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The Sudden Leap From Teenager to Soldier: Spc. Gerald R. Jenkins

written by Kanani Fong
on November 04, 2010

The morning started off as all of them do: with my dog barking ferociously at a squirrel nattering outside the window. It was a signal to start the day, make breakfast and sack lunches and get our daughter off to school. This sliver of 45 minutes is a well-rehearsed dance. In the car, we had our usual conversation that hinged on her scanning the parking lot for her friends. We passed several tall, lanky boys who looked to be seniors — 18-year-olds strolling to class. Moving neither too slow or too fast, their tousled hair bouncing as they walked along. They moved with less rush or assurance than the girls. When I dropped her off, I said goodbye, then watched one of the boys lope past with a graceful, quiet stroll onto campus.

The radio was on, and NPR announced it would be playing a tribute to a fallen soldier. I turned left, passing the community college and making my way back home. The program came on, telling the audience about Spc. Gerald R. Jenkins, of the 101st at Fort Campbell. I'd been there over the summer, touring with the film, Restrepo. It was a fragile place, and we had been prepared: the 101st had not only taken heavy casualties, but they'd also had several suicides. The scope of their drama was well known to us by the time we met the Garrison Commander, Col. Clark, as well as the head of Behavioral Health, therapists and mental health volunteers. I realized that the loss of this young soldier was one more that this group was taking with difficulty.

Gerald-Jenkins2 (1).jpgSpc. Jenkins was 19 years old. He died because of an IED. He was only one year older than the boys I'd just seen crossing the lot. I couldn't help but think any of those boys could have been him last year, moving with the same easy stride, going to class, undecided about what to do the next year. By this time, I had pulled the car over and stopped. I cried, as anyone would do. But the truth of the matter is there's a bond between those in the military, as well as with our supporters. It doesn't matter whether or not we have met. It doesn't matter whether or not we will ever meet. We will always be happy for one another; we will grieve for one another as well.

It was a short story, well done. I restarted the car, and made my way back home. A subsequent search for more information turned up very little. But I learned that he had earned The Army Achievement Medal, The Army Commendation Medal, The National Defense Service Medal, The Global War On Terrorism Service Medal, The Army Service Ribbon, and the Combat Service Badge. In the years between high school and the time he died, Spc. Jenkins had made a terrific leap. He wasn't just a kid from Circleville, OH; he had become a soldier. Fortunately, I found out that my friend 1st Lt. Rajiv Srinivasan had a chance encounter with Spc. Jenkins in Afghanistan.

Jenkins was a combat engineer and a fairly intelligent kid. He wasn't exactly thrilled to be in Afghanistan, but he had the right attitude to make the most of the tour. There was something special about this kid... he bore a mature optimism that didn't spring so much from naivety, but necessity... because out here, he knew the situation was bad, but he also knew that a year would go by a lot faster with a smile on his face.

I think fate has a way of bringing people together if even for a one-time pass. The meeting between Srinivasan and Jenkins was for a purpose. I hope his parents will one day read Rajiv's recollection of their son and that they'll be comforted knowing that someone else thought their kid had all the right stuff. I hope they will take these words to heart in the upcoming weeks, after the crowds have floated away.

One has to love the kids like him who enlist. They could have done so many things — found a job, gotten a girlfriend, started college, hung out, spent endless hours on video games or on Facebook. Jenkins, however, chose to be a soldier. He and others like him serve in the face of hostility from the enemy and despite unfair assumptions or dismissal from their civilian peers. They stick with it despite other people's politics foisted upon them.

I wish he'd had more life experiences. I wish he'd walked on a tropical beach with a girlfriend, had six dogs, a cat, kids, and a career. I wish he had season tickets to Ohio State football games, which he loved. I wish his family's Thanksgiving and Christmas weren't going to be so hard this year. The jump from a teen with a gentle lope with tousled hair to a soldier always seems to happen too fast. With his death, his family and friends are left with grief. There is nothing to do, but live with honor, humility and kindness. There is no other way to remember those who have passed.

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