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A few years after Jon Hessler walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Owen High School, he was deployed from Fort Carson in Colorado to Kandahar, Afghanistan. He found himself in the midst of an experience that changed his life.

After graduating from Owen, Hessler, now 28, signed up for ROTC at UNC Charlotte. Commissioned in the Army in May 2010, he immediately began the Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course.

“My brother was enlisted, and I wanted to serve my country in some way,” he said. “I chose to participate in the ROTC program because I wanted to gain that leadership experience that the Army offers.”

After completing his training, Hessler arrived in Colorado and departed for Afghanistan within the year. He found himself in the midst of an unconventional conflict.

“It was a very complex situation because you didn’t know who the enemies were,” Hessler said. “It wasn’t like the Germans in World War II where the enemy was in uniform. There were people that could be walking right next to you and you would have no idea.”

During his year in the mountainous country, Hessler was an infantry platoon leader, one set of many “boots on the ground” in the region. Their mission, he said, was to stabilize the communities the soldiers were responsible for. They worked with village elders to devise ways to develop local communities and provided security. They also trained the Afghan National Police.

Hessler’s platoon participated in several missions every day, with each assignment lasting five to eight hours. He said that the experience taught him valuable lessons about focusing on solutions to potential problems.

“You’ve got to adapt, improvise and overcome. All of the time,” he said. “You’re being pushed, and that helps develop you as a person. Nothing is impossible.”

Hessler’s experience in Afghanistan was a departure from what many civilians, and even veterans of other wars, envision when considering the hazards of traditional combat.

“There were people that were corrupt, there were Afghan police that would set roadblocks in order to take money. There were all types of different things that would happen that you would not normally think of when you think of war,” he said. “You think of war and you think of (the video game) Call of Duty where you’re going out and running objectives and clearing objectives and shooting and all of that. In Afghanistan it was way different. You’re building relationships with the village elders, and you’re securing areas in order to make sure it is safe for the people in that village.”

The vast majority of Hessler’s time was spent focusing on how best to complete the missions that were assigned to him. But there was time for reflection. Those quieter moments made him appreciate the smaller things in life.

“I was at an observation point, which is called an O.P., doing security and observing any movement. It was around 1 a.m., and I was looking up at the stars and saw a plane,” he recalled. “I thought ‘I would do anything to be on a plane right now heading out of this country.’

“Things that you don’t think of are really hard to come by in Afghanistan. They don’t have running water in much of the country, and we couldn’t eat a hot meal every day or take showers very often. The whole time I was over there I thought ‘Man, I love America.’”

Hessler returned from active duty and complete his service obligation as a first lieutenant. He joined the VFW in Black Mountain last year to connect with fellow veterans. He has found that being around other veterans who have shared similar experiences gives him piece of mind.

“It’s not necessarily all about being in combat,” he said. “A lot of what is great about the VFW is being able to share stories. When you’re in Afghanistan with 20 guys around you, funny things will happen, and it’s nice to be able to share those stories with the guys around you. It makes you feel good to know that you’re not the only one that went through the thick of things.”

Hessler said he’s not likely to forget the camaraderie he shared with fellow soldiers and the time that he spent in Afghanistan. He’s happy about the confidence he gained through his service. He is proud of the time he spent fighting overseas. He feels honored any time he is recognized for his service.

“It is absolutely remarkable how many people thank me for my service,” he said.

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