SGT. JESSE W. STRONG – U.S. Marine CorpsHometown / City: IRASBURG, VT ORLEANS
Date of Death: Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Conflict: Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq)
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Unit: C CO, 4TH CEB, 4TH MAR DIV, LYNCHBURG, VA Birth: Nov. 24, 1980
Death: Jan. 26, 2005, Iraq
Published January 28, 2005
ALBANY — In November, Marine Sgt. Jesse Strong, serving with a combat battalion in Iraq, received a pack of letters from a fifth-grade class at Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury. He was days away from his 24th birthday.
The Marine, son of a local pastor in Albany in the Northeast Kingdom, promptly wrote back a two-page letter, shifting from his pervasive sense of humor and his devout faith.
“It is pretty dangerous where I am, but the Lord always watches out for me. No one in my platoon has been hurt,” Strong wrote in cursive on lined notebook paper. “God has a very special plan for each of your lives, and wants you to know Him personally. Remember that no problem you will ever have is too big for Him to handle. No matter what happens, God always has your best interests in mind. That means that God always does what is best for you — even when it seems hard. He loves each one of you very much.”
Wednesday, Jesse Strong was killed in an ambush in Haditha, a town northwest of Baghdad, along with three other Marines in his Virginia-based company. He became the 15th person with Vermont ties to die in combat in Iraq; a 16th soldier died of natural causes in Kuwait.
Strong’s deep religion and his family’s similarly powerful beliefs are helping those who knew him cope with his death, his parents, Vicki and Nate, said Thursday.
“It’s strange to say,” Vicki Strong, 47, said as she sat beside her husband, “but Jesse made this kind of easy for us.”
“That’s because he had his own personal relationship with the Lord,” said Nate Strong, 51, the pastor of the United Methodist Church. “He had everything squared away with the Lord.”
“We know for sure he’s in heaven,” Vicki Strong added.
Grief for Jesse and laughter at memories of his good humor echoed Thursday throughout the small, neighboring towns of Albany and Irasburg. Anyone who knew Jesse, anyone who interacted with him, however briefly, loved him, said his grandmother Ruth Strong, 78, of Craftsbury.
“He touched everybody,” she said, her eyes red from crying, as she sat at the family’s dining-room table.
Relatives and friends crowded into the Creek Road home Thursday afternoon. Three framed portraits of Jesse sat on the table: as a teenager in his baseball uniform; as a young man in commencement robes at Liberty University in Lynchburg; and in an official Marine portrait in which Jesse looks grim, but Ruth knows he’s barely suppressing a grin.
The Strongs home-schooled Jesse and their two other children, Matthew and Heather. Jesse loved baseball and played for the United Christian Academy team in Newport, where he was known for his base-stealing.
Most people in Albany, population 860, and Irasburg, population 1,100, knew the Strongs, largely due to Nate Strong’s duties as pastor of the thriving congregation in the center of Albany and to Jesse’s job at Ray’s Market in Irasburg.
Jesse left home for Liberty University, a religious school where he studied biology and history. He graduated cum laude in 2003. He had attended one semester of seminary before the military sent his unit overseas in August.
Jesse had a goofy goal, too, his mother said: He wanted to be a back-up dancer in a music video. He liked to impersonate Elvis, and he mimicked the dance moves of pop star Justin Timberlake.
He joined the Marine Corps in the summer of 2001 because he was looking for a challenge, Vicki Strong said. “He wanted to do something hard and grow up and become a man.”
Jesse’s friends at Ray’s Market tried to talk him out of enlisting in the Marines, said Margie Morley, 51, who has worked at the landmark store for 33 years. How about something less dangerous, perhaps the Navy, they suggested. Jesse wouldn’t hear it, Morley said.
“He wanted the hardest thing,” she said.
His faith helped sustain him overseas, Vicki Strong said. Jesse also believed in what he was doing; he wrote to the St. Johnsbury students that 80 percent of Iraqis supported the U.S. mission.
Jesse served with Company C of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion out of Lynchburg and was trained in clearing land mines, his family said. Insurgents killed the four Marines and wounded four others in a nighttime attack on a convoy during the deadliest day for U.S. forces since the war began almost two years ago — 37 were killed Wednesday.
