Virginia man was destined to be a soldier
PRINCE GEORGE, Va. — Jesse Ozbat decided that he wanted to marry his girlfriend about a year after their first date at Prince George High School's senior prom in 2002.
With a briefcase in hand, Jesse drove from his Prince George County home to Petersburg.
There, the future math major at Virginia State University laid out his plans to finance the wedding to his future mother-in-law.
"That was Jesse," Aaron Ozbat, Jesse's father, said. "He always had a plan. He was always looking ahead."
Army Capt. Jesse Ozbat was supposed to get out of the military in July of this year. Instead of becoming a math teacher like he originally planned, he was going into business.
In a notebook that was later returned to his parents, Jesse had written a month-by-month blueprint that would prepare him for the next phase of his life.
The week he left for Afghanistan with the 168th Brigade Support Battalion in April 2012, his goals were to finish Financial Intelligence, complete a module, and listen to at least one podcast. By the end of the deployment, he would have completed 10 business-related books.
Jesse would never be able to reach those goals. After about three weeks in Afghanistan, he was killed by an explosive device in Tarin Kowt.
"When his belongings were returned to us, I think the major was surprised at the things that were in there," Cynthia Ozbat, Jesse's mother, said.
Inside the trunk were protractors, compasses, and pages of formulas and theories that neither Cynthia nor Aaron were familiar with.
Jesse, who went to Virginia State University on a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, had earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics with a 3.9 grade point average. He finished among the top 10 percent of cadets nationwide.
"I had always had an interest in math, but he surpassed me a long time ago," Cynthia said.
Inside the trunk was also a daily devotional. Jesse had taped the binding of the old book that had passed through a total of four generations and at least two generations of soldiers.
'I want to stand for freedom'
Even though serving in the Army was not Jesse's only goal, he always knew he would become a soldier like his father, a retired Army first sergeant, and his great-great-uncle, who served in the Panama Canal Zone in 1941.
It was not the career that his parents would have chosen for him, but they wanted to support the decision that they knew had long been in the making for their introverted and intelligent son.
"I don't think it was his top priority, but I think he was trying to live a life pleasing to myself, to his mom, people that loved and cared for him," Aaron said. "Before he even thought about joining the Army, I told him, I said, 'I wore the uniform so that you don't have to.' In other words, I wanted him to have more opportunities than I had, because I wasted a lot of them. But his response was, 'I want to do my part. I want to stand for freedom.' And that's when he was just a teenager."
Jesse stares out from most of his childhood photos with a calm half-smile. And in more photos than most, he is wearing Army-green, flexing his muscles or saluting.
"I remember it very well. He said, 'when I grow up, I'm going to be the general,'" Cynthia said, pointing to one picture of a camouflaged Jesse.
His quiet, humble nature adjusted well to the life of a military brat as the family moved from Kentucky to Louisiana and eventually settled in Prince George County when Jesse was in middle school.
With many kids coming and going, Jesse and Marisa Ozbat, his younger sister, became close. Every day after school, the two would play outside but also spent a healthy amount of time playing video games, something he would later pass on to his younger brother Elijah Ozbat.
"He's quiet and I'm quiet. I was kind of more protective, just because I had to be more independent. He tried to be big brother, but I guess I wouldn't let him," Marisa said. "He just liked to hang back in the background and help others succeed."
As early as high school, the "A" and "B" student who functioned best when his back was against the wall had joined the Junior ROTC. And as a senior in 2002, he was named the cadet of the year and had secured a VSU ROTC scholarship.
Danielle Ozbat knew from the early days of dating Jesse in high school that he would become a soldier.
"That was his dream. I wasn't really going to stand in the way. Whatever he did, I was fine with it because whatever he did I knew he was going to be successful," she said.
Danielle and Jesse met Sept. 10, 2001, in 12th grade government class. He sat in the front while she sat in the back corner.
"Jesse was always quiet, but if you talked about hockey or Dragon Ball Z [an anime series], that's what he would talk about most," Danielle said. "I thought he was cute but I didn't think he would like me because he was so serious and I wasn't."
Danielle said that Jesse was very serious about his spending habits. He would even turn his phone off to save money. She would later learn that he used his own money from his first job at Winn-Dixie to purchase a Mustang when he was about 16.
"His friends would joke, they would say Jesse's idea of letting loose was taking off his glasses and putting contacts in," Cynthia said. "He was wise beyond his years. Sometimes he would talk to us the way we should have been talking to him."
Life together starts with prom
Despite their differences, Danielle asked Jesse to senior prom. It took a lunch with his friends to convince him, but Jesse agreed.
Prom night would turn out to be the beginning of a decade-long life together that would take Danielle to many different states after Jesse was commissioned in 2006.
And even though she suspected it, she never truly would know the full impact that Jesse had on his fellow soldiers until she received a flood of letters following Jesse's death.
Sgt. 1st Class James Clayton wrote, "I remember when I first met Jesse and thinking to myself, who is the little small and quiet new CPT we have just got in. He didn't really talk all that much just mainly kept to himself and did the jobs he was asked to do. First Sergeant and I would joke about that all the time. The only people that would be at work longer than Jesse was the staff duty officer and that's because they pulled 24-hour shifts."
Clayton served with Jesse in the 214th Fires Brigade at Fort Sill in Oklahoma as well as in Afghanistan. It took weeks for him to learn that Jesse could talk about football for hours, and was a Detroit Lions fan.
Over time, Clayton saw the quiet soldier become a leader and unify a diverse unit as they prepared for Afghanistan.
"He was the one who came up with the plans to make our team run efficiently â€¦ it was because of him that we had three members of our team get awards. He was the glue I would say," Clayton wrote. "I just never imagined that when I woke up the morning of May 20, 2012, and ate breakfast with Jesse, it would be the last time I would talk to or see him."
By the time that Clayton had met Jesse at Fort Sill, Jesse had already been in the Army for about three years and had survived a 15-month deployment to Iraq.
During that first tour, Aaron said his son acted as a liaison between the military and the locals and dealt heavily with interpreters.
Jesse wished he had seen more action, but could not shake some of the images he saw of Iraqi life.
"Iraq had changed him. He was embarrassed to come back and live the way we live," his mother said.
Another letter that came with the news of Jesse's death was not from a fellow soldier. It was from an Iraqi interpreter who Jesse had helped come to the United States by writing a recommendation letter.
"Capt. Ozbat has played a major role for me and for my family on obtaining the SIV Special Immigration Visas to USA, saving our lives from terrorism. My background is veterinarian while my wife is pharmacist â€¦ we left everything in Iraq, the jobs, our real estates â€¦ all because of terrorism. Capt. Ozbat was one of the few great men I have ever known," Raied Al Hergani wrote.
Nearly three years after returning from Iraq, Jesse would once again go overseas.
His mother and father would not go to see him off to Afghanistan. Even up to the last minute, Cynthia would not believe that he was being deployed a second time.
But on April 30, 2012, Jesse was gone.
He would return home about three weeks later in a flag-draped coffin.