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    Courtesy Story

    Naval Safety Command

    On May 19, 2023, Marine mom, Jessica Niss, returned to the island where her son’s life was lost. She spoke to hundreds of service members with motherly love as she described the heart wrenching circumstances surrounding the drowning of Marine Cpl. Eric-John Niss deJesus. By sharing her broken heart, Niss hopes to memorialize her son’s life, help people understand how valuable they are and bring awareness to the risks of the beautiful yet treacherous seas that surround Okinawa.

    “I hope I can compel Eric-John’s fellow Marines and Sailors to ‘practice a pause’ before taking risks,” Niss said. “My son was so loved, each of these young men and women is loved. If they can see that through our story, then this experience is worth it.”

    Love Through Actions is a video, created by the Marine Corps Installations Pacific-Marine Corps Base Butler (MCIPAC-MCBB) Safety Office described the details of the story for the briefing.

    Marine Cpl. Eric-John Niss deJesus, 24, lost his life to a rip current on June 5, 2021, at Odo Beach on Okinawa’s southern shore. He and three friends entered the water in sea condition “Caution” as hazardous water conditions began to worsen. The sea condition was elevated to “Danger” while the Marines were in the water. As they began to struggle against the powerful current, Niss deJesus, swimming at the back of the group, encouraged his friends to “keep going” and “don’t give up.” Three in the group made it to safety, but they lost sight of Eric-John. His body was miraculously recovered five days later approximately 1,000 yards from where he had last been seen.

    Niss deJesus, stationed at Camp Kinser, was a military police K-9 handler and later a watch commander for the Provost Marshals Office. He had every reason to feel confident in the water. As a Minnesota native, he loved swimming his entire life. He was in top physical condition, completed lifeguard training and was scuba certified.

    Shawn Curtis, then the MCIPAC-MCBB safety director, arranged the speaking series as an innovative way to stress water safety to service members. He said this story, told firsthand, will help young men and women realize that the decisions they make in a fleeting moment can have devastating effects on those they love. The safety office provided the opportunity for Niss to share her story of love and hope to 7,500 Marines and Sailors, across six installations, over six days, as well as students attending Kubasaki and Kadena Air Base high schools.

    Since 2000, the military community has lost 42 members to the waters surrounding Okinawa, including 18 Marines, as reported by the safety office.

    “Jessica’s story is bone chilling but the motherly love by which she shares it is heartfelt,” Curtis said. “If reliving it prevents one death, then the returns certainly outweigh costs. We sincerely hope this provides some healing for Jessica and her family.”

    “It is our intent that leaders will take this opportunity to have [meaningful] discussions with their units. This may help them emphasize how important each Marine and Sailor is to those who love them, so the choices they make have an impact beyond themselves. Taking time to "practice a pause" prior to engaging in their activity of choice is a self preservation tool." said Niss.

    Niss, a surgical technician and mother of six from rural Minnesota, raised her children to know that they are always loved; that being strong in their faith meant that in times of need, God would meet their needs.

    The fallen Marine’s mother spoke at the Camp Foster Theater. Niss, before an auditorium of 400 Marines and Sailors, shared stories of her son’s childhood, intimate details of his love for his family and friends and the hardship of hearing the news that her son was missing at sea.

    Niss then took the audience through the days surrounding the rescue efforts. She detailed the anxiety she felt each time she spoke with Col. Jeffrey Hammond, Niss deJesus’ commanding officer, and the reassurance she felt as he explained the extensive rescue efforts being made by the U.S. military and Japanese Coast Guard over the course of five days. Niss explained the helplessness she felt during the COVID travel restrictions and how she struggled to come to Okinawa to try to find her missing child. Marine officials contacted her multiple times each day with detailed updates. Still, she sat, feeling hopeless, at home in Minnesota.

    She emphasized how her family and strong faith sustained her through her darkest days.

    “Eric-John was in water and they couldn’t find him,” said Niss, explaining her first reactions. “In my momma’s heart, in that moment, I said, ‘I’m gonna help him. I am going to find my boy.’”

    Days passed.

    “On day four, this momma got pissed,” Niss admitted. “I went outside, I looked around and I said, ‘God, you know every blade of this grass and you know every leaf on these trees; so, I know you know where my son is!’

    She pleaded with God for His help.

    “I called Colonel Hammond. He took every one of my phone calls and he let me know that I mattered. I asked him to please keep looking,” Niss said.

    Hammond used every resource possible.

    “Then on day five, I heard someone at the door,” Niss said. “I came down the steps. And there was Gunnery Sgt. Sexton, the assigned casualty assistance calls officer at the bottom of my stairs.”

    As their eyes locked, the Marine mom knew her son had passed.

    I said, “Ya?”

    And he said “Ya.”

    “Thank you, God. You found my boy.”

    “Where is he? I need to go to him.”

    Five days had passed since Niss first received word that Eric-John was missing at sea. Five days of hoping for the best. During those days, responders worked tirelessly on land and at sea to find the 21-year-old Marine: The Japanese Coast Guard, pilots, military personnel and finally, as the weather cleared, local divers. It was a local diver who found the body in the coral on June 9, 2023.

