MORRISTOWN - Five years ago, Staff Sgt. Jesse Ault gave his life for his country. On Tuesday, Ault's family and friends joined state and local officials to give something back by naming a stretch of Interstate 70 in his memory.
"This truly is the land of the free because of the brave," said Dave Phillips, Ault's brother-in-law, while welcoming a crowd of spectators to the dedication of a roadside marker along the eastbound on-ramp at exit 208.
Ault - who was raised by his father, Ron Ault, and mother, Virginia "Ginny" Ault Billiter, for about 10 years in Middlebourne - graduated from Tyler Consolidated High School in 1998. He completed his first tour with the 82nd Airborne Unit of Fort Bragg, N.C., then joined the Virginia National Guard, where he met and married Sarah Elizabeth "Betsy" Allen.
Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough
Belmont County Honor Guard member Robert Farmer Jr., left, folds the flag that concealed the sign marking a portion of Interstate 70 in memory of the late Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Ault. Looking on are Ault’s father and stepmother, Ron and Debi Ault.
Ault was living in Virginia with Betsy and their family when they received word that Betsy would be deployed to Iraq. Rather than send the mother of their children - infant daughter Rachel, 2-year-old son Adam and 10-year-old stepson Nathan - into the line of fire, Ault insisted on taking her place and returning to Iraq himself as part of the 429th Brigade Support Battalion of the Virginia National Guard.
Phillips said Ault was completing what was to be one of the final missions of his second tour on his father's birthday - April 9, 2008. He was traveling to Baghdad in an Army convoy when the vehicle in which he was riding struck a roadside bomb.
Phillips said it is believed the impact of the explosion caused the 28-year-old Ault to go into cardiac arrest. He died as a result; the three other occupants of the vehicle survived.
Ault is one of 53 people killed in the line of duty to be honored by Ohio House Bill 325, which designates sections of highways across the state in their memories. Dave Schafer, Belmont County manager for the Ohio Department of Highways, said the 5-mile stretch of roadway extending east and west between exits 208 and 213 was the first in the county to be so dedicated.
And ODOT will have a memento of the occasion: After the flag covering the memorial sign was removed and properly folded by the American Legion/VFW Honor Guard, Ault's father and stepmother, Ron and Debi Ault, presented the flag to Schafer.
Jesse Ault's uncle, Tim Ault, began seeking the highway designation about 15 months ago. He spoke Tuesday of his family's loss and of the new and different emotions they now experience when they see an American flag or hear the national anthem.
"The flag escorted Jesse home from Iraq. That flag was on his coffin when we laid him to rest. It flew at half-mast the day he was killed. Every time I look at it, memories of Jesse come flooding back," Tim Ault said. "Now I see a father, my brother, who misses his son ... and I look to his strength to comfort me.
"Every time I hear the national anthem, I have to hold back tears," he continued. "Before, it was just a prelude to a game. Our family now has a connection to it that is different."
Phillips agreed the family shares a bond with others who have lost loved ones serving in the military. He said the signs posted at exits 208 and 213 are not just there to honor Jesse Ault - instead, he said, they honor the sacrifices of all men and women in uniform, past and present.
Ron and Debi Ault lived in Bethesda when Jesse Ault was killed, they have since moved to Loomis, just east of the village of Belmont. Family members said they chose the Belmont County site to honor Jesse Ault's memory because of the warm reception they received upon moving to the area.
Members of the crowd - including Ault's aunts, uncles and cousins, Legion and VFW members from Barnesville, St. Clairsville, Hannibal, Flushing, Belmont and Bridgeport, and dozens of Patriot Guard Riders who arrived on their motorcycles waving American flags - wiped tears from their cheeks during the ceremony.