“We disappeared in a cloud of smoke . . . Dazed . . . Dizzy . . . But we had to get through the ambush.”
It was an early morning mission in Afghanistan in November of 2012. Special Forces NCO Joel Jessen was on his third deployment to the Middle East. His Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 0116 had just finished searching multiple targets in a local village and were on their way back to base with suspected enemy bomb makers and facilitators.
They had discovered and neutralized hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on their planned route and decided to take an alternate route back to base. While carefully searching for the best way, they had to cross a dry river bed, and while coming up on the other side, they drove over a large hidden IED. Even though he was riding in an RG33 weighing 25 tons, they were tossed like a football. As broken glass cascaded over Joel in the back seat, the overpressure was more than he had ever experienced.
No limbs were missing, but Joel was seriously injured. After the blast, his life would never be the same.
Before the Blast
Growing up in eastern Montana near where the Battle of Little Big Horn took place, Joel had a close connection to people who lived on the edge of poverty, tribal tension, and despair. His dad was a pastor, and both of Joel’s parents were educators who worked on the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations. His family poured out their hearts in service to these communities.
Joel prayed with his mom and put his faith in Jesus at a young age. He believed. But . . . Joel liked control, and he would not trust God with anything outside of what he perceived was his rightful say or influence. This turned out to be a major tension later in his life.
While Joel joined the military out of high school as a combat engineer, his heritage inspired him to pursue Special Forces — an elite group often associated with their distinctive headgear, the Green Beret, and whose motto is “Free the Oppressed.” Selected in 2007 as a Special Forces Medic, Joel felt honored to belong to a brotherhood that valued doing the hard right over the easy wrong and who were willing to sacrifice for those in need, regardless of who would get the credit.
Love and War
Rebecca was three when her birth mother left her family, and for a while the primary care for Rebecca and her brother, as well as her dad, shifted to her Christian grandmother. It was under her grandma’s guidance that Rebecca put her faith in Jesus during her church confirmation process at age fourteen. As an adult, Rebecca started praying for her future husband, right around the time Joel was downrange on his first deployment to Iraq.
Rebecca met Joel while he was stationed in Hanau, Germany. Rebecca is German and she and her friends socialized with American soldiers. Although she had decided earlier that she did not want to date a military man, Rebecca and Joel grew to love each other and were married in 2007.
Joel was gone more than he was home during their first six years of marriage. Still, the Jessens enjoyed what they viewed as a great relationship. Their conversation was easy and meaningful and their companionship was sweet.
Joel’s career was on the rise. He had successfully completed the Q course, one of the toughest Army trainings, and was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. His ODA 0116 was very close, having been seasoned in combat in Afghanistan, as well as in training operations throughout Europe.
The Jessens gladly welcomed their first child, Maia, in 2010. She was born ten days before a seven-month long deployment for Joel to Afghanistan. Then in 2012, just after finding out they were expecting their second child, Joel deployed again. Even through the separations, this young, beautiful, bright family was thriving.
Then in a giant blast from a concealed enemy attack, life as they knew it was torn apart.
After the Blast
Joel and his comrades had endured IED blasts before. They had accomplished many dangerous missions and survived attacks, ambushes, and overpressure. They were familiar with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). But for Joel, this one was different.
After the blast, Joel alternated from being despondent to emotionally void. He recalls feeling like he was observing his life from the outside, even as his son, Luke, was born. Somewhere in his mind he knew he should feel some love, some joy . . . but those feelings belonged to the old Joel, not the Joel he was now.
Joel had not lost life or limb in the explosion, but something inside him was terribly altered. Initially, Joel had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). As he dealt with different types of headaches every day — memory, vision, and balance issues — the only emotion Joel could readily access was anger. While he didn’t understand what was going on inside his head or heart, still he threw himself into training for a new position that would keep him in Germany for a while, hoping the time without deployments would help him heal in order to return to an ODA after three years.
The Jessen’s marriage also suffered from the blast. “Nothing was as it had been,” said Rebecca. “We couldn’t really talk anymore. I wanted him to be there for our family, but connecting with us was too much for him. All the ways we used to communicate didn’t work anymore. On good days Joel was barely functioning; on bad days he was breaking things. Even though he was now home, I was responsible for everything, including keeping his anger from the kids. There was so much explosiveness in this situation.”
Months went by, each one painfully difficult — the year 2013 and in to 2014 — filled with spoken and unspoken ache. Sitting on the couch, Rebecca cried to Joel, “I miss who you used to be.” He thought, That stinks, but it’s kind of your problem. We will never be able to get back to there.
Joel had come to believe that not only was his relationship with his wife irreparable, but also that he would never have a repaired relationship with God.
“As we faced the mess of life, struggling with a Traumatic Brain Injury, Post-Traumatic Stress, and depression, there was a lot of stuff in our lives, but to me it felt like hope wasn’t one of them.” What Joel did feel was hopelessness, anger, loss of direction, and apathy.