    Despite the obstacles of COVID restrictions, Niss made her way to Hawaii to receive her son’s body from the plane. She was finally in the same room with her son, but she was advised not to view him due to the damage done by the sea.

    “Please, Ms. Niss, let me have some time with your son before you identify him,” advised Hospital Corpsman First Class Adam Knuebler from the medical examiner’s office.

    In the waiting area of the examiner’s office, Knuebler patiently allowed Niss to show him dozens of pictures of her son, including those of his tattoos of which he was so proud. She explained that one tattoo was in her own handwriting and were lyrics of a song they often sang together, “Leavin’ on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.” Another inscribed in calligraphy were the words, ‘Long Live Benjamin,’ just under his heart, which memorialized his brother who had died at birth.

    A few days later, Niss arrived to make the identification. Once inside, Knuebler asked if he could borrow Niss’ phone. “Adam [Knuebler], who I trusted deeply, disappeared for just a few moments and then he returned to show me pictures of my son’s tattoos,” Niss said. “I no longer needed to see his body. That was all my heart needed to know, we were finally reunited.”

    Her son had been returned to her.

    What would follow for the Niss family and friends were days of grieving, family gatherings, a 110-mile motorcade and a military funeral attended by hundreds. Later, there were special days of celebrating and honoring Eric-John’s life.

    A life filled with so much potential was lost on that summer day. A life that earned this young man the honor of being selected to attend Officer Candidate School, a score of 99 on his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for saving another Marine’s life, a Distinguished Honor Graduate Award (Military Police Basic School), a bachelor of animal science degree from University of Minnesota with honors (magna cum laude) and a 4.0 high school grade point average. A loss that could have been prevented if, on that day, he had followed his mother’s lifelong advice and practiced a pause.

    As Niss came to the end of her speech, her voice trailed off into a small whisper.

    “If Eric-John were here, he would say, ‘Just be careful out there...ok.’”

    Those in attendance were completely silent during the entire presentation and many were visibly moved by the experience.

    “Eric-John was the best of us,” Hammond said. “If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.”

    Hammond explained why it is important to practice a pause before taking a risk.

    “I want people to know they matter. Their lives are important. They probably do not realize how many people care about them,” Hammond said. “It’s only when you have to make that call to a mother, telling her that her son is lost, that one can see how priceless they truly are. Then it is too late.”

    Service members said they could relate to the adventuresome spirit of Eric-John and they could also imagine that Jessica Niss could easily be their own mother.

    “I know that everyone that is here today will think twice, they will honor Corporal Eric-John before they get in that water, I know I will,” Hospitalman Jacob L. Russell a preventative medicine corpsman, said, right after hearing Niss speak. “I have a respect for the ocean. It does not discriminate. It can overpower everything. It is a powerful force that you have to be careful of. You can enjoy it as long as you respect it. The number one killer is overconfidence, so you have to do a risk assessment in your head.”

    Hospitalman Phong T. DeJesus shares the same last name of Eric-John and the presentation hit very close to home for the corpsman. “It’s rather strange. We are from the same state. We share the same name. We are the same age and we served at the same location,” DeJesus, from Shakopee, Minnesota, said. “It gets me,” DeJesus said. “I understand the seriousness. It's tragic. My mom would be so upset if something happened to me. She's a worrier. I tell her it's no big deal – but it is a big deal.”

    “This is different than a normal brief. It was heart-wrenching to see, in the flesh, the actual effects of this tragedy and how the family is having to live with the consequences,” DeJesus added. “It is tragic that someone was lost in order for us to get those hard lessons down. Seeing the effects of it right now, this is more impactful than some kind of PowerPoint presentation.”

    The corpsmen was quick to offer resources. “Don't take your resources for granted,” Russell said. “Tsunami Scuba offers safety flotation devices for free. You might as well take advantage of the safety prevention that is available. Bringing extra gear for a buddy may save his or her life. Check the sea conditions and read the water before you enter.”

    “We talk to every person coming to the island. I tell them I don’t care where you come from; the water is absolutely not the same here.” Hammond said, regarding how he briefs those under his command. “We are on a speck of dirt in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and it is unforgiving. Be safe, go swimming where there is a lifeguard. Be aware of your surroundings. Wear a flotation device even though it might not seem cool on your camera.”

    • Drowning can occur in as little as two minutes.

    • 2/3 of drowning victims are good swimmers. Play it safe and swim where a lifeguard is present.

    • Never attempt to swim against a rip current. If you find yourself unable to return to shore because of the speed the currents return to sea, stay calm, float and yell for help. If capable, swim parallel to the beach, once out of the current, return to land. Panicking in a rip current can quickly lead to poor decisions, physical exhaustion and drowning.

    • Use your available resources. Check sea conditions for your area before entering the water.

    • Wear a flotation device.

    • Always swim, surf, paddle, snorkel and dive within your limits.

    • Have a plan and let someone know where you plan to enter the ocean and what time you expect to return.

    • Consider your abilities as a swimmer, surfer, diver, etc. and plan your ocean recreation with a assessment of risk.

    • Use the buddy system at all times in the ocean.

    • Stay vigilant.


    Date Taken: 05.13.2024
    Date Posted: 05.22.2024 12:35
    Story ID: 471361
    Location: OKINAWA, OKINAWA, JP

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