Clayton Jensen, Kamdesh, Afghanistan, 2007.
Meet U.S. Army Master Sergeant (Retired) Clayton Jensen.
On the day Clay was born in 1976, his family gathered around his mother’s bedside to meet their new baby boy. As they did so, a hospital cleaning lady, known by the staff and patients for espousing gypsy-like prophecy, entered the room.
When the woman laid eyes on Clay Jensen, she provided a proclamation. “This is the year of the boy. Boys born this year will be going to war!”
Throughout his childhood, especially on holidays and get-togethers, Clay’s family would affectionately remind him of his birth omen. Clay’s Mom, Doris, would also remind him of his patriotic debut as a “bicentennial baby.”
Clay grew up in a neighborhood known locally as The Avenues of Marshalltown, Iowa. Nestled between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and surrounded by cornfields, the city of 25,000 is largely blue collar.
Clay’s Dad was a Lieutenant at the fire department and carpenter on his days off. His mother was a nurse specializing in trauma, psychiatric, and elderly care. His parents separated when he was 6 years old and Clay effectively grew up flowing between two households, never farther than eight miles apart. His parents made do financially, often working nights and weekends.
As a result, Clay was a “latchkey” kid.
Independent in his personality as well as the realities of his environment, Clay learned to cook his own meals and hold his own with the older kids while caring for younger siblings. Clay-the-boy wandered creek beds and timberland with his brothers and best friend, developing a love of the outdoors. He’d regularly camp out under the stars, even on school nights. Summer jobs involved helping his Dad on a construction site, handing him tools and learning carpentry, and mowing lawns in the neighborhood.
Clay, in his soccer uniform, fishing with his Mom, Doris. The Iowa River, 1984.
Sports were a cornerstone of Clay’s childhood. He and his brothers were soccer fanatics. So much so, they sometimes shoveled winter snowfall off their Iowa backyard to make way for matches. Clay’s Dad had to replace the chain link fence in the backyard, not once, but twice, because his sons destroyed the metal links with thousands of shots on goal.
When it came to school, Clay had developed an early reputation for acting out, pestering his peers and teachers with sophomoric behavior. Everything from spit wads to kicking the person’s chair in front of him.
Despite his seemingly lackluster attitude, Clay would turn in math tests before everyone else without a single error. Same with reading comprehension. Peers and teachers, early on, realized that the blonde-haired kid from The Avenues, who was always causing a ruckus, actually was scholastically gifted.
He was also very bored.
Woodbury Elementary teachers not only diagnosed his innate academic abilities, they decided to challenge Clay in other ways to keep his attention. One teacher, Mr. Bill Wilson, took an interest. Bill was fostering a Marshalltown ‘sister’ relationship with a Japanese city. He had begun teaching himself the Japanese language with a small group of other men. Clay was brought into the fold, and began learning Japanese while still in elementary school. Clay would spend most of the school day one-on-one with Mr. Wilson. They studied astronomy, physics, and history throughout his grade school years. Clay would get unique opportunities to display his talents, including participating in and winning a high school science fair, as a fifth grader. Clay had designed a heated wiper blade for winter driving.
As a teenager, Clay found himself a last-minute selection to the U.S. Junior Olympic soccer team. The kid from Iowa, who had never even been on an airplane, found himself traveling internationally to Tokyo. During the tournament, he stayed with a Japanese host family. By the second day of his travels abroad, he was holding conversations with his hosts in their native tongue. Jensen San may have been a young teen from Iowa who could swing a hammer on a building site and play ball with all the older kids at the soccer club - but he also clearly understood Japanese.
By the time his junior year of high school rolled around, Clay was increasingly looking at the military as a career. He was a jock with a love for the outdoors and had little interest spending time in a college classroom. He began meeting with Army recruiters, inquiring about the Army’s Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP) and career tracks to become a Special Forces Medic.
Clay had already achieved a perfect score of 36 on his ACTs as an eighth grader.
Now a high school senior, Clay's Dad sat him down to talk about his future. Recognizing his incredible scholastic talents and fearing the ‘what ifs’ that might visit his son should Clay completely bypass college, Mr. Jensen countered with a proposal. Clay could take an academic scholarship to Iowa’s private Wartburg College and play soccer. If after that first year, Clay wasn’t enjoying it, he could join the Army. With Dad’s litmus test, Clay could also join the Iowa National Guard to help hedge against some of the school costs not covered by his scholarship.
In 1996, the summer after high school graduation, Clay joined the Iowa National Guard. The young man who was once so easily bored in the classroom began to “get it” in terms of the practical application the military provided. He liked being in the field.
Private Jensen. U.S. Army Basic Training photo.
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1996.
At Wartburg College that autumn, Clay regularly cut class. Showing up really only for tests and to play soccer, he managed a B average. At the end of his Spring semester, it was no surprise when Clay told his Dad he was done with college and was joining the active-duty Army ranks.
“I figured as much,” his Dad responded with a smile.
When the Army recruiter reviewed Clay’s test scores, he convinced Clay to sit for the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. Clay easily displayed his propensity to learn foreign languages. To this day, Clay praises the recruiter for helping to steer Clay towards a military intelligence career which congruently suited to his spectrum of talents.
