‘Facing Stigma’ with Jack J.

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“My father was in the Army during the Second World War where his unit fought out of New Guinea in the Philippines. Everybody in his generation fought, which was a good thing because that generation managed to save the world. I always felt that it was my obligation to serve, and that everybody who lives in a free country owes it something in the form of service. Once I graduated high school, I went to Rutgers to take part in their ROTC program. My thought process was to join the Army for three years and then get out and go to law school. After graduating and joining the Army, I fell in love with the service element and the people I served with. I’m something of an extremist in certain regards as well so when I joined, I chose to be an advisor to the infantry units and wound up getting deployed two different times to Vietnam. The first time I was deployed to the Kien Phong Province in March 1968. We decided to mount this big operation shortly after landing; however, the bad guys had a spy in the province so they knew we were coming and had three days to prepare. We walked into this enormous ambush and were under intense fire from an entrenched Viet Cong force. Our company commander was disabled and our unit became disorganized due to heavy casualties. I was wounded myself from mortar fragments but took command of the company and ordered a withdrawal to a more secure position. I didn’t want to leave any of our wounded men behind so I returned a number of times under heavy fire to get our wounded commander and twelve others. I was promoted to captain and received the Medal of Honor shortly after, but I felt like I just did what any of the other men would have done in my position. If somebody else were in the same situation, they’d do it for me. If you talk to anyone who’s been in combat, they’ll tell you the exact same thing.

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Once I was released from the hospital, they sent me to Ft. Banning where I commanded an OCS company. I was then sent to graduate school for two years and upon completion, I requested to teach at West Point. I was told I needed to wait because they wanted me to do a short tour in Korea. I asked to be sent back to Vietnam if I was going to be deployed again because you get extra duty pay for combat zones and I had two kids at the time. They agree and sent me to Saigon to do a desk job. As soon as I got to Vietnam, I picked up the phone and called the Airborne Advisory Team and started talking to an NCO in hopes of talking to a senior advisor. The unit was in the middle of combat so he was the only one around. I told him I wanted to come join their team and luckily he had a friend in the orders section that was able to change my orders so that I could join them in their fight. I obviously couldn’t get away with doing that stuff now, and even back then once the Army found out they were less than pleased. Nevertheless, it was too late and I had already joined the Airborne Advisory Team. The second deployment was just as kinetic as the first one, but it was fought in a much more conventional way. Similar to us, the enemy had tanks and artillery so we were in contact continuously the entire six months I was there. I was at a party when I got home and was approached about a job opportunity by a Marine who had also served in Vietnam. The money was significantly more and I had expanded my family so I reluctantly retired to pursue that venture. It was easier for me to transition out with the opportunity I had, but I know a lot of people who have struggled with it.

When you’re in the military, you’re all brothers and sisters relying on one another and taking care of each other. When service members exit that environment and realize they’re on their own, it’s a difficult situation to navigate. I got lucky, but a lot of others aren’t so lucky. When the post 9/11 wars kicked off, I was approached by MSNBC to be a correspondent because they knew it would mostly be fought on the ground. They wanted somebody who had fought on the ground and knew what is was like so I’ve been on ever since. I think it’s been even tougher on this generation than mine because this is a volunteer force now and there’s such a small percentage of individuals who are serving. In my generation, most households made a contribution to the defense of our country, but most Americans these days don’t have a direct connection or know anybody in uniform. It’s easy to get out and find yourself on an island because it’s harder to find people who have had a similar experience to you. With a smaller population of individuals serving, it’s understandable that they would deal with more mental health issues having shouldered a larger burden of a longer war. I try to help out and mentor as much as I can because I think focusing on this generation of veterans and giving back to them is important. We should let them know we appreciate their contribution because I know that what I’m the most proud of is having served at all. Nobody likes getting dragged through the mud or getting shot at, but when you look back on it you realize what a unique contribution you’ve made just by wearing the uniform.”

To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Jack, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/

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Healing the hidden wounds of war

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