On Memorial Day, I'm Remembering the Friend Who Saved My Life in Iraq

Staff Sgt. Kevin Jessen
FILE -- In this May 18, 2004, file photo, Staff Sgt. Kevin Jessen checks the underside of two Valsella VS-1.6 anti-tank mines found in a village outside Ad Dujayl, Iraq. Staff Sgt. Jessen was killed in action March 5, 2006, aged 28. He was conducting a post-blast investigation near Rawah, Iraq, when another improvised explosive device detonated and killed him. (Elizabeth Erste/U.S. Army)

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This Memorial Day, I, like most veterans of our recent conflicts, will spend time remembering and honoring my fallen brothers and sisters, people like my friend Kevin. In 2004, Kevin Jessen saved my life. Not once, but day in and day out, for six months.

When I met Staff Sgt. Jessen in Iraq in 2004, his explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team was assigned to Task Force Hunter, a National Guard unit from New York State. EOD was the "bomb squad."

A tall, easygoing kid from Arkansas, Jessen fit in with our New York team. He was just a friendly, forthright southerner, with a ready smile. Everyone in the task force knew him and immediately respected his incredible professionalism.

My unit always had one team assigned as the quick reaction force. So, we regularly escorted EOD teams to the site of roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs), whether they were discovered or exploded. We spent a lot of time with Jessen, learned from him, and became friends.

He was an expert on explosives and IEDs, the bane of our existence in Iraq -- the one thing we were all at least a little scared of. But Jessen could tame them. He defused dozens of them, after detection. He inspected the remains of dozens more that had exploded.

He was not only a subject-matter expert, he became an intelligence source. He could identify the handiwork of specific bombers. He was certain that there were two main bomb makers nearby, with two different styles and several emplacement teams. Armed with Jessen's information about IEDs, our soldiers were able to detect and defeat them more often.

An IED exploding is terrifying. One minute, you are rolling down the road, all is quiet, drivers are focused on scanning the road, back seaters may joke a little to relieve the nervous tension.

The next minute, the world explodes. Panic strains against training. Fear bubbles up from the gut, and you execute your battle drills.

The roadside bombers in Iraq rarely plant a single bomb. They hope to disable a patrol, then, if possible, attack again. The second attack can be aimed at exposed soldiers, responding medical vehicles, or responding EOD teams assessing the bomb crater.

Every trip on the roads of Iraq was a journey of anticipation of an IED.

On Sunday, March 5, 2006, during his second tour in Iraq, Jessen responded to another call for EOD in Rawah, near Mosul, at the head of the Euphrates River. Discovery of an unexploded IED meant both danger and opportunity. Reports indicate that Jessen was suited up in his bomb suit and defusing the IED when a second undiscovered IED exploded, killing him.

There is no doubt that the enemy had directly targeted Jessen. He was assassinated. I'm sure the IED teams in Rawah hated him as much as the ones we had fought earlier.

We didn't just lose Staff Sgt. Jessen, our EOD guy. We lost Kevin, who was not just a hero, but a hero of mine. And a friend too. One of the saddest parts of soldiering is how many friends become heroes. Along with everyone you protected, I salute you, Kevin. You were the best kind of soldier, and we miss you.

We all have heroes. For those who served, some of our heroes are gone. This Memorial Day, with men and women like Kevin still serving and protecting, I hope all Americans take a few minutes to reflect on the sacrifice of so many who have served our nation.

Memorial Day is our promise to our serving men and women risking their lives daily that we will remember always.

-- John Byrnes is strategic director for Concerned Veterans for America and a veteran of the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard.

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