“I owe that guy a beer….” is how Clay describes the Army Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) who walked Clay through the career track of a Signals Intelligence Electronic Warfare Cryptologic Linguist. Clay was being put on course to become a member of a Special Operations Team - Alpha (SOT-A).
The Army’s SOT-As perform a critical function of low-level signals intercepts. They are tasked with quickly deriving enemy intelligence and advising a select few conventional and mostly special operations units in on-ground and aerial missions. In his new occupation, Clay would be able to employ both brains and brawn at the proverbial “tip of the spear.”
Clay shipped off to Airborne School and then the Defense Language Institute for Spanish. Clay chose Spanish as it offered the most opportunity to support missions in Latin America and would be more useful when he eventually got out of the military as the demographics of Iowa were changing. After acquiring his language in Monterey, California, Clay went on to West Texas to learn about employing sensitive intelligence equipment in the field.
By 1998, 21 year old Clay Jensen reported to Fort Bragg and signed into an intelligence unit with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was quickly deployed to the Caribbean and South America.
Clay at Fort Bragg, outside his barracks, returning from the field, 1999.
In the mid and late 90s, whether it was Ecuador or aboard a Merchant Marine surveillance vessel in the Caribbean, Clay was in the constant presence of covert professionals while “tasked out” to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and "other" government agencies.
The War on Drugs at this time was still in full, albeit covert, swing and the young Spanish Linguist and SIGINT’er was in high-demand. As a fairly green paratrooper, Clay was receiving mentorship from senior Warrant Officers and Sergeants Major, as well as “others” who make up the U.S intelligence apparatus abroad. He was honing his intelligence trade on watercraft and in the jungles amidst the most seasoned warfighters and intelligence professionals on the planet. They were simultaneously delivering devastating blows to drug cartel kingpins. Clay realized he had found his calling.
By 2001, Clay had managed to complete his Bachelor's degree from Creighton University, taking full advantage of the Army’s early distance learning program. The Army would continue to offer non-traditional means of higher education for Clay. He would take full advantage, eventually earning two more degrees.
When 9/11 happened, the military was forced to pivot focus towards rooting out Al Qaeda on their turf. Clay’s Low Level Voice Intercept (LLVI) team, which was part of the 82nd Airborne, was immediately deployed to Afghanistan to support special operations moving into Tora Bora.
Wearing plain clothes and running missions out of a Toyota Hilux pickup, Clay was part of the very first U.S. elements moving into Afghanistan. The trip would be short, but within a few months, he was back in Afghanistan for several more months running missions out of Khost Province on the Pakistan Border. Clay and teams were interdicting weapons and conducting direct action missions against the Taliban, denying a safe haven to Al Qaeda.
By 2003, Clay found himself in Iraq for the initial invasion. He rode in an open-air German equivalent of a Stryker from Iraq’s western border all the way to Baghdad. A month later, he was back at Fort Bragg, gearing up for additional trips to Central Command’s Area of Responsibility (CENTCOM AOR).
The irony of “coming home” for Clay and so many intelligence operators of the GWOT, really meant an uptick in specialized training throughout the United States. Clay found himself attending everything from Strategic Debriefer training to Sniper School, and advanced tradecraft courses in between deployments.
The initial counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and the counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq revealed that Signals Intelligence teams were in extremely high demand. On-ground Commanders needed teams that could not just collect intel, but advise on the next operational steps to protect their troops. SOT-A teams, in turn, needed the soft skills to adapt to the cultures of both special operations and conventional units across the services - and to do so at a moment's notice.
A seasoned warfighter by this point, Clay departed the states for his 2nd Iraq tour in July of 2003. His wife, Alli, was 5 months pregnant with their first child. Clay was part of a mini-strike force made up of special operators, intelligence-gatherers and the 82nd Airborne Division's Long Range Surveillance Detachment.
The unit ran a steady slew of direct action missions going after the infamous “deck of cards” Ba’ath party members throughout Central Iraq. These men had long brutalized the Iraqi population and Clay and his unit were kicking in doors and pushing themselves to their operational limits to roll them up. Clay operated out of what had been one of Saddam’s resort complexes where many senior Ba’ath Party members had onced vacationed. “Living on a lake was the only nice thing about Iraq” is how Clay summarized the surreal experiences of the early Iraq War.
Skirmishes in the city of Fallujah in August of 2003 had begun to pick up. Much of the unrest was directly attributable to Al Qaeda factions under the command of Abu Masabl Al-Zarqawi. Commanders decided to push Clay and his unit west to the Euphrates River to support ops intent on convincing the area’s powerful Sheiks to support coalition efforts.
On October 14th, 2003, members of the 82nd Airborne staff met with Sheikhs inside a compound near the Euphrates River. Conducting overwatch on top of the building, Clay and his team became uneasy as they watched a stream of trucks and vans approaching the compound late in the afternoon.
