Name: Lance Cpl. Jeremy Janssen
Hometown: Dwight, Ill.
Role: Combat engineer
BREACH POINT, Northern Kuwait—"Incoming Scud!" somebody yells. "Gas! Gas! Gas!"
Lance Cpl. Jeremy Janssen puts on his gas mask and runs across the base, past pup tents and a portable water container and reaches a bunker about 4 feet wide, 4 feet underground. The roof is covered with sandbags.
It's a long, exhausting day for the Marines of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion.
"Everybody in the bunkers!" somebody screams.
Janssen sits in the bunker wearing rubber boots, rubber gloves, a gas mask and a bio-chemical suit. The Army fires a Patriot air defense missile. Janssen gets up and looks out of the bunker. More missiles shoot into the air, and there is a loud explosion.
"You guys hear that?" Janssen shouts.
Janssen cracks jokes. When people get scared, he tries to calm them.
Another missile streaks by. Janssen stands outside the bunker, watching the light show. "Yeah, that was impressive," he says like someone watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.
"Everybody take some naps," someone says over the radio. "We could be here awhile."
Janssen is watching history unfold through his gas mask—and he can't help but look. A former high school football player, Janssen is 5 feet 11 with brown hair and brown eyes. He joined the Marines to see different places and things.
Now he's hiding in a bunker at the start of a war, his emotions ranging from panic and fear to relief and boredom.
Janssen, 20, a Marine reservist, hears planes high overhead, but they're out of sight. He holds an M-16 rifle in his right hand and leans against the roof with his left. He is a sophomore at Illinois State University, majoring in pre-law or criminal justice.
More booms are heard in the distance.
More airplanes go by, headed to Iraq to drop bombs.
"You know what's really messed up?" Janssen says to two Marines nearby. "There are people dying right now."
Behind the bunker, there are more explosions.
After what seems like hours, the Marines are told to take off their masks, leave the bunkers and start packing up their tents. They will leave in the morning for Iraq, a day earlier than expected.
As they pack in the dark, there is a series of loud explosions. The sky lights up. Several Marines run for cover, even though they will soon learn it's outgoing artillery.
When Janssen reaches the bunker, he finds that somebody forgot their helmet. "Here, take mine," he says.
Janssen stands up again to watch. He's convinced that nothing bad will happen. Back home, he's a volunteer emergency medical technician for a fire department in Ransom, Ill. "It's just a little town, 250 people," he says. "Nothing ever happens. I did have one call for a kitchen fire."
The missiles and airplanes continue all night, slowing the Marines' packing. Morning brings silence.
A few days later, Janssen is standing watch in southern Iraq, looking across a canal, when he learns that two Marines drowned on a reconnaissance mission. He runs to the bank and wants to search but is told to wait. He's an EMT; they might need him on shore.
Janssen has a knack for being in the right place to help people—cracking a joke to relieve stress, giving up his helmet, hiding his fear.
Janssen will finish his degree, but he's thinking about becoming a firefighter. "That way," he says, "I can save people."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+JANSSEN