On clear nights, Jenna Grassbaugh likes to walk her dog and search for her husband.
“I always look up at the sky, and I try to find the brightest star,” she said. “I always think that’s like him.”
Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh was the love of her life, a man she met at age 18 and married at 21. The couple had many plans.
When he deployed to Iraq just seven weeks after their wedding, his letters home spoke of what awaited when he returned: buying a house and starting a family.
But there’s a saying in the military: The best-laid plans rarely survive first contact.
On April 7, 2007, an insurgent detonated a 500-pound explosive buried in the road beneath the truck in which Jon Grassbaugh was riding in Zaganiyah, Iraq. He and three other soldiers were killed. Widowed at 22, Jenna Grassbaugh struggled through her grief, trying to find a balance between holding on and moving on.
Nearly six years later, she thinks she has found a fitting way to move forward: The second-year law student at Ohio State University has donated $250,000 (half of her husband’s life-insurance benefit) to the Moritz College of Law to fund an effort to help veterans.
On April 5, the college will announce the Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project, through which law students, aided by professional lawyers, will provide legal assistance to veterans returning from deployment.
Alan Michaels, dean of the law school, calls the gift “extraordinary.”
To Grassbaugh, now 28, the donation feels like the right thing to do.
“When I thought about something that Jon would be proud of, this was it,” she said. “It was almost like a no-brainer.
“This can make a difference for a lot of people, and that is the best way to perpetuate his legacy.”
Jenna Grassbaugh (nee Parkinson) met Jon Grassbaugh in the summer of 2002, the beginning of her freshman year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Both were in the Army ROTC. He was a senior, headed for active duty after graduation.
By March 2003, they were dating.
“He was such an amazing person and so good to me,” Grassbaugh said. “It didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. You’re supposed to go through all these bad [boyfriends] and then finally find a good one.
“I found this amazing guy when I was 18 years old and never questioned for a second that I would want anything or anyone else.”
Her best friend, Alicia Gingrich, said Jon and Jenna “had a level of enthusiasm for each other that I haven’t seen in many other couples. They were constantly encouraging each other and constantly supportive.”
They persevered through his various levels of training, including Army Ranger School, and deployments to Korea and his first of two to Iraq.
Grassbaugh said her husband helped her through many difficult times and separations.
“If I was stressed about something, he would be like: ‘Listen, babe, I know that it’s hard, but just remember at the end of the day, we have each other. And we can smile for that and feel grateful.’”
Both were New Englanders — he from East Hampstead, N.H., and she from Acton, Mass. They were married on June 9, 2006 on Cape Cod.
Before long, rumors became reality: Jon’s unit, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, would again deploy to Iraq.
He left on July 31 of that year, assuring his wife that his job as a logistics officer meant he would spend most of his time on a base, in relative safety.
He returned for two weeks of leave in December and left again on Christmas Day.
“They let me go through to the [airport] gate with him,” Grassbaugh said. “I wouldn’t say I had a premonition, but something didn’t feel right. I was a little panicked, I guess, and I held him until the very last second.”
On April 7, her husband traveled to an outpost to check what supplies were needed there. An insurgent in hiding watched the convoy and waited for its return. The blast threw Jon Grassbaugh from the vehicle; the 25-year-old didn’t survive the trip back to base.
That evening, at their apartment near Fort Bragg, N.C., Jenna Grassbaugh received the dreaded knock on the door.
“I was completely in denial,” she said. “I just thought: ‘There is no way. Jon is my rock.”
Gingrich was the first to arrive to comfort her.
“She was on the couch, just screaming, just wailing,” her friend said. “She was thrashing so much, and her hands didn’t know where to go. She was reaching for her mouth, reaching for the sky, just screaming.”
Jenna and Jon had been married for 302 days.
As Grassbaugh soon discovered, no template exists for handling such a devastating loss. One of her first moves was to drop out of law school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. and volunteer for active duty (she had been committed to doing that but only after she graduated).
