Personal Statement of Jenna Grassbaugh
On May 24, 2006, I thought my fairytale life had only just begun. When I stepped off the stage at university commencement with a smile on my face and degree in hand, I had overcome physical challenges, leaped mental barriers, and impressed the most cynical of skeptics with my achievements to date, and all before the age of 22. I truly had it all – in the four years since graduating from high school, I earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, became a commissioned Army officer, received a fellowship to attend a prestigious law school, and, last but not least, was engaged to be married to the love of my life. My fiance was an Army Ranger serving at Fort Bragg, the home of the illustrious 82nd Airborne Division. Our 20-plus-year plan for a happy and successful future was already in full swing and had been carefully engineered down to the letter. With Jon, I got my very own Cinderella story – fairytale romance, fairytale wedding, fairytale life. Or so I thought.
Jonathan Grassbaugh and I met when I was a freshman and he was a senior at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. At 18 years old, I was a dedicated academic, allergic to exercise, and getting dirty ranked low on my priority list. I was not even a U.S. citizen, having moved from Scotland to Massachusetts in April of 1994. Despite these handicaps, I loved military history and decided to join the Army ROTC program. After months of learning by trial and error, I began to understand what I had signed up for as an ROTC Cadet. Better yet, I came to know the man I would later agree to marry. Jon and my’s Cape Cod wedding in June of 2006 was like a scene out of a bridal magazine, and our whirlwind honeymoon to Jamaica was nothing short of heavenly. When we returned home, however, we had only five short weeks together before Jon deployed to Iraq on July 31st, 2006. Looking back, I cannot fathom how we prepared for him to leave so quickly; we literally just pushed aside the bubble of newlywed bliss, buckled down, and held onto the promise of a long and beautiful future as we bid our tearful goodbyes.
Just over eight months into the deployment, I learned that my mom had been admitted to the hospital with multiple pulmonary embolisms which, if left untreated, can prove fatal. Reeling with this news and preoccupied with the stress of final exams, I decided to drive from Virginia to our apartment in North Carolina for the weekend. When I heard the knock at my door at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 7, 2007, I was about to tackle an ominous mountain of 1L homework as law student at William & Mary. The knock startled me – no one knew I was in town – but I thought little of it because there was no way to know what was about to happen. It couldn’t happen to me, to us – Jon was sitting safely in his office on FOB Warhorse. He was the logistics officer. Logistics officers came home to their families.
When I peered out through the peephole, I could see two Army uniforms. Although everyone knows that a visit from uniformed officers is never a good sign, I, believing Jon to be invincible, did not make the obvious connection and opened my door. When one of the officers stated flatly that they had to come in to talk to me, I lost all semblance of control. 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: “Mrs. Grassbaugh, the President of the United States regrets to inform you…”
I would later learn that Jon was killed in Zaganiyah, Iraq during one of the bloodiest months of the war. I saw pictures of where the trigger man sat as he peered through a tiny hole in the wall of an abandoned brick house and detonated the 500-pound improvised explosive device that blew my husband’s 12,000-pound Humvee to smithereens. The crater created by the IED was five feet long and two feet deep. Of the five soldiers in Jon’s vehicle, four were killed, and although the fifth soldier miraculously survived the blast, he has since undergone almost 50 surgeries to repair damage to his body from third-degree burns. Jon was still breathing when he was placed on the MEDEVAC helicopter, but he did not survive the short flight to the nearest military hospital.
The weeks following the news of Jon’s death were a blur of disbelief. I numbly stumbled through the process of picking up the pieces of my broken life, unable to comprehend his palpable absence in this world. After much consideration, I decided to withdraw from law school to become a military police officer at Fort Bragg. Many of my friends and family were concerned that I was making a hasty decision for the wrong reasons, but I knew that it would give me something to focus on other than myself. It would also allow me to pick up where Jon left off in Iraq. Foolhardy or not, I wanted to do my part in contributing to the war effort overseas, and I wanted to see for myself the place that my husband had spent his final days alive.
I got my wish in September 2008 when I deployed to Mahmudiyah, Iraq and became a platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers. At first, I found it very difficult to forget the fact that this country was the reason my husband was no longer with me. Only slowly but surely did I grow to appreciate that the contribution of thousands of soldiers like Jon is the reason Iraq is no longer a dangerous breeding ground for extremist militia groups. Because of drastic improvements over the past few years, we can now focus on providing electricity and education instead of ammunition and bombs to fight terrorists. Ironically, the last of the Army’s combat brigades recently left Iraq on August 18, 2010, the date of Jon’s birthday. He would have been 29.
