Stephen Jensen wears his life on his sleeve.
Tattoo sleeves cover both of Jensen’s muscular arms. Each arm conveys an opposite theme. One is light, the other dark.
When the Iraq War veteran graduates Thursday from Blue Mountain Community College, his gown will hide his collection of meaningful tattoos, but he will know they are there. They tell his story.
On the left arm are his kids’ names and dates of birth, his combat action badge, the American flag. On the other, a zombie who depicts who Jensen says he once was. Many of the images come in pairs, one on the right, the other on the left. Jesus and the devil. The seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues.
“Every morning when you wake up, you have different paths you can take,” Jensen said recently. “I’m trying to take the right path.”
Jensen returned to college two years ago after a long hiatus. He had started at BMCC the fall of 2000 after graduating from Pendleton High School.
“Then 9/11 happened,” he said. “I felt like our country needed as many people to step up as they could.”
He joined the Army and headed to Iraq in 2004. In and around Kirkuk, Jensen spent his days as a gunner atop a Humvee, scanning the landscape for improvised explosive devices. He and his fellow soldiers rode in a caravan looking for anything irregular, nooks and crannies where an IED could lurk such as inside a dead animal or a hole in the road. It wasn’t relaxing work.
“You’re on the edge the whole time,” Jensen recalled.
He returned to the states with a damaged knee and hearing loss from IED explosions. Back home, he eased back into American life. Re-entry took time.
“You’re used to being on guard all the time,” he said. “You don’t need to be anymore, but you still are.”
Instead of going back to college, he worked as a veteran navigator. With funding from the Westcare Foundation, he helped veterans navigate the system, get housing, build resumes, find food and whatever else they needed.
A few years ago, his boss, John Lee, and now-wife Fia Jensen convinced him to return to college before his GI Bill ran out in 2020. Jensen enrolled at BMCC. As he settled into his classes, the 35-year-old realized he had little in common with his fellow students, some of whom were as young as 16 and 17. He often retreated to his car or a corner of the library to study after class.
“I didn’t fit in,” Jensen said.
Life was complex outside school, too. He continued his work helping veterans until the grant ran out a year ago. Family took time as well — he and Fia have seven children (three his, three hers and one theirs).
At school, he found relief in the school’s TRIO office where untraditional students can find tutors and counselors. But there wasn’t anything specifically for veterans — until now.
After graduating, Jensen will man the school’s new veterans resource center where he will assist and mentor veterans who attend BMCC.
TRIO director Roman Olivera, who had a hand in hiring Jensen, said he was an obvious choice.
“Stephen has been working in some capacity with veterans, military serviceman and family members to offer resources since I have known him,” Olivera said. “I viewed him as the perfect fit.”
Some funding for the veterans resource center comes from a $50,500 Oregon Department of Veteran’s Affairs grant for a project called “Operation Impact Veterans.” The center will open soon with hours of operation Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., during fall, spring and winter terms. In the summer, the center will operate Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
The center’s main room is bare now, but recruiting posters and other military art will soon cover the walls. Veterans who need a place to study or just talk will be able to come by and hang out. The goal, Jensen and Olivera said, is to make each veteran’s experience at BMCC as smooth and positive as possible.
Jensen said he would have loved having such a center while he was a student. He expects veterans will migrate there as an oasis from the rest of campus.
“They’ve lived a life most kids won’t ever see,” Jensen said. “They look different. They feel different. Having a place to go is going to be phenomenal.”
Jensen will don his blue gown Thursday and walk across the stage to accept his diploma for earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice and certificates in corrections and law enforcement.
Jensen’s life experience will help him mentor his fellow veterans. They will find it written on his arms.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.