Within a matter of seconds, insurgents began pouring out of their vehicles and directly engaging Clay and his team on the rooftop. It was unlike anything Clay had witnessed in warfighting up to this point. This was a highly coordinated attack. Small arms and rocket propelled grenades were pummeling the walls of the building beneath Clay. Then, enemy mortars began falling on the compound. Clearly, the insurgent’s attack was designed to shake all conviction of the Sheikhs meeting with U.S. counterparts inside.
Laying in the prone position returning fire amidst the onslaught, Clay hadn’t even noticed the sniper round pierce his shoulder. The Dragunov round excised a large piece of his right clavicle, and was now embedded in between his ribs. Clay continued to check on his fellow soldiers as his right arm remained limp at his side. It was then that a soldier had to tell Staff Sergeant Jensen that he had been shot, blood visibly spurting from his shoulder and soaking his uniform. Clay was in a state of adrenaline-induced shock, completely unaware of the gravity of his injury.
Clay moved to the inner portion of the building where he found his platoon leader. The young Lieutenant carried Clay through mortar fire to a MEDEVAC humvee. His fellow soldiers hastily applied a field dressing, but Clay was in trouble. By now, the sun was disappearing and giving way to night. Clay was considered “Urgent Surgical,” meaning if he didn’t get to a trauma team, he was going to bleed to death.
Clay’s ambulatory humvee was racing down the highway to the Combat Support Hospital as Clay faded in and out of consciousness. Ironically, amidst a shortage of night vision goggles, the policy of the unit was to allow the senior man, in this case a sergeant in the passenger seat, to wear Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). The driver, in blackout conditions, was without them and was essentially driving blind. Clay was jolted awake when the humvee plowed into the back of a National Guard convoy.
Luckily, depending on how you evaluate the situation of Clay’s MEDEVAC vehicle rear-ending another vehicle, the field ambulance was still drive-able. The crew, banged up from the accident, proceeded on to the aid station. Wheeled into the operating room, Clay was no longer conscious.
When he came to hours later, Clay was groggy but stable after life-saving surgery. According to the medical team, Clay was considered “gone” for eight and a half minutes only to be brought back by those who refused to give up on him.
Happy to be alive and processing the very surreal evening, Clay was greeted by his Brigade Commander. The Colonel was holding an Iridium Satellite phone. Apparently, a war reporter had captured footage of Staff Sergeant Jensen being assisted out of the compound in the previous day’s melee. The Army’s fear was Clayton’s cameo on CNN would reach his wife before any official notice could be given.
“Call your wife” was the officer’s pointed instructions as he pressed the phone into Clay’s chest. Clay dialed his wife, who was at-work in North Carolina.
Fallujah, Iraq, October 15th, 2003.
This photo of Clay was taken the day after being shot by a sniper.
His wound had been closed by a medical team after repairing his brachial artery.
Eight and half months pregnant, Alli listened in horror as Clay informed her that he had been shot. As is the case with many spouses of service members wounded in combat, there is a fear that the soldier will downplay their injuries. Clay was certainly glossing over the extent of his own brush with death. Alli wouldn’t know the full extent of the situation for many years.
The stress brought on by the news of her husband’s condition, had her white-knuckled and sleep-deprived for a week. Doctors decided to induce labor due to her declining state.
Clay sat in recovery in Fallujah when he heard the news that he was a father.
Rather than going home to heal, Clay remained under observation for nearly 30 days. He was “Returned to Duty” and his deployment would continue for another five months in Fallujah and the surrounding Sunni Triangle. He endured many more perilous days of fighting before finally returning home.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2004, the 82nd Airborne Division hosted a Video Teleconference (VTC) for several of the new fathers in the unit. Designed to be a morale- booster, this was an opportunity for the soldiers to speak with their wives and see their young babies.
It would not go as planned.
Traveling from Fallujah to Ramadi to attend the VTC, Clay and his convoy were ambushed on the roadway. Without any serious injuries, the soldiers would eventually make it to Ramadi, but were delayed by an hour and half.
Waiting outside the Division’s teleconference room in Ramadi, Clay and a group of soldiers were standing in the sunlight waiting to enter the building. It was then that an Iraqi trash man, contracted by U.S. officials to remove the Camp’s waste, approached the group of soldiers. The Iraqi man was holding a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) bag and he appeared to want to give it to the soldiers.
Camouflaged in the MRE bag was a crude explosive.
Likely coerced by local insurgents to carry out the suicide attack, the sanitation worker detonated the bomb about 30 feet from Clay. At least five American soldiers, including Clay sustained injuries, none of which were life threatening. The suicide bomber was killed instantly.
A piece of the iconic Tabasco Bottle, that miniature glass bottle that is found in literally every MRE, was found sticking out of Clay’s shin. Needless to say, the teleconference home to families in North Carolina was canceled.
Clay would have to wait until St. Patrick’s Day, a month later, to finally see his wife and hold his baby boy, Blake, now almost six months old.
Upon his return to the States, Clay learned he had been selected for promotion to Sergeant First Class. After a wild seven years on active duty, Clay requested to be assigned to 7th Special Forces Group as a SOT-A team leader.
Warfare was too addicting by this point. Clay was serving with great people and he wanted more. More training, more intelligence skills, more chances to prove himself and to work with his brothers in arms.
