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Rounds of sadness and joy

Before he died in Iraq, `Toz' had an order for his Green Berets: Attend my Arlington burial, then take this $100,000 for a party in Las Vegas.

November 17, 2006|Bob Sipchen | Times Staff Writer

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 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.

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