By: Sam Boykin
Marine Cpl. Jesse Lopez was driving an armored Humvee through the dangerous streets of Fallujah, Iraq, when he spotted something that just didn’t look right.
Lopez and his three passengers were in the middle of an eight-truck convoy conducting a reconnaissance mission as part of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq following 9/11. Several of the trucks in the front of the convoy had communicated to the rest of the platoon that there was a young boy riding a bicycle. As Lopez rumbled forward, he spotted the bicycle on the side of the road, but the kid had vanished.
“Suddenly I had this really strange, sinking feeling,” Lopez said. “I drove the vehicle to the opposite side of the road to get more distance from the bike, and that’s when it went off.”
A 12-pound bomb strapped to the bicycle detonated, sending red-hot shrapnel into Lopez’s Humvee, burning and cutting his neck, face and head.
“For the most part, it was pretty superficial,” Lopez said.
The rest of the platoon wasn’t so lucky. Lopez’s best friend, and the vehicle’s gunner, took two pieces of shrapnel to either side of his spine and the back of his neck. Another soldier was knocked unconscious while the fourth had a big gash on his leg.
The air was filled with smoke and debris from the explosion, and Lopez could barely see as he maneuvered the Humvee out of the blast zone. The rest of the platoon soon came to their aid, providing medical care and taking Lopez and his men to safety (everyone eventually made a full recovery).
Lopez received a purple heart for the 2004 incident, which happened during his first deployment to Iraq. Less than a year later, he was back in the war-torn country on his second deployment, this time to Haditha.
Lopez enlisted in the Marines in 2001, four days after graduating from high school. He was in boot camp when the 9/11 attacks happened.
“I wanted to do something that mattered,” he said. “I wanted to push my own limits. I had always heard the Marine Corps was the toughest branch of the military, and I wanted to prove myself—to be part of the best.”
Lopez ended his 15-year career with the Marines in 2016. He said that while his time in the military was incredibly rewarding, it was also filled with tragedy and sadness.
“It was pretty heavy,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends.”
After he left the military, Lopez and his wife settled in San Antonio, seeking a good place to raise a family. While unsure what he wanted to do next, Lopez was confident that the skills he acquired in the Marines—including managing hundreds of Marines—would serve him well.
First, Lopez earned an associate’s degree at Northwest Vista College and then transferred to Texas A&M San Antonio in 2019, where he’s been very busy.
With a desire to help other veterans and their families, Lopez helped rekindle the A&M-SA chapter of SALUTE, a Veterans National Honor Society, which helps student veterans and active military improve their GPAs and advance their academic careers. He also helped kickstart the A&M-SA chapter of Student Veterans of America, a higher education advocacy organization for veterans.
“Both chapters hadn’t really been active since 2018,” he said. “So I’ve been on a journey to get those organizations started back up, and we’re finally getting some traction. Starting in the fall semester both chapters will be active.”
In addition, for the past year, Lopez has worked as the marketing manager at the Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement. He is scheduled to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. He already has a job lined up as a central regional manager for the Travis Manion Foundation. The nonprofit develops programs, training opportunities, and events designed to empower veterans and families of the fallen.
As successful as his transition to civilian life has been, Lopez said that, like many who served in the military, he struggled with his identity. He was no longer an active member of the Marines, and at the same time, he didn’t feel like a typical college student. But his experiences at A&M-SA, especially his involvement with SALUTE and Student Veterans of America, have been a big help.
“You’re trying to figure out who you are, and it can be isolating,” he said. “But in talking with other veterans, you quickly realize they’re going through the same thing, and you don’t feel alone anymore. And eventually, you get a clearer vision of your life and where you want to go.”