After a near fatal explosion in Iraq, Central grad proves he’s headstrong
It’s best not to tell Robert Jepsen there’s something he can’t do. That just makes the 1995 Central High School graduate more likely to do it.
Jepsen, now 32, was 27 when he was an Army Ranger in the Special Forces and nearly died when a bomb blast ripped apart his face and seriously injured his left side. Three of his friends were killed that day, Jan. 27, 2004, while patrolling a highway about 25 miles south of Baghdad.
Jepsen, who was awarded a Purple Heart for the incident, was not expected to recover as quickly as he did.
His mother, Debbie England of Glade Park, said the U.S. Army started proceedings to medically discharge her son from the military. But Jepsen had other plans and put in long hours rehabilitating himself to convince officials he was usable.
And he convinced them.
On May 8, the father of three boys became the first Purple Heart recipient to earn a bachelor’s degree in the ROTC program at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. He also was promoted to second lieutenant in the military service corps.
“I do want to become a pediatrician or a physician’s assistant,” Jepsen said via phone from Fort Campbell.
Just days after his graduation on May 11, Jepsen underwent the 22nd reconstructive surgery on his face.
“He looks incredible,” said England, who visited her son during graduation and Mother’s Day.
“Knowing everything that he’s been through, he knows what could have been. He said it’s good to eat food again without it falling out the side of his mouth.”
In the days after the attack, England traveled to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to be there for Jepsen when he awakened after being in a coma for two weeks. The explosion nearly tore his face apart, and doctors had to slit his left leg to let off pressure from shrapnel.
Jepsen can look forward to soon having a full set of teeth, after years of missing five teeth, as his jawbone was put back together.
After the attack, Jepsen met and married Angie, who also was in the military. When she was deployed to Iraq, and then Afghanistan, he took care of their child, Cadien, 6.
Jepsen’s two other boys, Austin, 10, and Bradien, 8, live in Denver, and he’ll see them this summer for a visit.
“I don’t know how some of these single parents do it,” Jepsen said. “I didn’t work; I just went to school. My hat’s off to them.”
Jepsen said he realizes his knowledge of serving in a war complements his education. Meanwhile, he is helped by other students’ knowledge of filling out paperwork and other office duties.
“What you learn in a book is not what happens in reality,” he said.
England recalls the obstacles her son overcame to get to this point. While patients were allowed about an hour of physical therapy a day, Jepsen spent from four to six hours a day in the rehabilitation rooms, doing exercises on his own.
While doctors warned him against doing jumping drills from airplanes, he did them anyway. In May 2005, England remembers her son calling to say he had run a mile.
“Nothing held him back. He was focused and determined,” she said. “It just seems like the more they told him he couldn’t do something, the more he wanted to do it.”