James Hessel came home from school on Sept. 11, 2001, and told his mom he was joining the Marines.
“He felt it was his patriotic duty after that terrible day,” said Hessel’s mom, Kathie Newman. “I told him to look into some of the other military branches. The Marines are pretty hardcore.”
But Hessel was set on the Marines, and was sent to Iraq.
“Every day, my pride and my fear lived side by side,” Newman said.
Eventually, Hessel came home, but he wasn’t the same.
He struggled with the impacts of a head injury sustained in a bomb attack on his convoy. He earned a Purple Heart for surviving the attack, but it left him with nebulous mental issues.
“He struggled for a time, but he found a good job, and we thought he was doing great,” Newman said. “But those who served over there — they carry wounds in their hearts. He saw things that ate him up inside. Sometimes he was here, and sometimes he said he felt like he was back there. He wasn’t sure what was dream and what was reality.”
In March of 2012, just days before his 28th birthday, James Hessel became one of the more than 6,000 American veterans a year who die by suicide.
On Memorial Day, Newman sat in front of her son’s headstone at Fort Logan National Cemetery, wearing her son’s shirt. Beside her sat Kirk Newman, her son’s stepdad.
“I’m surrounded by James always,” she said. “When I come here on Memorial Day, as I have for nearly a decade now, I appreciate seeing how many other people are here. I appreciate the people who bring their little children, to carry on the tradition of remembering those we lost. For all the horrible political stuff in the last few years, hopefully we can all still remember that this is our history.”
Across town at Littleton’s World War II memorial in Ketring Park, the men and women of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #4666 and American Legion Post #103 held a somber remembrance ceremony.
In a steady drizzle, aging warriors stood at attention, recalling those who have gone before them.
“It’s essential to know where we came from to have a solid foundation to build for our future,” VFW member Bill Baldaccini told the attendees. “That’s how we keep America free.”
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