Jason Shipton left for his second deployment as a U.S. Marine about two weeks after he and Amanda Shipton married in 2004. They were engaged six weeks, but they saw no reason to wait.
“We just didn’t want him to leave with anything left unsaid,” Amanda said.
They said more hard goodbyes over the next 10 years, when Jason deployed again to Iraq and later to Afghanistan.
“We both knew that he would face combat and that not everyone that left was coming home,” Amanda said.
They decided early on they’d be open books to each other, and they focused on making memories with their growing family between deployments.
It was shortly after returning from Afghanistan in 2011, while Amanda was pregnant with their youngest of three sons, that Jason was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he likely had two or three years left to live.
Jason outlived that prognosis, but Oct. 28 in Casper he died at the age of 37, having fought brain cancer for the past year. He is remembered for serving his country as a Marine, and for serving everyone in his life — at church, anyone he encountered who needed help, and most of all, his loved ones.
“I don’t think words can say what he was to me and the boys,” Amanda said. “Our world is definitely a little darker. We’re going to do our best to keep his light burning bright.”
Fighting with faith
Jason and Amanda met at Casper Church of Christ when they were both about 12 and his family moved from Alaska back to his native Wyoming.
They started dating when Amanda was living in Laramie after graduating from the University of Wyoming. She visited home the same weekend Jason returned from his post-deployment leave in 2003, after his first tour in Iraq. He told her he’d wasted enough time. He had decided at 14 he’d marry her someday, he said.
They married in July 2004. His career took them from Twentynine Palms, California, to Quantico, Virginia, where their first son, Caiden, now 11, was born. Jason was transferred to Camp Pendleton in California and deployed to Iraq for his third tour when Caiden was about a year old.
Hudson, now 8, was born in California and was around 8 months old when Jason left for for his fourth and final tour, this time to Afghanistan.
He returned in mid-2011, and soon their youngest, Sawyer, now 6, was on the way.
Just weeks after they found out Amanda was pregnant, she got a call that her husband had had a seizure at work. He was diagnosed with a grade three malignant brain tumor and underwent surgery to remove the tumor, followed by a year of radiation and chemotherapy.
But his doctors said there was a high chance the cancer would return within five years and that he likely had two or three years left. He tried every way he could to stay in the Marine Corps, but it wasn’t allowed because of his diagnosis, Amanda said. He was medically retired in 2013 after more than 10 years as a Marine.
The family moved back to Casper, where Jason worked for Baker Hughes. For six years, he had an MRI every three months, and they all came back clean.
“We kind of had passed that five-year mark and were just very hopeful that maybe he was that small percentage that it wouldn’t come back,” Amanda said. “But we always knew that the odds of it coming back were very high.”
Her husband called from the doctor’s office last October and said, “I think you should come down here,” Amanda recalled. “This time the scan wasn’t good.”
They both knew it may not end the way they wanted, Amanda said, but he said “Let’s do everything we can.”
Jason again had surgery to remove what they could of the cancer — this time a grade four tumor — and chemotherapy. They tried every treatment possible, even traveling nearly every week from December to March for a clinical trial at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.
Just as he had the first time, he remained calm and assured through the battle, Amanda said.
“He’d say it to me a thousand times, over a thousand different situations: ‘It is what it is,’” she said. “He never really stressed out, he never got anxious, he was never angry.”
Some of it was his personality.
“And I think he was rooted in his faith,” she said. “Even when life deals you those tough blows, you lean in and you lean on God; he’s going to work it out.”
Some of it, too, was his desire to set an example for their children.
“His thing was always that kids are going to learn how to handle adversity not by anything that we say,” Amanda said, “but by sitting here and watching us handle adversity.”
“Jason fought like the warrior he is,” she wrote in his obituary, “and he did it with a smile on his face and peace in his heart that God’s plan is perfect even if the ending wasn’t what he wanted.”
Amanda knew Jason was respected in his military career, but he was never comfortable talking about his medals and awards, she said. Several people she’d never known who’d served with him, though, have written her about how he inspired, led or helped shape them.
“But it’s just been so soothing to hear those stories, though,” Amanda said, “that other people saw the greatness that I saw.”
Sky Redmond, who served with Jason in Afghanistan in 2010-11, recalled in a message to Amanda that he was younger than Jason and they almost never agreed on anything.
“But when the dust settled I looked up to this man, he reminded me a lot of my dad, his drive was unmatched and I tried to match it, but always failing…” he said in the message. “He will be missed, and I know those boys were cut from the same piece of iron Jason was.”
Zach Brown, who served under Jason in an Iraq deployment, also wrote to her.
