Trained in destroying explosives, a soldier from a small northeastern Arkansas town was killed in an explosion in Iraq, authorities announced today.
Staff Sgt. Kevin P. Jessen, 28, died Sunday in Rawah, the Army said. He was on a post-blast investigation when another explosion killed him, Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins said.
Jessen was assigned to the 22nd Chemical Battalion (Technical Escort) of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
He grew up in Oak Grove Heights, also known as Oak Grove, where the family had moved from Iowa before Jessen was born, his sister Tracy Miller said. Their father was a welder and had a small farm.
The youngest child in the family, Jessen had an early interest in explosives, which eventually led to his military career, his sister said.
"He liked to play with fire and explosives and just see what he could mix together to make a little bomb or whatever, his own little thing," she said. "And he ended up getting into that as a specialty, which was kind of ironic, but cool."
She recalled that as a boy, her brother enjoyed tying his G.I. Joe toys to bottle rockets and firing them off. He also had a strong interest in history.
"He could name every war and when it took place and all that stuff," she said.
She said her brother had been in Junior ROTC as well as the National Guard before joining the Army.
"I guess it was just his calling," she said. "Couldn't see him doing anything else."
Miller also described her brother as dedicated to his family. He leaves a wife, Carrie Jessen, and a 2-year-old son, Cameron Jessen. Jessen and his family had just recently been stationed in Maryland.
His current tour in Iraq was his third overseas deployment. He had traveled to the Mideast in the mid-1990s to help dispose of explosives left over from the first Gulf War, his sister said. He was sent to Iraq again in 2004 and returned after six months.
Last year his father, Elmer Jessen, was sick with cancer while Kevin Jessen was undergoing further Army training. Miller said her terminally ill father told her brother not to return home when he passed. She said her father didn't want to interrupt her brother's training.
"And so he [Kevin] didn't," she said. "That was very hard for him."
But her brother had visited in June when his father was sick and came back to visit the family at Christmas, after his father had died. It was the last time his sister saw him.
Miller said her brother had deployed to Iraq for the third time just a few weeks ago and tended to downplay the danger in occasional calls home.
"He acted like there wasn't near the threat over there that there used to be," she said.
Family members recently sent him two packages filled with his favorite snacks: pepperoni sticks, pistachios and almonds.
"We had just sent that to him a couple of weeks ago," she said. "Hopefully, he got to enjoy at least part of it."
Sunday night, the family was informed that Jessen had been killed.
"They got called on an incident, the chaplain said when he came that night," Miller said. "And it just went wrong."
The Army didn't inform Jessen's wife right away because she was staying with her mother in New York state and the Army didn't have her address, Miller said. The family in Oak Grove provided the address to the Army.
"They showed up at her door at 6 o'clock Monday morning," Miller said. "And I know it's just horrible for her, she's got that baby and everything. But luckily she's with her mother."
Funeral arrangements were pending.
As of today, at least 2,301 members of the U.S. military had died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. Jessen is the 30th Arkansan to die, according to the AP.