Jesse Havard was a sophomore at New Hope High School, making his way from P.E. to English class.
As students settled into their desks, “there (were) whispers of the towers in New York being struck,” he recalled.
“Then, finally it was confirmed the second (tower) was struck,” Havard said Friday afternoon, in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. “The news came on, and we knew we were under attack.”
Havard”s reaction was “beyond emotion.”
He wanted “to know who did this to us.”
“When 9/11 happened, it rocked his world,” Jo Ann Havard said of her son.
With a family history of military service, Jesse Havard had gone back and forth about enlisting himself.
His maternal grandfather, Elvert Havard Jr., served in World War II.
His father, Michael Merchant of Starkville, was in the Army National Guard.
Danny Browning, Jesse Havard”s high school football coach and a Guardsman, also was a role model for him, as are his brother and uncles, who also have served in the military.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Havard decided he would follow in their footsteps, joining the Guard before going active duty.
“When 9/11 happened, that was the tipping point for me,” said Jesse Havard, now a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. “It kind of decided for me.”
His mind was made up. But when Jesse Havard was old enough to enlist, he needed his mother”s permission.
“At 17 years old, I did not want to say ”OK, go do this,” because I wanted to hold onto him,” Jo Ann Havard said.
She feared for his safety, as she does now.
“I was dreading it, not because I don”t want him to serve, but because during that time our country was attacked — it”s kind of like a split emotion,” she said. “You want to defend your country, but you don”t want to sacrifice your child to do that.”
Reluctantly, she signed the papers, rather than delay the inevitable. Without her signature, he would have just waited until his 18th birthday and joined anyway.
“I kind of equate it to the greatest generation, what they must have saw when Pearl Harbor happened,” Jesse Havard said. “It was a great tragedy for myself, my community, my nation and the world as a whole.”
Jesse Havard was enlisted before he graduated from New Hope in 2004.
”Seeing the fruit”
At 25 and on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, he knows he made the right decision.
“Seeing the fruit as it”s progressed, it”s given meaning to what we have done,” he said. “The willingness of people to accept freedom that have been suppressed for so long, the willingness of them to open their hearts to it, just to see them vote for the first time.
“So many people in America don”t vote and just to see that done here — it”s amazing to see it in Afghanistan.”
Jesse Havard was in Afghanistan for the 2005 parliamentary elections.
“The gratitude expressed to freely elect their own government was very fulfilling for me,” he said.
In February, Jesse Havard was among the U.S. servicemen to march in Kuwait”s 50/20 parade, celebrating 50 years of independence and 20 years since its liberation.
“There”s a point of the parade — the French and British were in front of us, there were 25,000 to 30,000 people there — they announced France in Arabic and English; they announced Britain; when they announced the U.S., the place erupted: ”We love you, America. Thank you, America.””
As the American troops made it to the end of the parade, they filed off.
“I remember just being overtaken, surrounded by the Kuwaiti, young and old,” Jesse Havard recounted. “I remember thinking, ”This is why I do what I do. This is what Iraq, Afghanistan can be like in 20 years.”
Call to service
For him, he is answering a call to service that links him forever to the fabric of freedom in the U.S.
“I use the example that my grandfather served in WWII as a part of the greatest generation, and I look to that generation for my inspiration,” Jesse Havard said. “I think that veterans nowadays, we”re linked by a unique bond of sacrifice, pride and humility. We have a determination to serve our country. … we are distinguished as a select few. … we”re a volunteer force that makes up less than 1 percent of the population.”
For his parents, there are mixed emotions.
“I”m extremely proud of him for choosing to do what he does, and I stand behind his decision to do that, too,” Merchant said. “When I hear on the news that something has happened there, I can”t help but be concerned too. I worry about him.”
“Needless to say, I”m very proud of him. I”m scared for him. But I support his decision to be in the military,” Jo Ann Havard said. “It”s something he always wanted to do.”
Merchant and Jo Ann Havard communicate with their son frequently, through Skype, email and Facebook.
Still, Jo Ann Havard, who lives in Columbus, always feels more secure when he is stateside.
“I feel safer when he is home,” she said. “I know Afghanistan is a free country now, but I feel safer when he is home. … It”s just the comfort of him being stateside.”
Jesse Havard has been in Afghanistan for seven weeks and is set to return in January or February.
His wife, Elizabeth Havard, is waiting for him in Seminole, Fla. Jesse Havard is stationed at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, where he”ll return after his tour of duty.
“As long as I”m here taking the fight to the enemy here, I”m not taking the fight to the enemy in the U.S. That”s my belief,” he said. “We are keeping the enemy at bay here. We”re winning against the insurgents. My family, your family is safe back in the U.S.”