In July of 2017, the nation was captivated by a photograph of a soldier standing at attention in the pouring rain as a funeral procession passed by during a red light in Vine Grove, Kentucky. The photograph, taken and shared by Vine Grove resident Erin Hester, made national news and was shared on various social media over 130,000 times and almost 200,000 people reacted to the photo.
The soldier was later identified as Army Col. Jack Usrey, a 1991 UTM Criminal Justice graduate from Martin.
Usrey explained that the weather had made the day miserable already, but the moment he saw the police escort, hearse and car lights, he knew what he had to do.
“I had a split-second thought that it’s sad that an already bad day is worse because of the weather. At that point my raising took over and I wanted to show the family my respect and hopefully make them feel better, if only for a second,” Usrey said. “I got out, saluted the procession to the last car, got back in my Jeep and headed back home. It was really just a simple gesture of honor to the fallen and their family.”
The “simple gesture of honor” however touched the lives of thousands as the photo circulated social media. Hester commented that it was frustrating to see that other cars were not stopping for the procession, but she was amazed when Usrey went “above and beyond” to show his respects to the family. He found the opportunity to do something he considered small to help someone and took it.
Usrey first enlisted in the United States Army in 1988 and has served 29 years in the military.
Usrey originally joined the Army because his father instilled in him a sense of patriotism and the desire to serve at a young age. He explained that military service is practically a family tradition considering his father served in the Navy, his brother is a retired Lt. Col. and his great uncle was shot down and became a POW during WWII.
Usrey’s military occupational specialty (MOS) is Armor/Human Resources, and he has eight deployments under his belt including Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Honduras and Cambodia. Usrey claims he always wanted to jump out of airplanes, so he worked to become a part of the 82nd Airborne Division where he has now jumped out of airplanes and helicopters all around the world. He served five years in the 82nd Airborne Division and three years in a Special Operations unit.
Looking back over his many years of military service, Usrey can see all the ways experiences have changed him from when he first enlisted.
“I have seen so many things over the years, mostly good and some bad. I’ve observed the best and worst of mankind,” he said. “I am humbled by the soldiers I have served with and their selfless actions to help and save not only their buddies but civilians on the battlefield… Nothing I’ve done makes me worthy of anything but I am blessed to have been part of an Army and Nation that has sons and daughters willing to give their lives for something greater than themselves.”
Usrey has had the honor of presenting Purple Hearts to young men and women who were injured in the line of duty, has participated in over 200 Hero flights, a soldier’s final journey home and throughout his time in service, has had the opportunity to influence and lead hundreds of soldiers.
Those soldiers he’s had the honor of serving alongside are the reason he still continues to serve.
“Few things are as powerful as a young soldier, on his own accord, staying up all night standing by the outer perimeter fence watching over a young girl who came there to sleep on the ground because her parents were dead and she knew the Americans would keep her safe while she slept. Or the soldier who jumped from a two-story building because it’s the quickest way to get to his wounded buddy laying in the street, still being fired upon,” Usrey said.
The defining moment of Usrey’s career came during his 2011-2012 deployment to Afghanistan and it changed him in ways most will never know including himself.
“We had 144 soldiers from our unit pay the ultimate sacrifice that year and 1,790 were wounded. I spent over 200 nights at the hospital in Bagram, (Afghanistan), presenting Purple Hearts to young men and women. Most had physical wounds that would heal and they would lead normal lives, whatever normal means. More than I care to remember lost one to three limbs,” Usrey said. “They were all so young, mostly in their twenties. They had entire lives ahead of them and they would wake up every morning for the next 50 plus years and have to live with their injuries. All had unseen wounds that may never heal.”
“Because all Heroes came through Bagram before leaving the country, I participated in over 200 Hero flights, helping give final honors to flag draped coffins as we loaded them for their final journey home. Sometimes it was one Hero. The most we had at one time was 38. That was the night we lost 30 Special Operators and 8 Afghan partners when their Chinook was shot down as they rushed toward the chaos to save their brothers on the ground who needed their help. It is impossible for words to describe an airplane hangar filled with 30 American flag draped coffins.”
Not very much has changed for Usrey since the photograph went viral but he has had the opportunity to share his story and the story of soldiers he has served with because of it. People he met through his deployments from different countries such as Australia and Thailand have sent him notes recognizing him and his Jeep. Laughing, Usrey claimed he is still waiting for Chrysler to contact him and give him the keys to a new Jeep Rubicon.
Usrey met his wife Cindy at UTM, and the couple married right before their graduation. They did not know what their future in the Army held but were excited to partake in the new adventure together. Even after having moved 16 times, they look forward to each new adventure together.
Usrey was also a brother of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity while at UTM.
Usrey will be in attendance during the Veteran’s Day Parade and Recognition UTM football game. He will have the honor of conducting the reenlistment ceremony on the field at halftime during the game.
“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to represent all the men and women in uniform serving our Nation. I’m from Martin so it’s a special blessing to participate in this special event,” said Usrey. “The town of Martin, special teachers along the way like Mrs. Carolyn White, UTM and its ROTC department made me the soldier I am today and I’m thankful I can help in a small way.”
“It’s all about the men and women we lead and serve with. That’s what make our nation and our military great.”
top photo: (Col. Jack Usrey standing at attention. | Photo Credit/Erin Hester)
second: (Col. Jack Usrey | Photo Credit/Army National Guard)