Two Marines in dress blues knocked at the door of the Strongs’ home at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. The couple knew immediately their son was dead.
“When they told us, neither of us broke down and cried at the time,” Vicki Strong said. “Our stomachs felt bad, and we were numb, but we had peace right from that moment because Jesse’s with the Lord.”
He was due home in March.
Ray’s Market became a gathering place Thursday to talk about Jesse and mourn his death.
Ray Decelles, the owner, had been out most of the day and learned of the death just past 5 p.m. He and Morley huddled behind the meat counter, talked quietly and cried.
“He was just the nicest boy,” Decelles, 63, said as he pulled a tissue from a nearby box. He remembered asking Jesse to come work for him. “There’s just something special about him,” he said.
Jesse worked at the store for nearly two years. The owner and his young employee bonded; Decelles taught Jesse how to bowl and how to play golf. Jesse was not a natural golf talent, but he set out to prove to Decelles and his co-workers that the links would not get the better of him.
“He said, ‘I’ll show you guys,'” Morley remembered. “Everything he did, it had to be perfect.”
As Morley and Decelles talked, customers walked up to the counter to place and order, reminisce, hug and cry. Donna and Omer Bousquet of Irasburg entered the store in tears. Donna Bousquet, 44, is the fifth-grade teacher whose class wrote to Jesse in Iraq. Omer Bousquet, 40, was hunting with Jesse the first time the teenager killed a deer, he said. The couple knew the Strongs for 15 years.
“The Iraqis took the one person they really wanted over there because he was so kind-hearted and so good,” Omer said. “They took one man who would make things better.”
“I’m sure he did while he was there,” Donna Bousquet said to her husband, “but this is certainly a victory for Satan.”
She said she couldn’t tell her students Thursday that Jesse had been killed. One boy’s father is part of a Vermont Army National Guard unit sent to Kuwait this month. Bousquet worried about how he would take the news about the vibrant young Marine who had written so candidly to the class.
In his November letter, Jesse Strong wrote about how much he loved his home.
“Thanksgiving always makes me miss Vermont,” he wrote. “The more of the world I see, the more I appreciate my home state. There is no place like it — trust me.”
He will be buried in Vermont next week.
Contact Adam Silverman at 660-1854 or email@example.com
LETTER FROM IRAQ
The students in Donna Bousquet’s fifth-grade class at Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury wrote letters last fall to Marine Sgt. Jesse Strong of Albany. Strong, who was killed Wednesday northwest of Baghdad, wrote back to the class shortly after receiving their letters. This is his reply.Nov. 2004
Al Asad Marine Corps Base
Al Anbar Province, Iraq
Thanks so much for all of your letters. We had fun reading them and getting to know all of you just a little bit. I was very impressed by everyone’s writing skills. When I was in the 5th grade I was pretty good at tying my shoes — is that good?
I will be turning 24 years old this Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving always makes me miss Vermont. The more of the world I see, the more I appreciate my home state. There is no place like it — trust me (my sister Heather says Scotland is almost as good)!
Iraq is not like Vt. at all. The entire country smells like a big garbage dump! There are some pretty spots though, like down by the Euphrates River. It is a very historical river and a lot of people live along its banks. The river is really the only place around here where plants & trees grow. The people grow all kinds of weird fruits and vegetables. Most of their houses are made out of rocks and stuff. I have more clothes and stuff than an entire village here. They really don’t have much at all.
About 80% of the people are happy that we are here. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it though, because if they are seen being nice to us it is dangerous for them.
It is pretty dangerous where I am, but the Lord always watches out for me. No one in my platoon has been hurt. When I get back home I will start school again (yes I am still in school). I am studying to earn a master’s degree from a seminary in Charlotte, N.C. Seminaries are where you can go to learn about the Bible, God, and all kinds of other cool stuff. Do you guys go to church? I hope so.
God has a very special plan for each of your lives, and wants you to know Him personally. Remember that no problem you will ever have is too big for Him to handle. No matter what happens, God always has your best interests in mind. That means that God always does what is best for you — even when it seems hard. He loves each one of you very much.
Thank you all again for your letters. I hope I can meet some of you when I get home. Have fun in school and be nice to Mrs. B. I know she cares about you guys a lot so work hard for her.
Talk to you all later!All my best,
Chamberlin Hill Cemetery