These days, I continue to barge ahead at full speed. I talk about Jon often because it helps to recall the happy memories of our time together, though these memories are also tinged with sadness since at the end of the day, he is still gone. I have also thrown myself into memorial projects, to include establishing several scholarships in Jon’s name, contributing to the development of Survivor Outreach Services (a nationwide program designed to help other Gold Star families), and running the Army Ten Miler race to raise money for TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). In addition, I am an active member of the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. and assisted in spearheading a congressional bill to rename the post office in Jon’s hometown in his honor. As a newly promoted captain, I continue to serve on active duty and was recently accepted to the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program. This highly prestigious and competitive scholarship will allow me to return to law school in the fall of 2011 and ultimately fulfill my goal of becoming a military attorney.
When people ask me how I have survived this ordeal, I tell them that there is simply no other way to keep going other than to keep placing one foot in front of the other. Jon’s boss told me from the very beginning that no one can walk in my shoes. My family and friends can hold my hand and catch me when I fall, but I am ultimately the one who has to live with the memories that make me laugh out loud one second and burst into tears the next. Sometimes the only thing I can do to fill the silence is to focus on the times I know will warm my heart, like when our wedding ceremony officiate asked, “Where is your sacred spot, a place you feel most connected, most at peace, or most inspired?” Jon’s answer was very simple but very beautiful. His answer was, “With my wife.” These three simple words remind me that although the fairytale didn’t end the way I had hoped, I know that I am still luckier than most. Even if just for a little while, I got my prince. As I continue forward on this walk called life, Jon’s ultimate sacrifice remains my source of inspiration for public service and a reminder of the true meaning of living every day to the fullest since there are no promises about what tomorrow might bring. No matter what I may do in my future, just as Jon told me on the eve of our wedding, I will continue to love him, my beloved husband and best friend, “always and forever, and nothing will change that – ever.”
Personal Statement of Melvis Houseman
I was born in Havana, Cuba, the daughter of a lawyer who worked for the state and an electrician employed at a local children’s hospital. As an attorney, my mother was in charge of handling cases regarding ownership of real property on behalf of the state. At the time, a Cuban citizen was not allowed to purchase or sell real estate. Instead, the government would give a property to a deserving/needy family under certain conditions. When the family no longer met those conditions, the government could take back the property.
One day, I overheard a conversation my mother was having with one of her colleagues. “In reality, everything belongs to the state. If the government really wants something, they can take it,” she said. As state employees, their job was to protect the interests of the government and not the citizens. However, my mother believed it was also their responsibility to find ways within the purview of the law to help the needy families keep the properties; otherwise, many families would end up homeless. My mother’s words stayed with me then, and remain with me to this day.
After leaving Cuba and residing in Venezuela for eight months, my family was reunited in the United States. For my mother, brother, and me, starting over in a foreign country was nothing new, except now we had the added challenge of a language barrier. My father had been in this country alone for a few years, paving the way for us as best as he could – a small one-bedroom apartment for a family of four. As an immigrant family, we viewed education as the only way to move forward in life.
Because of my academic achievements in high school (International Baccalaureate Diploma recipient), I was awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Florida. My goal was to be like my mother – a public servant helping others. Hence, when the time came to declare a major, I selected political science. I enrolled in an array of government classes to better understand how the public sector worked. I was intrigued by how the American government differed from other countries, especially from my native land. By the time graduation came, I was eager to enter the work force and determined to find a great government job (after all, I knew in theory how the public sector worked). I soon realized I was not qualified for many of the government jobs I was interested in due to a lack of advanced/specialized education and experience.
After months of endless job searching, I decided to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration at Florida International University. While in the program, I analyzed numerous case studies stressing the many problems local governments face (e.g., political tensions, economic growth/decline, and services rendered). Not only did my research and writing skills develop due to the demands of the graduate program, but my desire and confidence to ask the tough questions also increased. The benefit of a public administration degree, in my opinion, is the exposure to a wide variety of issues (legal, finance and budgeting, human resources, security, ethics, etc.). The most valuable lesson I learned, however, is that for many of those issues, there is no clear answer. It is the job of the public servants and policy makers to remain vigilant and to continuously search for better solutions.
While pursuing the master’s degree, I had the opportunity to intern with and later become a full-time employee of the City of Doral, Florida. My passion for the public sector grew instantaneously as I applied the skills acquired in the classroom to the real world. I observed firsthand the complexity of lower-level governments and quickly realized that they often exert a greater influence on the daily lives of individuals than do most state and federal governments. I became interested in the actions of local governments and the rules that govern those actions. I was exposed to different city and county ordinances dictating what citizens could and could not do. My understanding of how those rules and regulations work empowered me to help residents navigate through the bureaucracy. I felt I had reached my goal and could begin making a difference. Most importantly, I wanted to change the negative perception many people have about government employees.
