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After experience in Iraq, retired soldier marks ‘Alive Day’

FARGO - Memorial Day and July 11, 2004, mark days of thanksgiving and remembrance for Jack Willson Jr. The 54-year-old retired staff sergeant with the North Dakota Army National Guard calls the latter his "Alive Day," or day he escaped death. On ...

Jack Willson Jr.
Jack Willson Jr. celebrates his Alive Day yearly but also uses the day to commemorate those who have died in combat. Carrie Snyder/The Forum

FARGO – Memorial Day and July 11, 2004, mark days of thanksgiving and remembrance for Jack Willson Jr.

The 54-year-old retired staff sergeant with the North Dakota Army National Guard calls the latter his “Alive Day,” or day he escaped death.  

On July 11, 2004, a roadside bomb exploded near Willson’s Humvee as it drove toward the Samarra bypass in Iraq.

The improvised explosive device wasn’t positioned to blow out like it was supposed to, which Willson says was a good thing. It blew upward, shattering the windshield of the Humvee but sparing his life.

Shards of glass and other debris pierced Willson’s face as the vehicle continued down the dangerous stretch of Iraq’s Highway 1.


Once he arrived at Forward Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq, Willson called in the incident and went on to his next task with the 141st Engineer Combat Battalion.

He’s humble as he describes the events of that day and repeatedly notes that his experience was “just part of the job.” No one else was injured from the explosion, and Willson received a Purple Heart medal for his wounds.

“All I got was glass and rock and debris in my face,” he says. “At the time, I was always in charge of my section, so I was worried about everyone else and didn’t even know that anything had happened to me at first.”

Nearly half a million service members have died in combat since World War I, and more than 1 million U.S. soldiers have been wounded in battle, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some reports suggest the number of soldiers injured in the Global War on Terrorism is 1 million. Official statistics from the Department of Defense list 52,010.

Though the couple weren’t married at the time, Willson’s wife, Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson, also was deployed to Iraq and remembers her husband’s Alive Day. She saw him walk into the operations center the day the IED exploded.

“He was still wiping blood from his face and telling us what happened,” she says. “At that point in our deployment, it was July, and in May we’d already lost two soldiers and had others who’d been injured, so you go about and do your job … it was just the situation we were in. He had all his limbs, and back to work we went.”

She can’t remember when she first heard the phrase “Alive Day,” but Wieser Willson has urged her husband to honor July 11 each year.


“Let’s mark this day and celebrate how fortunate we really are and use it as a moment to think about those who aren’t so fortunate and remember the lives that were lost,” Wieser Willson says.

The term was new to Willson.

“I know other people who’ve had similar experiences but don’t know to call it an Alive Day,” he says.

Some service members observe the day with family and friends or take a moment to reflect on their experience. For others, it’s a day they’d rather forget.

Willson thinks of it as another Memorial Day.

“It’s not so much a celebration of me surviving as a day to remember others,” he says. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Bradley J. Aune, a retired first sergeant with the North Dakota Army National Guard and the commander of the Fargo American Legion, experienced a few brushes with death during his multiple tours in Iraq but doesn’t observe an Alive Day.

“I’ve had some near-death experiences but never to the point where I thought I was going to be dead. I don’t celebrate an Alive Day because I had two or three close calls over there,” he says. “I did experience difficult days.”


When asked about specific experiences, Aune, 47, says he can’t think of them because “some of those things are kind of powerful.”

He honors Memorial Day instead, remembering his comrades and others who’ve sacrificed their lives in service.

“The main thing that I think people miss on Memorial Day is to honor the fallen – fallen military, fallen in service, whether in combat or peacetime,” he says.

Aune typically attends a Memorial Day event or has a moment of silence with his family to think about people he knows who’ve died in service.

“I know most people kind of consider it an extra-long weekend, but I’d like to see people make an effort to do something, whether it be a moment of silence or seeing family members at their graves,” he says. “Think about the sacrifice and freedoms the military has paid for in combat and otherwise.”

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