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Top U.S. military leader wears Idaho soldier’s name

President Barack Obama watches as retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, center, shakes hand with incoming Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, during a  'Change of Office' Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ceremony at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Va., Friday, Sept., 30, 2011.  (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama watches as retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, center, shakes hand with incoming Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, during a 'Change of Office' Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ceremony at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Va., Friday, Sept., 30, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By Kathleen Kreller The Idaho Statesman

BOISE — In an Oct. 2 interview with CBS “Sunday Morning,” Adm. Mike Mullen said he wears a bracelet with Jessica Ellis’ name in memory of all the service members who have died while he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I’ve tried to keep that as close to me every single day, every waking moment,” Mullen told CBS. “It’s a reminder to others but also to myself. … We routinely go by her grave.”

“We were not aware he was wearing that,” said Steve Ellis of Boise, the father of Ellis. “It is quite a tribute to Jessie and who she was.”

In 2008, Steve and Linda Ellis stood at the Arlington National Cemetery grave of their 24-year-old daughter, an Army corporal.

The medic from Idaho died on Mother’s Day that year, killed by explosives on an Iraqi road.

As the family mourned at Ellis’ simple white grave marker, they were joined by Mullen and his wife, Debra.

Mullen had spoken of Ellis’ sacrifice in his Memorial Day message to the nation that year.

Ellis is buried in Section 60 at Arlington, the area reserved for service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those buried there represent great sacrifice, Mullen said.

Mullen was appointed in 2007 and finished his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs early this month. During those years, more than 2,000 U.S. service members died in the global war on terror. Mullen is declining all interviews.

Jessica A. Ellis was born in Burley and raised in Idaho, Oregon, Virginia and other states as her dad changed jobs with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. He now serves as Idaho director for the BLM.

“That’s part of having a father that works for the federal government, you get moved around quite a bit,” Steve Ellis said.

Still, Jessica thrived, running cross country and participating in track.

After high school in Lakeview, Ore., Ellis earned an associate of arts degree from community college and went to work as a wildland firefighter. Eventually, she was motivated to join the Army and work as a medic, stationed with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.

She was twice deployed to Iraq — both times as a combat medic with the Army’s Screaming Eagles.

Sgt. Bruce Hillway, one of Ellis’ close friends from Fort Campbell, was present on both deployments, the first time in 2005. Ellis was friends with Hillway’s then-wife.

“We both happened to be in a shopette one day, she saw me and recognized the name on my chest and just walked up an introduced herself and shook my hand,” Hillway said.

Ellis loved spending time with the couple’s young twin girls, he said. She was known in the 101st for her cheerful nature and desire to help her fellow soldiers.

“She was the type of person if she saw somebody who wasn’t smiling, she made them smile,” Hillway said. “She was that bright, friendly personality, and she made it her business to make people happy.”

Hillway would often have Ellis help train other soldiers in first aid. She was competent, funny and well-liked.

Both Ellis and Hillway deployed again in 2008.

After the first deployment, Ellis became more serious and deliberative, Steve Ellis said.

Still, she was determined to help “her boys” in the 101st.

She regularly accompanied road-clearing convoys to offer medical assistance. She witnessed several explosions, her father said.

Known as “Doc Ellis,” she had volunteered that Mother’s Day to replace another medic on a road-clearing convoy.

Such missions take hours and are dangerous because the convoys travel slowly and make easy targets.

“She wanted to look after the soldiers,” Hillway said. “Other soldiers kind of saw her as their goofy little sister.”

Ellis was sitting behind the driver in an armored vehicle when three projectile bombs detonated. She died of wounds suffered in the attack.

Hillway was on an airplane returning from leave when he heard Ellis had been killed. He was one of the soldiers who fired a rifle salute at her Baghdad service; the crowd overflowed the small chapel and its foyer.

Ellis was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

The family held a funeral for Ellis in Oregon and buried her at Arlington, which was her wish, Steve Ellis said. They visit the grave as often as they can — which is how the family met Mullen.

They’ve had occasion to keep in touch with the admiral and his wife. When Mullen visited Boise earlier this year, he met with the Ellis family and other Idaho families who have lost service members.

Though Jessica Ellis lived for just 24 years, she made an impact. She is memorialized in places beyond Mike Mullen’s wrist, including Idaho’s Fallen Soldiers Memorial.

Steve Ellis is grateful for such “honorable places” as Arlington.

“The section 60 families, they understand the journey,” he said. “It’s just difficult; you don’t get over it. It’s a journey.

“It is a club you didn’t want to be in but you can never resign. Behind every headstone out there in Section 60 is a family like ours going through this.”

Every story of another Idahoan killed in action reopens the wound, Ellis said.

Jessica Ellis is one of 59 Idahoans, and one of two Idaho women who have died since Sept. 11, 2001, in the war on terror.

“We never want to forget her and her sacrifices,” Steve Ellis said. “It changes the family forever. We are the price of freedom, are we not?”

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