For the better part of the next decade Clay would find himself “gone” in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan with Special Forces Teams, conducting national level intelligence operations in Latin America, or training at home and abroad. After his son was born, Clay was only home for a total of 13 months, non-consecutively, over the next five years. Blake’s fifth birthday would be the first one spent with Dad.
In 2005 and 2006, Clay would spend a full year in Columbia supporting a very unique mission. Two years earlier, a group of four Americans and a Columbian, aboard a single engine airplane, crashed in the jungle of Southern Columbia. All crew members survived the crash and were then captured by guerilla communists, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). The U.S. pilot and the Columbian were immediately killed execution-style by guerillas. The remaining crew would spend the next five years as prisoners to the rebel group deep in the Southern Columbia jungle.
Clay playing soccer with indigenous children in Southern Columbia, 2006.
Clay spent more than a year supporting the U.S. efforts to locate the Americans’ whereabouts. For Clay, the work felt personal as one of the captives had once taught Clay as an intelligence soldier in-training.
By the time Clay left South America in 2006, a small group of Americans and Colombians had made considerable progress in developing intel that would eventually lead to the crew’s successful rescue in 2008.
Clay, at work in Columbia, 2005.
In the late spring and summer of 2007, the height of the Afghan Surge, Clay endured a particularly surreal series of events, in rapid succession, that would forever alter the course of his life. They transpired, as they have for many veterans of the GWOT, in the rugged and majestic Hindu Kush Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan.
During the Spring and Summer of 2007, Clay was operating mainly out of Firebase Naray. A waypoint for seasoned fighters moving into and out of Pakistan, Firebase Naray, was located at the edge of Kunar Province, in near proximity to the Pakistan border. *Of note, many Afghans - as well as some Americans - colloquially refer to Kamdesh District as belonging to Nuristan Province. In 2001, the Afghan Central Government officially realigned Kamdesh District from Nuristan to Kunar Province.
Surrounded by 12,000 foot mountain passes, the Naray Outpost was a premiere target for Taliban insurgents eager to shake the conviction of its inhabitants. Clay and his Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) teammates of Green Berets were actively hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in unrelenting terrain. One of their adversaries included the infamous Ahmad Shah and his fighters.
Shah was responsible for one of the deadliest events of the Afghanistan War, the shootdown of a Chinook Helicopter, Extortion 17, in the Shuryek Valley of Kunar Province in 2005. 19 Americans, including Navy SEALs and members of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), had been killed.
Nightly, the SOT-A and ODA team received a sort of “dinner bell” alarm in the form of enemy rockets and mortars shot at them from the towering ridgelines. Outside and inside the wire, it seemed like everything was trying to kill Clay and his teammates.
On May 5th, Clay and his teammates found themselves in a dismounted firefight in the Kunar River Valley. Hunkered behind a small boulder, Clay peered over the rock attempting to get a visual on his attackers. It was at that moment that a round from a PKM (a Russian belt-fed machine gun) struck him square in the helmet. Clay was temporarily concussed, “seeing stars.” Miraculously, the round did not penetrate the kevlar.
Clay, above the Kunar River in Northeastern Afghanistan near the village of Bari Kowt.
Picture taken during a mission to locate mortar teams firing at outposts in the valley.
Beyond him, over left shoulder and across the Kunar River, is Pakistan.
On May 28th, Clay was temporarily pushed to Regional Command South as an individual replacement to a Special Forces team that had lost a soldier. Two days later, May 30th, Clay found himself on a helicopter leaving Kandahar Air Base enroute to Helmand Province as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in support of a “Fallen Angel.”
The catastrophic event involved the shoot down of a Chinook (CH-47) Helicopter that claimed the lives of seven NATO soldiers, five of which were American. It was suspected, based on witness accounts and later covered in depth by The Guardian, that the aircraft had been taken down as a result of shoulder-fired missiles.
As Clay and team came on station, they immediately began identifying Taliban members in-wait who were responsible for engaging the Chinook and Apaches earlier. Clay and team notified Apache crews of the aggressors’ presence and the gunships were cleared to engage the targets, effectively annihilating the Taliban fighters and a chilling anti-aircraft threat.
Clay in a UH-60 Blackhawk, 2007, during an aerial reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan.
On July 20th, back in Kunar, Clay and his SOT-A team found themselves conducting an aerial reconnaissance mission into the Kamdesh district. For nearly three weeks every U.S. helicopter that entered the Northeastern Kunar River Valley and its ancillary Lunday Sin River Valley, and had either been fired upon or hit with ground fire from a large anti-aircraft gun.
As a result, multiple outposts were now in danger of failing to receive much needed aerial resupply. The enemy had been positioning a Soviet anti-aircraft gun throughout the region, moving the weapon piece by piece with the help of donkeys to different mountain ridgelines to engage U.S. helicopters.