Once a woman who felt like she could do everything, Rebecca was now at the end of her resources. She began reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts and realized there was always something she could be thankful for. Finding joy in little things was the beginning of her journey back to the Lord.
“The more I let go of the control I was trying to have, the more I realized I was safe. It gave me the freedom to not receive Joel’s anger. Instead of reacting to him, I could be okay. I had to redefine a ‘good day.’ A good day was when I ran to Christ, and some good days I could feel Him putting tiny pieces back together.”
Even though Rebecca didn’t verbalize it, Joel felt her decision to support him. Her quiet and growing trust in God started to turn their relationship in a whole new direction. Joel drew strength from Rebecca’s unconditional love and support, and Rebecca even came to believe that God could use the IED blast for good.
Connections and Community
In November of 2014, two years after the blast, Joel’s friend, Josh, who had also been in the ambush, invited him to see the movie Unbroken. As the final text came across the screen, Joel began to cry. The movie’s testimony of a veteran who suffered from PTS, yet who put his faith in Jesus, moved this soldier. The hard shell of Joel’s pain and indifference was beginning to crack.
In January of 2015, the Jessens happened to run into Brandon Brown in the airport passenger terminal as Brandon was flying out for a memorial service. Brandon and Joel had played on a worship team years ago in Hanau, and he invited Joel and Rebecca to go with him to the Cadence K-Town Hospitality House when he returned.
For months, Joel and Rebecca came to the hospitality house and sat in the back, not interacting much with the directors, Rick and Paula Scott. But they were soaking in the Word of God, beginning with a study on the book of Galatians.
“Scripture was our soul food, our comfort.”
Joel recalls feeling like everything that was said was something he needed to hear. Questions he had about God were being answered. And God Himself was dealing with layers of sin, restructuring thought patterns, and personally connecting with both Joel and Rebecca’s hearts. Joel decided he was going to let go of his control and put his trust in God.
Rebecca joined the women’s Bible study in the book of Hebrews and found a community of new friends who were also seeking God. She learned the deep truth that, “in our brokenness God meets us where we are.”
TBI and Trajectory
God was repairing Joel’s heart and restoring Joel and Rebecca’s marriage. They were beginning to move from the back of the room into fellowship at the hospitality house. But Joel’s physical condition was getting worse, and by the end of 2015 he was not doing well.
After the blast, when Joel described his symptoms they spanned multiple medical specialties. Because of this, professionals had a hard time creating an effective treatment plan. Then in January of 2016, a nurse at the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany got him into a Traumatic Brain Injury program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. The first month Joel was there alone, receiving much needed therapy. In month two and three of the program, his family joined him and they lived together in an apartment as Joel continued to receive excellent care as an outpatient.
When the lead neurologist finally put in writing that Joel could no longer serve on an Operational Detachment due to the status of his brain, the Jessens made the difficult decision to get out of the military. Though honorably and medically retired in 2017, this was yet another deep loss for the Green Beret whose heart and career were committed to “freeing the oppressed.”
Those who have retired from a life of military service understand how disorienting it is to suddenly become a civilian, disconnected from the structure, purpose, and calling of a soldier. For Joel, the retirement came so early. His family was still young, his brain still healing. Having never really imagined doing anything else with his life, Joel still battles feelings of guilt, having known many friends and soldiers who gave their lives.
Future and Hope
In Jeremiah chapter 29, God speaks to His people while they are in exile. He tells them to seek Him from where they are, promising them a future and a hope.
The Jessens are seeking God from where they are. They are serving as Cadence Associates Field Staff, ministering to military families alongside Rick and Paula Scott at the K-Town Hospitality House in Germany. And they are offering their story to us, encouraging us, as Rebecca says, that “in hard situations you can see that God is wanting to get to you and pursue your heart. You can resist or yield; you can decide.”
Joel concludes, “The most important thing I want to relay is that the decision to start trusting God, even in the midst of everything, has brought about an indescribable peace and hope for the future. This hope is based on Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross. This hope is real, and it has remained, despite the hardships of living with a Traumatic Brain Injury.
“This hope wasn’t something I created. It wasn’t something I found on my own. When I was hopeless, Hope found me.”
Terms used in this article:
IED: An Improvised Explosive Device is a crude but effective homemade weapon often used by guerillas or insurgents against military forces. It has been the main weapon utilized against American and coalition forces during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
RG33: An RG33 is a blast-protected military vehicle from which missions in explosive and hazardous environments can be carried out.
Overpressure: Also called blast wave, overpressure is a sudden shock wave resulting from an explosion that is greater than the normal atmospheric pressure. Overpressure is measured in pounds per square inch (psi).
TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury, often a result of impact to the head, disrupts normal brain function and affects both physiological and psychological areas of a person’s life.
K-Town: Kaiserslautern, Germany, where 50,000 American Armed Forces personnel, civilians, and family members are stationed in the area.