Army Captain Channels Pain from Loss of Husband into Helping Others

A roadside bomb shattered Jenna Grassbaugh's storybook life.

The blast came April 7, 2007, in a small Iraqi village near the Syrian border.

Four 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers died, including Jenna's husband, Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh.

Jenna was a world away at the time, in an apartment near Fort Bragg. It was a Saturday, and Jenna, who was enrolled at law school at the College of William & Mary, was studying.

But when Army officials knocked on her door at 5:30 p.m., the blast reached her, too.

Jon and Jenna had been married a few months when he deployed.

He was a logistics officer, assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

Jenna was devastated. She dropped out of school, joined the Army and fought her own demons when it came to the loss of her husband.

Eventually, she went back to school, this time at Ohio State.

But the pain remained.

One of her big concerns was that one day, the man she loved would be forgotten.

"I wanted to find a way for his name to live on in perpetuity," she said.

Jon was selfless, always helping others ahead of himself. Jenna wanted to honor him with something that would have a similar approach, some sort of memorial that could provide services to those in need.

That memorial is the Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project at Ohio State's Moritz College of Law. The project uses volunteer lawyers and Moritz students to help veterans with housing and consumer issues in Franklin County, Ohio. It provides assistance on landlord-tenant issues, evictions and foreclosure, as well as creditor/debtor and credit agency disputes.

Jenna now serves in her husband's old unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg. A captain, she is the chief of legal assistance for the division.

As Jenna writes her story, the Grassbaugh Veterans Project continues to grow under the direction of officials at Ohio State, ensuring her husband's story lives on.

'Heavenly' romance

Jenna describes her romance with Jon as a fairytale.

The two met at John Hopkins University in 2002.

Jon was a senior and battalion commander for the school's Army cadets. Jenna was an 18-year-old freshman, a transplant from Scotland who was not yet a U.S. citizen, but nonetheless joined the school's Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.

By 2006, Jon was a paratrooper at Fort Bragg, and Jenna had just graduated with her third degree in four years. She had two bachelor's degrees, a master's and was a commissioned Army officer with a fellowship to attend a prestigious law school.

The fairytale life was cemented in June 2006, when the couple wed on Cape Cod and honeymooned in Jamaica.

"It was nothing short of heavenly," Jenna said.

But five weeks after the honeymoon, Jon was gone, on his way to Iraq with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment.

She wasn't too concerned.

Jon was a logistics officer, she said. He would sit in an office on a large forward operating base.

"Logistics officers came home to their families," she said.

Eight months into the deployment, Jenna decided to drive from her law school in Virginia to the couple's apartment in North Carolina.

Unknown to her, Jon had left the relative safety of Forward Operating Base Warhorse to travel to a smaller outpost and check on supplies there. It was during what would become one of the bloodiest months of the war, and the soldiers passed through territory frequented by foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq to fight U.S. troops.

On the way back to base, near the village of Sadah, the convoy came under attack by a 500-pound roadside bomb. The bomb was tripped by a man sitting in an abandoned brick home, peering through a small hole with his hands on the trigger.

The crater it left was 5 feet long and 2 feet deep.

Jon's Humvee didn't stand a chance. Of the five soldiers inside, four died.

Initially, Jon held on, but he didn't survive the short flight to a military hospital.

Hours later, the knock on Jenna's door startled her, but looking out at the two uniformed soldiers didn't give her pause.

To some, the image might have dredged up immediate horror or despair.

But Jenna said she didn't make the somewhat obvious connection.

After all, in her storybook life, Prince Charming was invincible.

But something clicked when one of the officers told Jenna they needed to come inside and talk.

"I lost all semblance of control," she said. "I dropped to my knees and screamed 'No!' over and over again. I had to be physically removed from the doorway and escorted to the living room before they could deliver the official words that are all too familiar to anyone who has lived through this nightmare."

Emotional weight

Jenna was another person in the weeks following Jon's death.

Her life was broken, she said. She couldn't understand how he wasn't there.

She left school for active duty, taking a position as a military police officer at Fort Bragg.

Jenna wanted to deploy. She wanted to serve in Iraq and see where Jon had died.

A little more than a year after his death, she got her wish, deploying to Mahmudiyah as a platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers.

The six-month deployment helped Jenna heal, but she wasn't fixed.

So she spurred herself on with several projects.

She spearheaded an effort to rename the post office in Jon's hometown in his honor; established scholarships in his name; volunteered with Survivor Outreach Services, a nationwide program for Gold Star families; and ran the Army Ten Miler to raise money for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

"The bomb that ended my husband's life had come very close to shattering and completely destroying mine," Jenna would write in 2013 for TAPS Magazine. "Nothing seemed to lift the emotional weight that crushed my spirit when I contemplated living 10, 20, perhaps even 70 more years without the one person I always said I couldn't live without."

Jenna said she eventually realized some decisions, whether made or avoided, weren't helping her process her loss.

With renewed vigor, she decided to return to law school to earn the degree Jon always encouraged her to pursue. She was accepted into an Army program that allowed her to enroll at Ohio State on scholarship in 2011.

But in her second year, Jenna said she hit another low point.

In the Army, she was constantly busy. In law school, she had more time to think.

And Jenna realized that, despite her efforts, she hadn't faced her issues head on.

"It was too painful," she said. "It really hit me pretty hard."

Jenna needed something more. Something to dedicate herself to.

"I was grasping for something to give me a sense of meaning," she said.

That meaning came in the form of the Grassbaugh Veterans Project.

It took a year for Jenna to get the program off the ground. It launched in April 2013.

To get the project started, Jenna donated $250,000, or half of Jon's life insurance benefit.

Ohio State raised additional money for the project, which operates on the endowment's interest, ensuring the program a lengthy life.

Jenna had struggled with the money for years. She said she didn't feel right about using it for anything that didn't "have some greater meaning."

Some questioned the donation, but Jenna said she's certain Jon would have approved.

Jenna said she wanted something lasting, but also something more meaningful than just a scholarship.

"I wanted it to be something that would be around and carry his name for a long time," she said.

Since the project was started, Jenna said there's no doubt it has helped with healing, although she's not directly involved in any of the casework.

"It was just the right thing to do," she said.

"This work and this project mean more to me than any material thing that money could ever buy," Jenna wrote in the TAPS Magazine article. "This is my husband's legacy, and it's one that will go on long after I'm gone, too."

Common ground

One of the first student fellows to join the Grassbaugh Veterans Project was Suzanne Van Horn. Van Horn graduated earlier this year and said her time with the project was rewarding.

"You're able to do something for free for someone who has given so much," she said. "It's a no-brainer."

The project has several student fellows, who regularly check a dedicated voicemail for potential cases. The phone rings about twice a week, Van Horn said.

In one case, the project helped two Marine Corps veterans get their security deposit back from the landlord of a "not so nice" apartment. They've also helped overturn default judgments to give veterans a chance to defend themselves in court.

According to the Grassbaugh Veterans Project website, thousands of Ohio veterans and service members need legal help each year but lack the resources to hire lawyers.

For now, the students are limited to helping those in the county where the school is located. But eventually, they hope to expand to other parts of the state.

Most of the fellows have some tie to the military. They're children of veterans or future military lawyers, Van Horn said.

But they all have something in common.

"We're all working toward the same mission," she said. "We're pretty unique. And we're still a growing project. That's exciting."

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