She ended up on a six-month deployment to Iraq. Many others didn’t understand her decision, she said, but she doesn’t regret it.
She came back with a better understanding of what her husband had endured and a greater appreciation for the issues that veterans face.
Emotionally, though, she was still struggling.
“I’ve been through times when I tried to do all the physical steps I thought were necessary,” she said. “But realistically, emotionally, I wasn’t there with it. Then I’ve gone the opposite way, too, where I’ve been so entrenched in it and let it consume me where it gets self-destructive.”
Three decisions in the past two years have helped, she said.
One was to avoid new relationships until she feels better. The second was to start a blog, through which she has worked out many issues. The third was returning to law school.
Wanting to get away from bad memories back East, she started at Ohio State in the fall of 2011.
Gingrich, who is in medical school at the University of Kansas in Kansas City, Kan., said she used lessons learned there to counsel her friend.
“When somebody comes down with an illness and asks if they’re going to be cured, sometimes you have to define for them what ‘cured’ is going to be,” Gingrich said. “We might tell them the disease won’t kill them, but they need to learn what the new normal is.
“Although she’s never going to be healed back the way she was before this happened, I think she’s in a much better place than I’ve seen her in a long time.”
One of Grassbaugh’s big fears is that her husband will be forgotten.
She got two tattoos in his honor but was looking for a more-significant way to commemorate his life.
She had received $500,000 from his military life-insurance policy and saved most of it.
“I hate to use the term blood money, but it often felt that way,” she said. “I just wouldn’t feel right about using it for anything that didn’t have some greater meaning.”
In the fall, she came up with the idea of using law students to help veterans.
Michaels, the law-school dean, and other school officials, she said, were extremely supportive.
“She’s awe-inspiring,” said Michaels, who was deeply moved by her gift. “It makes you want this [project] to be fantastic and to really make the difference that we’re hoping it will.”
The gift ensures that the project is endowed, meaning it will run on the interest earned, not the principal.
Ohio State is launching a campaign to try to match her donation for a total of $500,000.
That would provide more than 2,000 hours of legal help in the 2013-14 academic year. The idea is for students to work under the supervision of lawyers.
For help, Grassbaugh sought out Col. Duncan Aukland, the judge advocate for the Ohio National Guard.
Aukland plans to have five lawyers who serve part time in the Guard help the students.
The project will focus on assisting veterans with financial matters, such as foreclosure, default judgments or credit problems.
Many returning veterans, Aukland said, can’t afford quality legal assistance and often aren’t aware of all their rights.
“We have unmet needs,” he said. “Certainly, people can go to the private sector and pay an attorney, but on the other hand, there are people who have legitimate problems that are in some way related to their military services that deserve our help, and there aren’t enough resources currently existing to get them there.”
Jenna has remained close to the Grassbaugh family, particularly Jon’s only sibling, Maj. Jason Grassbaugh, 35, a surgeon based at Fort Lewis, Wash.
“I know she was thinking about Jon’s legacy and also how to make the world a better place,” Jason Grassbaugh said. “So I am not surprised at all that she had this idea.
“It marries many of her passions: her husband and the law, and she also cares deeply about soldiers who have been deployed.”
Jason Grassbaugh thinks the gift might help his sister-in-law find some happiness.
“The fact that she’s done this, I think, has been overwhelmingly positive for her.”
Hours after the project’s public launch on April 5, Jenna Grassbaugh will fly to Washington, D.C.
Nearly every year, on the anniversary of her husband’s death, she visits his grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Jon collected shot glasses, so she always takes two with her.
At the gravesite, she will pour two shots and toast him, leaving his glass on his tombstone. She also will take flowers and his favorite candy: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
As always, she will talk to him.
“The biggest thing I want to tell him now is that I’ve been praying for so long for God to help me,” she said, “and this project has really turned a lot around for me.
“It’s taken six years for me to say out loud, but I think I’ve finally been able to achieve a level of happiness and peace. And I’m proud of that.”
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