In light of the existing threat, Clay’s SOT-A element was given what seemed to be a great opportunity. Intelligence had been pouring into Afghan and U.S. channels about the presence of a very High-Value Target (HVT), a senior Al Qaeda leader, moving freely through a series of safe havens in Nuristan. He and his entourage were reportedly dolling out weapons, money, and training to Taliban Commanders at the height of the fighting season. Rarely, did such a high-level terrorist venture west into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The goal of Clay and his team’s aerial mission was to drum up enemy movement using a UH-60 Blackhawk, of which Clay was a passenger peering out the open doors.
This tactic was a bit of a bait and hook attempt. The presence of helicopters would certainly alert the on-ground Al Qaeda security detail and make them uneasy. Best case, the enemy might take pot shots at the U.S. aircraft. If they did, two escorting Attack Helicopters, AH-64 Apache Gunships, trailing the Blackhawk, could then positively identify hostile fighters and take them out with pinpoint accuracy.
Well into their aerial mission, the pilots relayed to Clay that they had enough fuel for one more pass through the valley. With few opportunities to stir a senior Al Qaeda leader on the Afghanistan side of the border, Clay gave the “go ahead” for a final push.
As the Blackhawk moved forward in front of their Apache escorts, the enemy opened up on the aircraft from multiple positions. They were being engaged with small arms, RPGs, and a Soviet, dual-barrel, Anti-Aircraft gun.
Shortly after being hit with an array of small arms fire, an explosive munition hit the tail wing, or stabilator, of the Blackhawk. The helo was violently pitched forward. Through the front windshield, Clay and the other eight crew members received a full and haunting view of the raging river directly below them.
Miraculously, despite the damage, the pilot was able to steady the airframe, leveling the bird to the horizon. According to the pilot, the bird was flyable, however, they needed to quickly get to the nearest outpost to fully assess the damage.
Small arms fire continued to ping off the Blackhawk as the pilot calmly relayed his status to his fellow Apache pilots. By this point Clay was firing his weapon out the open doors of the helicopter, focusing his fire on enemy muzzle flashes on the nearby ridgeline.
Then, Clay recognized a distinctive and dreadful smoke trail originating from a mountain side. This was a fast-moving, second projectile and it was coming skyward directly towards Clay and the aircraft. Like something out of a movie, Clay watched as the munition entered the open doorway past his face and punched a hole vertically through the Blackhawk’s cabin ceiling below the main rotor. Shrapnel, pieces of rotor and aluminum, peppered the passengers throughout the cabin. Friendly munitions stored within the aircraft were now “cooking off.” The interior of the bird was effectively on fire. At this point the aircraft began an increasingly rapid descent, no longer flyable.
Clay was coming to terms that he was facing his mortality. He was in a Blackhawk Helicopter that had been hit not just once, but twice, by suspected enemy missiles in a far corner of Afghanistan. The bird was in a semi-controlled descent to the valley floor hundreds of feet below them. They were surrounded by enemy fighters and sheer cliffs.
Clay decided at that moment to fix his gaze at the horizon. He wanted his last earthly view to be one of the beautiful Hindu Kush Mountain range and the blue sky backdrop.
Somehow, the Blackhawk pilot was able to keep the bird level against all odds. He was able to ‘hard land’ the bird on a narrow grassy patch that ran parallel to the valley’s river, directly across the water from a stone building, the Miradesh School. As the airframe impacted the ground, the crew and gear were tossed violently, the seats collapsing beneath them.
Amidst the adrenaline and coming to terms with the fact that he had survived something that should not have been survivable, Clay wasn’t really able to grasp the extent of his injuries from the crash.
Beyond the piece of shrapnel in his leg, Clay would later learn he had fractured both elbows along with his T-6 vertebrae upon impact. His kidney was partially ruptured from the blunt trauma of a knife handle on his kit that buried into his side. But it was yet another blow to his head that would prove most challenging in the long term.
Clay’s UH-60 after ‘hard landing’ near the Miradesh School in Kamdesh, Afghanistan on July 20th, 2007. The photo was taken by a soldier of Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment who was part of the initial recovery effort. Unable to traverse the Landai Sin River, the Platoon provided protective overwatch of the downed aircraft and crew from the Miradesh School grounds. Clay can be seen hunkered off the right front nose of the aircraft behind a boulder. The crew, having moved into cover, have multiple wounded soldiers from the impact, and are awaiting extraction by a rescue Blackhawk.
Of all nine crew members that survived the crash, a similar string of injuries were common and would endure for the months and years to come. Seven of the nine crewmembers were eventually medically reclassified or retired from the military due to injuries stemming from the fateful day.
But for Clay, and so many of his teammates, you play hurt. Like his SOF brethren, Clay pushed through his pain. He received Toradol shots and popped oral painkillers.
He went back to work - and there was plenty of work to be done.
Two days later, Clay was back in a helicopter, hovering over the July 20th crash site providing overwatch. He was part of the recovery effort to sling load the battered helo out of the valley helping to prevent it from being exploited by the Taliban for a propaganda victory.
10 days later, Clay and another of his SOT-A teammates were sent on an ad hoc mission back to Kamdesh. This was perhaps the most sacred of missions in the U.S. military - a “Duty Status - Whereabouts Unknown,” or DUSTWAN mission.
