FORT BRAGG, N.C. — There was a knock on the door. Only a few friends knew she was home for the weekend. Just a few months earlier someone had come by selling magazine subscriptions for a high school project, but today the knock was different.
With the amount of stress she was accumulating from law school and news about her sick mother, she needed to get away. She had made the four-hour drive from her school to the apartment she shared with her husband, Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh. After all, it was the only place she felt safe and comfortable; the only place she felt closer to her husband, who was deployed to Iraq.
She wondered who it could have been as she looked through the peephole. She noticed two Army officers in dress uniform.
Capt. Jenna Carolyn Grassbaugh, chief of legal assistance for the 82nd Airborne Division, and a Gold Star family member, touches the name of her husband, Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, at the Global War on Terrorism Memorial during the 82nd Airborne Division All American Week Memorial Ceremony on Fort Bragg, N.C., May 20, 2015. Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh was killed in action in Iraq while assigned to the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division in 2007. All American Week is an opportunity for 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, past and present, and their families to come together and enjoy the camaraderie and celebrate being members of the All American Division. (U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division photo by Sgt. Eliverto V. Larios)
“What could they possibly be doing here?” she asked herself.
It surely couldn't be anything bad; after all, she was in her safe haven.
The image of those officers standing at her door still haunts Capt. Jenna Carolyn Grassbaugh, the chief of legal assistance for the 82nd Airborne Division. She will forever remember that day in April 2007, when she received the tragic news of her husband's death.
“That image of them standing at the door and looking through the peephole and seeing them and then opening it to know that this was not good, it's still something that I see sometimes and haunts me a little,” she said. “I think it always will.”
As a freshman in college, Grassbaugh attended cadet orientation at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland where she met Jonathan, a senior at the time. He was the battalion commander for the Reserved Officer Training Course
“I knew nothing about the Army at that point,” she recalls. “I was obviously impressed by his knowledge and expertise.”
Grassbaugh's interest in military history and the events of Sept. 11 convinced her to join the ROTC.
“I thought it would be a challenge,” said Grassbaugh. “It sort of fit with the curiosity of the real thing and also...September 11 happened when I was a senior in high school which obviously changed a lot of people to include myself.”
After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Jonathan received his first assignment to Fort Bragg. Meanwhile, Grassbaugh continued her education and contemplated her future.
“I really had a difficult time deciding if I should go to the educational delay route, meaning should I put off time in the Army until I complete law school and do my whole time as a Judge Advocate General officer,” she said. “Or should I go and serve as an active duty branch for a few years and then apply to the [Funded Legal Education Program].”
In the end, they decided it would be better for them if she continued on to law school, making it easier for them to plan out their career together.
After she finished school at Johns Hopkins, Jonathan administered the Oath of Office and they married.
In her first year of law school at William and Mary in Vriginia, Jonathan deployed to Iraq with the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Abn. Div. It was his first deployment since the marriage.
“I was 21 when he deployed,” said Grassbaugh. “I certainly felt not at all prepared for the emotional toll that these things would take.”
THE DAY THAT CHANGED IT ALL
Then, while on the unplanned visit to their apartment, she received the unexpected news.
“I knew from movies and TV shows what a notification would be like,” she said. “It didn't occur to me initially that's what they were there for.”
During the next three weeks, Grassbaugh said she felt lost and unclear of what her life would be like in the future.
“I just couldn't imagine going back to law school and going back to the routine that had all been based on this life that I thought I had and would continue to have,” she said. “It seemed more painful to go back to something that was familiar with a gaping hole in it, than it would have been to just do something different.”
After much thinking she decided to make a change in her life. She left law school and went on active duty.
In 2008, she was assigned to a military police unit at Fort Bragg that had just returned from Iraq. Shortly after, she received notice that she would be replacing a platoon leader in Iraq; an assignment she had wanted for a while.
She said she felt a deployment to Iraq would help in her grieving process.
“I was excited about the opportunity, my parents weren't, but they understood why it was important to me in the end,” she said. “I felt it was important to contribute...I just wanted to understand what was it like for him there day-to-day and what did it look like and how did it feel.”
The deployment was a bit of a wake-up call, she said, making her realize she still had more issues to face.
“It certainly helped me a little bit in that regard,” she said. “It helped me to understand what life was like in those last few month before, what none of us could imagine, was the end.”
Upon returning from Iraq, Grassbaugh said she felt like she was ready to go back to law school, but didn't know if she should continue to serve in the Army.
FINDING HER WAY
After talking to one of her supervisors, she decide to stay in the Army and applied for the FLEP. Finding it difficult to go back to the school she had left after Jonathan's death, she decided to attend The Ohio State University.
In 2014, after graduating from law school, Jenna was assigned to the 82nd Abn. Div., the same unit her husband was serving with when he was killed in action.
Serving in the same unit as her husband is almost like being part of his life again.
Each year, during All American Week, the 82nd Abn. Div.
holds a memorial service to honor Division Paratroopers, including Jonathan, who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our Nation.
“I've been a Gold Star Family Member at the memorial in the past,” she said. “I've had an escort sponsorship from a member of the unit that John was a part of, and I very much appreciated that opportunity.”
This year's ceremony hosted 84 Gold Star Family Members of 38 fallen Division Paratroopers and this year, instead of attending the memorial service, Grassbaugh served as an escort for a Gold Star Family Member.
“It's something that I'm taking very seriously and am happy that I can be there in that capacity, both as a Family member myself, and as somebody that can guide her through that process.”
“Helping others is amazing,” she said. “I feel so passionate about helping others that find themselves in this position and that may be feeling the exact same way that I did for so long.”
Video > A Gold Star Story - Captain Jenna Grassbaugh
By U.S. Army Sgt. Eliverto V. Larios
Provided through DVIDS
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