James was a Marine Corps infantryman stationed in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004. During a brutal firefight against radical Muslim insurgents in an abandoned schoolhouse, an insurgent grenade gravely injured a Marine in James’s platoon named Ryan Borgstrom. James volunteered to carry Ryan out of the building and down the alley to an awaiting medievac unit. That would mean carrying a 200-pound man in full combat gear 100 yards down a narrow, enclosed alley with insurgents perched in the second-floor window shooting down directly at them. But Hassell raised his hand immediately. “There was no hesitation,” Borgstrom recalls. “James looked at me, looked at everybody else in the room, and he said: ‘Get him on my back now.’”
As he prepared to leave the building and head into the volleys of enemy fire, James thought about a promise he had made to his mother when he’d first enlisted in the Marine Corps – that he would return from Iraq in one piece. During that momentary pause, James thought about his mother, his girlfriend, his life. “I was just thinking at that very moment: ‘It’s over for me,’” he said. “As I was standing there at the door with Ryan on my back, before they told me that they were ready to cover me, I was sitting there thinking that I told my mother: ‘I’m gonna come back.’ I thought about what she said: ‘There are a lot of guys who make those promises and they don’t come back.’”
James then carried Ryan all the way down the alley, dodging considerable enemy fire, to the medievac unit. In doing so, James saved Ryan’s life. “If he wasn’t there and hadn’t done what he did,” Ryan told me, “I wouldn’t have made it. I had significant internal injuries, I was bleeding out of the artery in my leg, and I can’t help but ponder what would have happened if he wasn’t there.”
For his actions in evacuating Ryan, Hassell was honored with a Navy Achievement Medal with Valor Device. Looking back on the evacuation, Hassell cited the incident as a defining moment in his life. “I never really imagined doing stuff like that. In that moment, I felt like a challenge arose and I stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning and I knocked one out of the park.”
James grew philosophical and introspective when discussing his military experiences with me. “It was a pleasure,” he said. “It was really a pleasure to have this country put their trust in me. That’s the way I look at it. I think that is the way a lot of Marines look at it. We’re saying ‘Thank you’ to this country. America is greatest power in the world and to be its protector? To me, that’s the ultimate honor. I can’t imagine any greater honor than being in the military and being able to serve this country. And on top of that, to be able to save a life and make a difference while you’re in the military, that is the icing on the cake.”
James left military service in 2008 and returned to his wife Sherryl and their young daughter in Orange County, California. He had met Sherryl in 2004, when he was 20 and she was just 18. He was from Birmingham, Alabama, and she was originally from the Philippines. “Although we came from different sides of the world, faith and God brought the two of us together,” he would tell her. “We’re soulmates.” They married on New Year’s Day in 2007. “I only did that because it would be a holiday,” Sherryl says, “and he wouldn’t forget our anniversary.”
On January 22, 2009, almost exactly two years later, they welcomed a beautiful daughter named Katelyn. Although James was a tough infantry Marine with combat experience, he had a real soft spot for his daughter. “He always made sure to protect us,” Sherryl said. “He loved Katelyn so much. He enjoyed going to her ballet dance practice. He was always supportive. I finished nursing school because I had him as my support system.” James also graduated from nursing school in July 2013 and looked forward to a great career helping others.
But, on September 2, 2013, James collapsed suddenly in his kitchen. He died in the hospital days later. He was only 30 years old.
But James was not done helping people. He had volunteered to be an organ donor, and following his death, at least three of his organs, including his heart, were transplanted into needy patients. Even in death, Sherryl says, James Hassell was a hero.
After James’s sudden and tragic passing, his unit – First Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, Charlie Company – came together to support Sherryl and Katelyn. “His death brought the Charlie 1/4 together again,” Sherryl says. “Now we’re like family. Katelyn calls all James’s military brothers her uncles.”
“Katelyn is exactly like her dad,” Sherryl says. “She’s outspoken, intelligent, and is unselfish. She loves to help to out. She plays the piano. Her dad always loved music. He loved to dance. He was a very out going person and very outspoken.”
Most of all, James was a very unselfish man. “What I learned from him was that, in order to be a hero,” Sherryl says, “you must be willing to sacrifice many things.”