Clay and his team were tasked to locate and recover a U.S. soldier, a Cavalry Troop Commander, who had been killed in an intense firefight earlier that day.
The mortally wounded officer had fended off one of the largest scale Taliban attacks on U.S. ground forces in the Afghan War. Not only had he repeatedly suppressed a multi-phased, three pronged attack with indirect fires and coordinated airstrikes, he personally had placed himself between the Taliban and his troops-in-the-open to ensure their continued ability to maneuver. His last act on earth was engaging the enemy before he was mortally wounded by an RPG. Eventually, the Army would acknowledge the soldier’s heroism, awarding him, posthumously, our nation’s second highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.
But on the 27th of July, 2007, his body was believed to be in the hands of the enemy.
Once on the ground, Clay’s team helped locate the position of the officer’s remains in a cave on a nearby mountainside. It was being guarded by three armed Taliban members. Once Clay and his teammate began moving their way up the mountain side, the Taliban fighters began engaging them with small arms from the high ground.
Fighting up a mountainside, the U.S. element reached the mouth of the cave as the Taliban fighters fled. Clay would discover the body of the U.S. soldier and help pull him out of the cave. Clay and his team would then return the man’s remains to his troops.
Clay in Kamdesh District, near the village of Kamdesh, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
This photo was taken July 28th, 2007, the day after Clay and his team recovered the remains of a U.S. service member from a cave, guarded by Taliban insurgents.
Clayton’s deployment - the highs of combat and heartache of loss - would only continue in the coming weeks.
On August 12th, Clay was in an overwatch position in the Tora Bora mountains conducting support to his team of Green Berets when tragedy struck. Watching another ODA infil their positions mounted in humvees, Clay looked on with dread as the lead vehicle struck an IED. One of his close friends was killed in the blast. Two other Special Operators and a civilian interpreter were also killed. It was gut wrenching.
Two weeks later, on August 31st, Clay along with his Special Forces element, Afghan partner forces, and helo crews from the 82nd Airborne Division, were summoned for a mission to the village of Pittigal, Nuristan.
A large IED cache was suspected to be in the valley. From this safe haven, insurgents were facilitating an increasing number of attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces throughout Eastern Afghanistan.
Under the cover of darkness, Clay was aboard yet another Blackhawk enroute to a mountain objective. On aerial approach, the pilot observed the originally planned landing zone was obstructed. Not wanting to impede the inflow of more soldiers behind him, the skillful pilot landed the UH-60 aircraft - on a single wheel - on top of an Afghan home.
As Clay and team jumped to the roof they were immediately greeted, in the form of small arms fire, by Taliban fighters who were running from the building on which they were landing. Clay and team returned fire as their boots hit the roof, neutralizing the immediate threat. Operation Serpent Surprise was underway.
For the next several hours the teams fought through and cleared three villages. The U.S. forces discovered and destroyed a large IED-making facility as well as a horde of communications equipment staged for use by the Taliban.
Though never photographed, accounts of the single-wheeled landing of a Blackhawk on the roof were forever captured in a painting entitled NO SAFE HAVEN by Artist Larry Selman.
The mission was an enormous success.
When Clay returned to the states in 2007, the physical and psychological effects of combat were now starting to show - and at least to Clay they were recognizable. While he could still physically perform soldier tasks, he felt increasingly foggy in his cognitive capacities.
The guy who had scored a perfect score on his ACTs was now feeling scattered. He was struggling to concentrate and complete basic functions around the house.
Cleaning dishes in his kitchen, he would turn to put a plate away, only to fall flat on the linoleum floor. In attempting to drink a glass of water, neuropathy from the injuries to his elbows would cause him to lose his grip, the tumbler swiftly falling through his fingers. It was as if his internal wiring was malfunctioning.
Multiple blows to his head - as a young paratrooper, being shot in the kevlar helmet, enduring countless blasts in close proximity, and surviving a helo crash - were taking a cumulative toll.
In 2007, the military was still very much in the learning phases of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). No one really knew how to properly diagnose, let alone treat such injuries amidst the backdrop of grueling year over year deployments. Additionally, injuries not seen, often come with a stigma. Amidst amputees, burn victims, and friends visibly scarred by war, Clay considered himself lucky.
While at home Clay fended off a medical board that would have easily removed him from the Army. He convinced medical staff that his injuries, many of which were sustained in the helo crash, were improving. For Clay, the idea of returning to theater, being amidst the camaraderie of his teammates was uplifting to his spirits.
He was eager to prove himself and take care of unfinished business. In 2008, Clay Jensen deployed yet again with his SOT-A to Afghanistan.
Master Sergeant Jensen, Team Leader for an Advanced Collection Team near Torkham Gate. Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, 2008.
In the first few weeks on ground in-country, Clay and his SOT-A team again found their services in high demand. He was dispatched across the country augmenting strike teams wherever needed.
In early July, Clay was attached to a Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) unit sent to patrol the Iranian border. Their missions were to interdict weapons coming into Afghanistan.
