Donates $250,000 to continue a legacy and serve Ohio’s veterans legal needs

It’s near the end of your 1L year and you’re settling in for a long night of homework. You’re a military newlywed, meaning you married then promptly sent your husband off to Iraq and started law school quickly after that. There’s a knock on the door, you answer and find two uniformed officers staring back at you. It’s not until they flatly tell you they’ve come to talk to you that you realize what is happening and why they are there. “The President of the United States regrets to inform you…”

Now imagine it’s the summer before your 3L year. You’re an intern in the detainee operations legal shop in Afghanistan. This deployment is different from your last, when you travelled every day to visit the three Iraqi police stations you supervised. There’s fewer kicking down doors, but this summer’s mission is equally important. When it’s over, you’ll go back to Ohio and finish your last year of law school, which includes promoting the veterans legal clinic you helped establish.

Jenna Grassbaugh visits her husband's grave at Arlington.

Jenna Grassbaugh visits her husband’s grave at Arlington.

These are both the story of Jenna Grassbaugh separated by only six years, a journey that began when Jenna lost her husband and culminated with a $250,000 donation to her law school, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, to start a veterans’ legal clinic in his name, the Captain Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project.

In between, she ended her education deferment, leaving law school to lead a military police unit at Fort Bragg. She deployed to Iraq, both to serve her country and face the country where her husband spent his last days. She leaned on a network of surviving spouse groups at a time when such groups were not robust (an unwelcome necessity of these years of war). She worked with Army leaders to stand up an improved Survivor Outreach Services program for families of fallen heroes. She applied to and was accepted into the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP), and will join the Army’s JAG Corps when she graduates this May.

In addition to these accomplishments, she’s created stunning pieces of writing, including her law school entrance essay, her Summer 2013 article for TAPS Magazine, and the blog she has kept over the past two years that chronicles her journey since Jon’s death. Jenna has given those of us who know what it’s like to wait for our loved ones to return from combat a tremendous gift by being living proof that you can make it to the other side of the unimaginable.

Jenna and her husband, Jonathan, met in 2002 at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He was a senior, she was a freshman, and they were both in the school’s ROTC program. They married in 2006, at the beginning of the same summer that would later see Jon deploy to Iraq. She met Jon when she was 18, and explains, “I never had the experience of having a bunch of bad boyfriends.” Jon was her prince, and their wedding was to be the beginning of their carefully planned life together.

Jon deployed a short two months after they married. In April 2007, one of the bloodiest months of the war, his vehicle encountered an IED and was blown into the air. At 23, she was a military widow, part of a club she never wanted to belong.

“I wondered for a very long time what a turning point would look like, what it would mean to feel somehow better,” says Jenna of her life with grief after Jon’s death. “I couldn’t see how I would make it to the other side, to something positive.” She credits her family and friends, who told her over and over that she would find happiness again, with keeping her afloat.

“I haven’t said thank you enough to my family and friends for getting me through that time.”

The decision to make the donation that established the Grassbaugh Veterans Project came in Fall 2012. “I was at a rough point personally,” says Jenna. “I had not let myself deal with a lot of emotions after I lost Jon.” A combination of factors resulted in the donation: Jenna returned and committed herself to law school and a long-held goal of being a military lawyer. She began keeping a blog to help her work through her grief. She ended an unhealthy romantic relationship, and committed to herself to staying away from relationships until she felt better.

“I needed to be okay with being alone,” she says.

At the same time Jenna was undergoing this personal transformation, Ohio was facing a crisis of its own. As veterans returned to the state following their military service, there was an increasing need for community support. Jenna learned that the law school didn’t have a resource for this increasing population. She began discussions with the administration at the law school, the result of which was the opening of the Grassbaugh Veterans Project in Fall 2013.

“I quite frankly didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” says Jenna. But her ability to donate $250,000 up front, money from Jon’s life insurance policy, meant that not only could work begin quickly, but that the funding for the project could be endowed, or operate solely from the interest from her donation rather than the principal.

When she told her family about her donation and the project, they were hesitant. “My family was worried about making it known that I have that money,” she says. “I have good friends who have been taken advantage of.” But to Jenna, it was the right thing to do.

“Yes, it’s wonderful to have security. But I don’t need that much,” she says. “And if there’s something meaningful that can be done with the money, Jon would be proud of that.”

Jenna is currently looking forward to her last semester of law school and at last joining the Army JAG Corps after graduation. Aside from her financial donation, she continues her support of the Grassbaugh Veterans Project by getting as much exposure for the project as possible, as the law school is currently engaged in a campaign to match Jenna’s donation. Last fall, she appeared in the pages of Cosmopolitan Magazine and on MSNBC’s special Veterans Day programming.

Of all the things Jenna learned through this journey, the biggest lesson came from her internship this past summer. Not a legal lesson, but a life lesson. She met an Air Force JAG officer, Pete. The two have been dating since the summer, and spent Christmas together near his base in South Carolina.

“Pete has proved to me that I was wrong to think that I’d never again feel the joy I felt before I lost Jon,” she says, “I can’t emphasize enough how happy he makes me. And the irony of the fact that we met in Afghanistan, of all places, and when I was least expecting it, never fails to escape me. It’s further proof to me that this is as ‘meant to be’ as anything could ever be.”

Jenna and her new love, Pete.

Jenna and her new love, Pete.

“I now know that happiness doesn’t have to look exactly the same as it did in the past for it to be just as good and just as meaningful. The things I know now, how time is short and moments are precious, are life lessons that will guide me every step of the way.”