoined the celebration.

Toczylowski’s friends had suggested Veterans Day weekend for the party so that the soldiers who flew in from Germany, Iraq, the Netherlands and across the U.S. could have an extra day of paid leave to enjoy it.

The holiday, Armstrong said, also put his own close-knit team’s sacrifices into perspective.

“Other companies have taken much greater losses,” he said. “It just happens that we were able to celebrate one guy’s life.”