As they approached an objective in Farah Province, Afghan Border Patrol soldiers, American Allies, opened up on their position in an incident of friendly fire. After repeated notifications to their Afghan allies that they were indeed friendly forces, an AC-130 gunship airstrike was eventually called in on the border patrol’s hostile position.
War is an ugly thing, and to many of the elements on the ground that day, they wondered if the attack on U.S. forces was somehow caused or exacerbated by insurgents influencing the border patrol ranks. An investigation ensued, fully clearing the QRF of any wrongdoing in directing the strike.
On July 18th, 2008, Clay experienced yet another catastrophic event of the Afghanistan War - the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Wanat, in Nuristan's Waygal Valley.
Clay and his team were summoned from Jalalabad as part of a QRF to reinforce Chosen Company from the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Nuristan’s Waygal Valley. On approach to battered Outpost Kahler, Clay watched enemy fighters egressing the area on goat trails.
The outpost, still in the process of being built, had been attacked from multiple positions with a ground assault that started in the early morning, at 4:20 a.m. For hours, the camp, composed of less than 50 American soldiers faced an onslaught of an estimated 200 Taliban fighters from the high ground all around them.
And now, after a day-long firefight, nine Americans were dead and countless Taliban bodies dotted the valley. Again, Clay and his team would provide overwatch protection and critical targeting intelligence. They would then assist in the recovery and extraction of U.S. service members’ bodies.
It was a hellish scene.
60 days into the deployment, Clay realized cognitively and physically, he was in trouble. To anyone on the outside, Clay could still perform functions of shooting, moving, and communicating, but his cognitive abilities to operate technical intelligence equipment and to recognize time sensitive information, had deteriorated.
The longing to want to stay in the fight was being directly challenged by the reality that if he were to miss something critical on the intelligence front, it could lead to catastrophe for him and his teammates. Guilt gripped Clay and he knew it was time to reveal the full extent of injuries to his leadership.
Clay went to the Ops Center and found his Sergeant Major. The senior enlisted leader listened closely as Clay conveyed his limitations. The Sergeant Major’s response was compassionate.
“Clay, I am amazed you held on this long.”
In a mix of emotions, Clay was dispatched back to Ft. Bragg to initiate medical board proceedings for a second time. This time he would not fight it.
In June of 2010, after nearly three years enrolled in the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Fort Bragg, Master Sergeant Clayton Jensen was medically retired from the Army. He had spent over 14 years on active duty.
With some physical and mental rehab completed, Clay’s retirement was short-lived. He signed on as an intelligence contractor supporting U.S. operations abroad. Clay would again be supporting the GWOT, as a civilian. This final stint of work would last a year before Clay decided he was truly done.
In Clay’s career, he’d spent over 1,600 days in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d spent another roughly 700 days in Latin America where the danger was just as real. Throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and “from Arizona to Argentina” Clay had dedicated his life to the service of others and the protection of his teammates. From his time overseas Clay was awarded several medals including the Bronze Star with Valor and two oak leaf clusters, as well as three Purple Hearts.
But there are three accolades that are near and dear to Clay.
- A challenge coin presented to him by a U.S. Intelligence Agency. Clay’s work in Columbia in 2005 and 2006 helped lead to the recovery of three American government contractors who were held captive by The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas for 1,967 days. Clay dedicated a year of his life to capturing and refining intelligence that would lead to their rescue.
- A pair of Gold Combat Spurs awarded to him for his efforts in recovering a fallen soldier's remains in 2007. It was a rare and humbling gesture for a non-cavalry soldier to receive the Spurs. Reflecting on the events from 2007, Clay is succinct. “I’m not the hero, I just got to help bring one home.”
- A plaque telling the story of Clay’s helicopter crash in Kamdesh, Afghanistan in 2007. Clay, despite a severe concussion and his physical injuries, ensured all personnel and sensitive equipment were loaded onto their rescue helicopter and not left to the enemy for exploitation. The plaque now hangs in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer Academy’s Hall of Heroes.
In 2011, now 35 years old, Clay and his family returned home to Marshalltown, Iowa. In many ways, Clay began one of the most challenging and fulfilling chapters of his life.
He was thankful to have survived the events of the GWOT, and he was making up for lost time with family. He was blessed to welcome another son and baby girl to his family. He coached youth soccer for nearly a decade. He even found himself recruited as an ad hoc Spanish interpreter for immigrants moving into Marshalltown for work opportunities. Clay volunteered and enjoyed translating treatment options to Spanish-speaking parents at the local orthodontics clinic.
Post-military, Clay and his family have dealt with, and will continue to deal with, a menagerie of service-related physical ailments as well as Clay’s brain injury. Surgeries and physical therapy ensue in cycles. For his head injury, Clay has tried hyperbaric oxygen treatment for migraines and even traveled to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, the world's premier brain center, to undergo specialized treatment.
He is making consistent progress year over year.
He is very thankful for both his Veteran Affairs (VA) and civilian clinicians, a network of nonprofits, and loved ones that have encouraged him every step of the way.
Clay is the first to admit, it has not been easy to be on the rehabilitative path.
He and his family have endured divorce and like many families that have been engrossed in the GWOT and its aftermath, his kids have shown tremendous resilience. Talking with Clay, it is very clear he is in awe of his children’s dexterity.
