Coming of age
Hartselle teen experiences life on the front line
Cpl. James Clark
Regimental Combat Team 1
MARJAH DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – An easy smile accentuates the boyish features of Navy Hospital Assistant Jesse Stephens’ face – the faintest stubble dodging the blades of his electric razor as he shaves in the morning.
Although he has the looks of an average teenager, Stephens stands apart from his fellow 19-year-olds back home in Hartselle. He is a corpsman, with 2nd Squad, 4th platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
Although he walks with an easygoing gait, like a high school senior who just skipped his last period to hang out with friends downtown, he carries the safety and welfare of his squad members on his shoulders, acting as their combat lifeline and the first responder to any injuries they take outside the wire.
Stephens’ story is not uncommon in the military. He comes from a small town, where the jobs are few and the options after high school even more limited.
“Most people go to community college and never end up leaving,” explained Stephens. “I’ve always liked the medical field, but never liked the idea of going to school long enough to be a doctor.”
Clearly, Stephens doesn’t like waiting. He originally planned to join the Marine Corps, but when he visited a Marine Corps recruiting office and found no one there, he went next door to the Navy office.
“I didn’t want to be a desk jockey,” said Stephens. “I wanted to be out with Marines, but my parents were hesitant about the Corps. They were relieved when I joined the Navy until they realized what a corpsman does.”
Since arriving in Marjah with 1/6, Stephens has had the opportunity to perform his duties under fire. On Aug. 11, his squad was ambushed by insurgents operating in the Polpazai village here, and a Marine was injured.
Any situation in which a Marine is injured is just cause for concern, but Stephens explained that there are certain fears that mount the top of that list, among them: improvised explosive devices.
“With a gunshot, you just worry about single entry and exit wounds, but with an IED you worry about burns, amputations, unconsciousness due to the blast and shrapnel. Someone getting shot, going home injured, it sucks, but for what it was – it couldn’t have gone better.”
Stephens’ looks belie the weight of unwanted knowledge. He knows death, yet is the picture of innocence. He inhabits an unforgiving world, where a gunshot wound may be the least of his concerns; he knows it can always be worse.
Stephens finds solace and comfort when and where he can: in his family, his girlfriend, who also serves in the Navy, and on a daily basis, he finds it in the Marines in his squad.
“I’ve been with them since the beginning of June, but knowing them makes it easier – you put you’re all into it. You know these guys, and you feel really close to them,” said Stephens. “They’re your family. You want to take care of them.”