During my last four years working as a public servant, I have learned a great deal about the inner workings of a municipal government. I’ve had the opportunity to identify problems, examine alternatives, and present solutions to my superiors. Taking advantage of my educational background, I have conducted numerous comparative studies in an effort to identify best practices and/or areas of improvement. Moreover, I have learned how to effectively communicate with people of different backgrounds, education levels, professions, and so on.
Unfortunately, I have also witnessed the side of government that needs improvement and the reason why public servants are sometimes viewed in a negative light. I have experienced limitations in dealing with other departments and agencies – because of rules and regulations – at the expense of the citizens. As a result of my experiences, I came to the realization that working as a public servant was no longer as fulfilling as it once was four years ago. Thus, I began to get involved as a volunteer in different projects, including community enrichment, animal support, environmental cleanups, homelessness, children and youth, health and wellness, and the arts. Over the past year, as a volunteer, I have witnessed firsthand the genuine satisfaction and appreciation of those I’ve helped; consequently, I have also realized the importance of giving back to the community.
I am at a point in my life where a career change is essential to achieve the goal I set out for myself years ago. A law education will allow me the opportunity to further develop my analytical and problem solving skills in order to help people in a different capacity. More significantly, a law education will enable me to better understand and evaluate different points of view. Ultimately, I hope to someday have the opportunity to improve the law and better government relations at the local level.
Personal Statement of Troy King
At last, the moment had arrived. My heart began pounding more intensely than the infamous kettledrum outburst in the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Twenty of my closest kin were present. The instant my name was pronounced, my family erupted into a thunderous applause. I walked across the stage at the University of California, Berkeley becoming first in the family to graduate from college. This unlikely outcome, as with subsequent accomplishments and personal growth, resulted from the character I developed in response to a childhood steeped in adversity.
Months before I was born my mother dropped out of high school. I grew up not knowing my father. My grandmother headed our household, which included up to 13 kin crammed into a four-bedroom apartment. We resided in a notoriously violent San Francisco public housing project and lived below the poverty line.
The “crack epidemic” in the ‘80s exacerbated existing social ills and devastated my community and family. Gang disputes frequently led to gunfights. An untimely trip to the store could be fatal. Each year I lost at least one friend, family member, or neighbor to homicide. Too often I witnessed the face of a panic-stricken woman while a thief snatched her purse. Drug deals were conducted on my stairwell, and discarded hypodermic needles could be found everywhere, including on the ground in our play area. Meanwhile, my mother became addicted to crack while I was in middle school. Her affliction lasted until well after I graduated from college. Coping with the chilling reality of her addiction was difficult. Some nights she did not return home, leaving me worrying if she had suffered from an overdose or at the hands of a ruthless drug dealer. I loved my mother, but over time we grew apart. Helplessly, I watched her physically and mentally decline – it was insufferable.
Fortunately, my loving grandmother instilled in me the importance of having an education and convinced me that I could do anything I set my mind to. Thus, in unbearable circumstances, this awareness empowered me to choose my experiences as opposed to passively accepting the status quo. Amid the distractions I learned to envision a better future and remain focused on my goals. I dreamt of going to college, working at a top corporation, and starting my own business. Some told me I could not do it, but my determination to succeed proved otherwise.
Two years after graduating, I relocated to Atlanta, pursuing my lifelong dream of starting a real estate company. This endeavor was my most daring undertaking. I moved to a state where I knew no one, attempting to build a sales organization while having no sales experience. Understanding that no obstacle is insurmountable gave me confidence. I set goals, learned from mistakes, and persevered. In June 2004, I established King and Associates Realty, Inc. My childhood dream had come true.
Making decisions on issues ranging from resource allocation to legal matters are common in the course of operating my company. Recognizing that my decisions affect team members, clients, and the community has led to an evolution of my priorities. No longer do I exclusively focus on what I want to achieve; instead, I strive to create opportunities of which others may take advantage. I am honored that over the years individuals have sought out my firm as an institution in which to pursue their dreams. Being able to provide opportunities for others is humbling, as I was once mired in a community overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair.
On reflection, walking across the graduation stage was surreal. Transcending the chaos that surrounded me was my life’s defining challenge. Thanks to my grandmother, I met this challenge and emerged as a leader. I live my life with purpose, unencumbered by fear of obstacles or failure. Moreover, along my journey I have discovered the virtue of serving others. From the depth of darkness I have found my way. Adversity has served me well.
Tags: Jenna Grassbaugh, Melvis Houseman, Troy King