Even in her grief, Christine Bestgen was reminded of the reason that her son, Spc. Dennis G. Jensen, laid down his life over two weeks ago in Afghanistan.
Jensen, a South Dakota National Guard (SDNG) member, volunteered to deploy with another unit that was short of personnel. The 2009 Vermillion High School graduate was making his first deployment to Afghanistan when he was killed in a bridge construction accident.
Besides his mother, Jensen is survived by his father, Glenn Jensen of Yankton, and sister, Melissa Jensen of Minneapolis, MN.
Bestgen was making the trek across the state, from her home in Lead, for the arrival of Jensens body for Thursdays funeral in Yankton. She stopped for a short break at Wall Drug.
I was wandering aimlessly at Wall Drug. I didnt want to spend any money on souvenirs, she said. Then, I saw these keychains with Dennis Oct. 9 birthday on them.
Bestgen was stunned at the unexpected message on the reverse side.
I turned (the keychain) over, and it said, Oct. 9, democratic elections held in Afghanistan for the first time, 2004, she said.
Jensen had made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. His courage was mentioned several times during Thursdays funeral at the United Church of Christ – Congregational.
Jensen, 21, of Sioux Falls, was serving with the 200th Engineer Company. He died Aug. 16 from injuries suffered while working with bridge materials near Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
Jensen enlisted into the Guard in 2008 as a member of the 211th Engineer Company of Madison and DeSmet where he served as a combat engineer. He volunteered to deploy with the 200th in May as a bridge crew member in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Prior to Thursdays service, the Patriot Guard Riders stood in support at the familys invitation, and a row of flags lined the sidewalk.
Bestgen greeted people at the church entrance, thanking them for their support. Jensens flag-draped coffin stood in the entryway, which contained posters with a collage of photos from his life.
During the service, SDNG Adj. Gen. Tim Reisch spoke of Jensens adherence to the seven Army values. Jensen showed selfless service and remarkable personal courage, Reisch said.
Those who joined since 9/11 know there is a good chance they are going to combat, the adjutant general said. But very few would go to combat with another unit like Dennis did.
Jensens awards include the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, NATO Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon and the Army Service Ribbon.
The Rev. Joe Schulte, the Yankton churchs pastor, called Jensen a fighter in the best sense of the word.
(Jensen) has been a fighter from birth. He was born prematurely and weighed less than 2 pounds, and yet he survived, Schulte said. As a child, he fell and developed fluid on the brain that was a great concern. There were even thoughts of doing surgery. But Dennis body absorbed the fluid on its own.
Jensen fought to enter the military not only to benefit himself but also for others, Schulte said. Jensen showed that love for others when he would remain on the phone with his sister, who was feeling anxiety following her move to Minneapolis, until she fell asleep.
Jensen showed zest for a life that ended all too early, Schulte said. As his grandmother said, At least we had him for 21 good years, the pastor said.
Besides Bestgens greeting to the audience, Jacob Jensen offered remarks on behalf of the family.
Jacob Jensen told of the strong lifelong bond he shared with his late cousin. He described mischievous childhood moments ranging from kickball games to a fireworks experiment that went awry and required quick dousing.
But there were also serious moments, such as summer painting jobs that provided time for the cousins to discuss their Christian faith and spiritual development.
We ended up talking a lot about where God was in our lives and what Jesus meant to us, Jacob said of his cousin.
During a visit to their grandfathers house in Alcester, the two cousins spoke of Dennis military service.
I could tell he had a warriors heart, Jacob said. He had the desire, you could see it in his eyes. He had the focus and pride in the way he carried himself.
Jacob spoke of dreams that will now go unrealized with his cousins passing.
We were both meandering spirits. We bonded in lots of ways, he said. I looked forward to having him at my side when I got hitched some day, of getting old with him.
Jacob choked back tears, pausing before he spoke of his admiration for his cousin. Dennis was never taller than me, but I got to look up to him, he said with a smile.
The service included remarks from U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Americans enjoy freedoms because of soldiers such as Jensen, the senator said.
(These soldiers) are devoted to duty, honor and country. They go to faraway places like Helmand province, Thune said. Today, we say thank you the best we can.
Daugaard spoke of Jensens passing at a young age when so many years should have been ahead of him. Death comes quickly, and we all need to let others know at every possible moment how much we love them, the governor said, noting it would have been what Jensen wanted.
The entire state has felt the pain of Jensens passing, Daugaard said. We are all diminished, and South Dakota is less for his loss, the governor said.
Daugaard had ordered flags flown Thursday at half-mast in Jensens memory.
During a video tribute, the family mixed sobs with occasional smiles and soft laughter. During one tribute scene, Bestgen pointed and smiled at a man in the balcony, who returned the recognition.
Musical selections echoed through the church, filling the air with emotional moments. Kathy Koenig sang Ave Maria, accompanied by her daughter, Maureen Koenig McFarlane. During two other selections, five bagpipe players performed at stations around the sanctuary. For the final number, four bagpipe players exited as the remaining player completed Amazing Grace.
After the casket was removed from the church, Jensens family and friends, along with dignitaries, gathered on the church steps for the 21-gun salute and Taps. Besides Thune and Daugaard, the dignitaries included U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), First Lady Linda Daugaard and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels.
Following the Yankton funeral, the procession of family, friends and Patriot Guard Riders traveled U.S. Highway 81 to Madison, then to DeSmet and Pierre in recognition of his Guard units. Upon reaching Pierre, the Patriot Guard Riders were scheduled to drop out of the procession while the remaining vehicles proceeded to Sturgis.
Spc. Jensens interment was Friday morning in the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis.
During Thursdays service, Bestgen pledged her familys support for those in attendance.
We are a village, and our family understands that all of you are grieving, she told the gathering. If you ever need anything, our arms are open to you as well.