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How an Air Force unit looked out for their own, even after she left the service

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 2008, Jessica Israelsen was living through one of the most difficult periods of her life. She was raising three young children, going to college, and serving in the U.S. Air Force as a medical technician.

Then, in September of that year, a family member died by suicide. Israelsen was devastated. So in December, she made the difficult decision to leave the Air Force.

"I went to my commander and I just said, 'I can't do this any more,'" Israelsen recalled. "'I gotta get out. I'm overwhelmed and I need a break.'"

But one thing she didn't have to worry about was Christmas. For several years, members of her unit had pitched in to buy Christmas gifts for her family. And that year, even though Israelsen had decided to leave the military, they still chose to help.

A few days before Christmas, Israelsen got a knock on her door. It was her supervisor, Master Sgt. April Shy, holding the presents in big, black bags.

Israelsen had always felt close to Sergeant Shy, so seeing her there that day was especially meaningful. Sergeant Shy had been the first person in the military to make her feel like she belonged.

"She was like the mom for me in my unit," Israelsen said. "And so I remember that she didn't have to say very much to me. She just kind of hugged me and told me, 'This will pass, it will get better ... And I'm so glad that we could help you again one more time for Christmas.'"

Israelsen hopes that one day, she can be a Sgt. Shy for someone else.

"Because it changed my life," Israelsen said. "It has reminded me of the core value of the Air Force, which is service before self."

Today, Israelsen still works in health care, as a medical scribe. She said that now, whenever she comes across another veteran, she goes out of her way to support them, the way her own unit supported her.

"I let them know they're not alone ... that we can get them feeling better," Israelsen said. "I honor them when I take care of them. They deserve it. They deserve that respect."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday and Thursday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.