A soldier’s post-service days can prove psychologically challenging.
Perhaps the best analogy for someone who hasn’t served in the military or in the war-time realities of the GWOT, is that of an Olympic athlete suffering an injury. The person is unable to participate in the single event that, for so many years, brought them foundational purpose.
Clay has been on elite teams his entire career and he competed in the high stakes arena of counter-terrorism operations. He had honed his craft and was performing in life and death situations when it mattered, when he was at his pinnacle. For years, Clay had put his comrades first. His paramount mission, his priority intelligence requirement, was one of “Force Protection.” He found great pride in alerting his unit to the next enemy action.
Clay also carries with him the loss of friends. Two men, in particular, have stayed with Clay.
Staff Sergeant Paul Johnson had been with Clay in his earliest days with the 82nd Airborne. The paratrooper was killed in Fallujah, Iraq by an IED in October of 2003.
Staff Sergeant Jessie Clowers Jr., a Green Beret with ODA 741, was killed in Khogyani District, Nangahar Province in August of 2007. Jessie, too, was mortally wounded by an IED. Clay and Jessie had become close over the years, and had spent time together in the 82nd’s 313th Military Intelligence Battalion in the early 2000s. Jessie had also been in Afghanistan in the earliest phases of the war, including Tora Bora.
The events of his wartime service have forever changed Clay, and their impacts are still evolving. Compounding that challenge for Clay and other GWOT veterans, is that unlike conscripted realities of wars past, the smaller, all-volunteer force exists often post-service, in a state of seemingly persistent un-relatability.
Relatively speaking, there is only a small pool of veterans today that have experienced the continued optempo of year in and year out warfare, the kind that spans decades. For them, there was no parade down 5th Avenue to ceremonially mark the transition to life’s next chapters.
Yet, through it all, Clay has been surrounded by people who have endured and even entered into his life through its most difficult chapters. He is incredibly thankful for their presence and support.
Exploring his creative outlets, in 2017, Clay began taking photography classes through the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program at his local community college. A retired soldier with a love of the outdoors, Clay began exploring his local environment like he once did as a child.
These days, you are apt to find Clay, as he describes it, “out patrolling.” But he’s traded in his rifle for a Nikon camera.
Over 100 days a year, you will find Clayton Jensen driving his Jeep Wrangler out on gravel roads to Midwestern wetlands and nature preserves. Clay’s version of “physical therapy” is paddling a kayak.
The kayak and vehicle rack were graciously gifted to him in 2013 by The Catch A Lift Fund; a charity whose purpose is to keep warriors mentally and physically fit. The non-profit was established by a Gold Star sister, Lynn Coffland. The organization went out of their way to ensure Clay could find an activity that resonated with his limitations and complimented his love of the outdoors.
Clay will slowly push the kayak out into the water to find the perfect spot to sit and simply “be” in nature. His shoulder, the one struck by a sniper’s round in Fallujah, begins to loosen with each stroke. As the sun wanes in the afternoon sky, Clay finds the perfect light.
Clay has photographed thousands of resurgent wildflowers, waterfowl, and other forms of wildlife occurring in their natural habitat throughout Iowa. He has become an advocate for reducing commercial farming pesticides that once devastated much of the local flora and fauna over the course of the 20th Century. One of his favorite subjects to photograph is the Bald Eagle, now returning to Iowa. The majestic animal was once decimated due to unregulated DDT use.
The moment Clay and his family crossed the Mississippi River returning to Iowa at the end of his intel career, he witnessed a Bald Eagle gliding over Interstate 80. He had never seen an Eagle as a kid in his home state.
It was the best ‘welcome home’ an Iowa veteran could receive.
Photo of a Bald Eagle by Clay Jensen, near the Iowa River, 2021.
Clay discovered an Eagle’s nest, in 2017, while kayaking a backwater creek along the Iowa River. He has been chronicling the Eagle family, including its two “toddlers,” with stunning photos ever since.
Clay has shared his breathtaking photography with the Marshall County Conservation Commission and his local chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America - both of which he has served as a board member.
His photos have been featured in periodicals that promote wildlife conservation as well as articles highlighting the benefits to mental health that is provided by spending time in nature.
Great Blue Herron, Hendrickson Marsh, Iowa, 2020. Photo by Clay Jensen.
Swan, Green Castle Lake, Iowa, 2018. Photo by Clay Jensen.
When I asked Clay what advice he might have for veterans after their service, or for people in general, his response was on-point, provided in a manner only a senior NCO can deliver.
“Find a new purpose that motivates you. That’s what most of us are missing anyway. Don’t wait for life to get better. Make it better. For some of us every day is a battle. It’s hard, but staying positive and searching for beauty in the world has kept me going. Replace the bad with good.”
Clay, with his Nikon Camera and Jeep Wrangler.
June 23rd, 2021. Hendrickson Marsh, Iowa.
The kayak and it’s vehicle rack were provided by The Catch A Lift Fund
I want to personally thank my friend Clayton Jensen for sharing his story, the story of his comrades, his home, and his family.
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