“I was one of the more rowdy Marines that didnt (sic) quite always keep my nose clean nor did I always pay as much attention as I should have, but Jason never gave up on me,” he said in a message. “... We have all in some way been motivated by him, his leadership style and the way he went about conducting business. He always put the guys in our platoon first and made sure we had the tools to succeed, even if some of us didnt seem to grasp it at the time.”
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Jason was never too busy to help others, and several friends he’d served with over the years confided in him and looked to him for emotional and spiritual support in tough times, Amanda said.
“I think he was just genuine,” she said. “They knew that they could come to him and he was completely non-judgmental with whatever it was you were going through. And he’s just one of those people who if he saw a need it was like, ‘OK, what are we going to do? How are we going to help meet this need?’”
Friends, family and a love story
“Staff Sgt. Jason Shipton went to work,” Amanda said. “Jason came home. And he was the one I was married to and our daddy.”
Jason didn’t talk much about combat with her, though he’d tell great stories about the culture, the weather, the people he met and his fellow Marines, Amanda said.
“I think that was just part of him is he always found the joy or the positive in it, and so that’s what he chose to share,” Amanda said. “And I think even his own mind, that’s what he chose to park it on — the time with his comrades, of growing closer with them over there and bonding and the silly fun that they would take part in just to unwind and de-stress. And those are the things that he shared.”
He attended military funerals for friends, but Amanda stayed behind -– they were too much for her, she said. But he asked her to join him for the funeral of one close friend. It wasn’t one he could do alone.
She asked him after the service at Arlington National Cemetery why he didn’t talk more about combat and some of the friends he lost.
“Because it’s just a darkness I never needed to bring home,” he told her. “It wouldn’t feel good to sit there and fill your head with things that I got to protect you and the kids from.”
Jason’s loved ones were on his mind throughout his service in the Marines and even with his decision to join, his best friend Billy Bright said. They met in church when Jason moved to Casper and considered each other brothers. They were roommates while attending Oklahoma Christian University when the news came Sept. 11, 2001.
“He and I watched together our country being changed forever with the terrorist attack on 9/11…” he said. “And that event impacted everybody, but it really impacted him deeply. I guess I would say that was a big part of what drove him, and his love for his country and family and friends, that he thought that he needed to do something about the threat that America faced, is what urged him into enlisting in the Marine Corps.”
It meant a lot when Jason took the time to call from Iraq, Bright said, that he was still thinking about his friends and family at home while fighting for his country.
“Faith, family, friends, country — that’s what was important to him,” Bright said.
Jason was always ready to help anyone, whether it was a work or personal matter someone told him about, said John McNabb, who worked with Jason at Baker Hughes. He’d tell them if they did everything right and stayed calm and positive, it would make that problem that much better, McNabb said. He excelled at work from the time he started as an operator driving truck and was promoted to technician, and everyone had plans for him to move up, McNabb said.
He learned so quickly that training him was disappointing, McNabb joked.
“Jason would be standing there, and you’d get to the next point and he’d have the correct wrench in his hand already handing it to you,” he said. “He just absorbed everything like a sponge.”
Jason’s friends and family recalled he loved the outdoors and Wyoming. He never even wanted a job where he would have to be inside, Amanda said, and he’d tell her about how pretty the snow was after a winter day on a job site.
“His best days in the Marine Corps were when he would go on the field for two weeks and come back filthy and stinky and dirty, and he was like, ‘Man that was fun,’” she said.
He helped her embrace the outdoors and took her on her first hunting trip after moving back to Wyoming.
What he called camping — backpacking, sleeping in tents and catching their own food — Amanda called surviving, she said, laughing.
“So we compromised, and he learned to use a camper,” she said. “They have become some of my favorite memories.”
When he wasn’t at work, Jason didn’t want to be anywhere but with his family, Amanda said. He hunted elk every year but said he didn’t enjoy it as much because he wanted to be with his boys when he was outdoors.
While he loved the outdoors, both were also homebodies, Amanda said. Some of their favorite times were just around the table for dinner or sitting outside in the summer while the kids splashed in the pool, she said. He liked to take the kids to the park, bike ride or play fetch in a field with the dog.
Jason always had a contagious smile his friends and family remember, as well as a really loud laugh.
“And even if it wasn’t funny, you laughed,” Amanda said. “His laugh made you laugh. And a lot of times it wasn’t funny.”
Because of Jason’s time in the military, the Shiptons knew the value of living in the moment even before his diagnosis.
“That was just kind of how we lived our life,” Amanda said.
In Jason’s last weeks he lost the ability to speak words. But he’d still flash his big smile.
“It lit up a room,” Amanda said, “and it melted my heart.”
He’d grin and give a wink when his eyes met his loved ones.
Jason never was a man of many words, Amanda said. But he left behind memories and an example of humility, love and faith through adversity — and nothing left unsaid:
“He never missed an opportunity to say, ‘I love you.’”