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Jessica Shepherd, determined Marine, career counselor; at 31

By L. Finch
Globe Correspondent / September 6, 2011

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Former Marine sergeant Jessica Colleen Shepherd possessed a strength that went beyond her military training, her family said.

The Lexington native with a wide smile and a soft laugh was extraordinarily resilient, her family said, no matter if she was overseeing machine guns on Marine airplanes in Iraq during her two tours of duty there, or earning her master’s degree while pregnant and working full time as a career counselor while her husband was deployed in Afghanistan.

“The junior Marines immediately took to her because they knew that she would never lead them astray,’’ said her husband, Marine Staff Sergeant Brandon Shepherd, of Jacksonville, N.C. “She couldn’t be stopped, whatever she wanted to do.’’

Mrs. Shepherd, who helped evacuate residents in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and US citizens in Beirut during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, died of complications of esophageal cancer on Saturday at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. She was 31.

The cancer diagnosis, which came a few days after Thanksgiving last year, was a shock to her family and her doctors. Esophageal cancer is most common in men, in people over 60, and in smokers.

Mrs. Shepherd, who did not smoke, had given birth to a son, Keegan, four months before her diagnosis. She then experienced back pain, throat soreness, trouble swallowing, and acid reflux, her family said. Doctors initially dismissed the ailments as postpregnancy symptoms.

After she was diagnosed with cancer, Mrs. Shepherd soon replaced any self-pity with stubborn determination to fight the disease, her family said.

“She just said, ‘OK, let’s do it. Let’s saddle up and fight this,’ ’’ her husband said.

Described as a natural leader, she always strived to push herself to be the best she could be, her family said. While a student at Lexington High School, she helped organize the school’s first girls’ hockey team because she wanted to play, said her father, Edward Buckley of Londonderry, N.H. She graduated from the school in 1998.

Mrs. Shepherd attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh before transferring to Northeastern University to study international relations, her family said. She graduated in 2002 and earned a master’s degree in international relations from Webster University in 2010, they said.

She enlisted with the Marines in 2003 and was assigned to a squadron based in North Carolina until 2008. She deployed with the unit to Iraq twice, serving as a crew chief aboard a heavy-lift Marine airplane, as well as to Lebanon, the Gulf Coast, Pakistan, Kuwait, and various countries in Europe.

In the Marines, she met her husband, a door gunner who served in the same squadron. They both worked in the back of the airplane, spending 12-hour days together, he said.

They married in December 2007.

Though Mrs. Shepherd enjoyed her time in the Marines, her family said, her true passion was education. In college, she spent time in a small western city in China teaching English to children and adults.

After her enlistment was up, she became a career counselor in Jacksonville, N.C., first with members of the military at the Marine Corps Air Station New River base and later with military veterans at the Coastal Carolina Community College.

She was an avid reader, collecting bookshelf upon bookshelf of literature on foreign countries, her family said.

She also took to hunting and fishing after her husband introduced her to the sports. Always one to try her hardest, she caught a 26-inch red drum on her first fishing trip on the Atlantic coast. It was, true to form, larger than the fish her husband caught, he said.

She considered herself a Bostonian despite her North Carolina home, cheering on the Bruins and the Red Sox from afar. The Dropkick Murphys were one of her favorite bands.

Thanks to a donation from a Cape Cod woman, Mrs. Shepherd returned to Boston for medical care in December, her family said.

No matter how sick she became, she always put others first, they said.

“She was extremely loving and caring,’’ her father said. “She was just an outstanding girl.’’

A service will be held at St. Brigid Parish in Lexington tomorrow at 11 a.m. Visiting hours will be at Douglass Funeral Home in Lexington today from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.

In addition to her father, husband, and son, Mrs. Shepherd leaves her mother, Diana Buckley of Londonderry, and sister, Danielle Santos, of Jamaica Plain.

L. Finch can be reached at lfinch@globe.com.


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