First Sgt. Landon Jackson opened his gun case. It was a small case, nothing fancy; inside, a loaded pistol waited. His hands shook as he inserted the key into the lock. Around him the house was silent, echoing, empty but for the dog. Everyone was at work or school and he was just supposed to drop something off. It was his first time home in weeks, the first time since his wife, Sarah, had thrown him out. After years of verbal abuse and terrifying rages that were rapidly escalating, she had finally had enough.
“I saw my wife’s clothes hanging up in the closet and saw all of the kids’ stuff in the house,” he remembered. “It’s kind of like here’s this perfect life, but you can’t have it anymore.” He had thrown it all away. “I just started feeling like, ‘Hey, I’m done. I’m going to quit.’”
His family, he reasoned, would be better off without him. “I had done so much wrong and I had been such an a-hole that I was almost like, ‘They’ll be relieved.’ His own son was terrified of him, his wife disgusted. Still, he didn’t want them to walk in the house and find his lifeless, bloody body. He would have to go out to the woods behind their property.
Still, as Jackson put that key in the gun lock, something stopped him. Somewhere, deep down, he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. He knew his wife and kids would still be devastated. Their lives would be shattered. His children would be traumatized. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t turn the key.
Road to the Army
Jackson’s life hadn’t always been a disaster. He had, by his own account, a “pretty great” childhood, idyllic, even, with church every Sunday and lots of sports and outdoor play. “I never got in any trouble or did anything completely outrageous. Me and my friends were always looking for an adventure to get into, but not trouble, just exploring type stuff, going into the mountains and finding snakes and things like that.”
After a short stint as a cook during and after high school in the mid 90s, Jackson had no idea what to do with his life. Culinary school didn’t appeal and he wasn’t ready for college, so when a friend told him he was going to visit a recruiter, he thought, “OK. The Army sounds cool,” especially when he qualified for explosive ordnance disposal school.
Sure, blowing stuff up sounded cool, but he also wanted to help people. He liked the “idea of being able to eliminate explosive hazards, not just on the battlefield, but in public, and hopefully make the world a safer place. That’s kind of been my passion and the reason I keep doing it.”
Jackson met Sarah in the barracks at Fort Carson, Colorado. He was 22 with one peacetime deployment to Kuwait already under his belt and she was 18 and a private. They were next-door neighbors, and if it wasn’t precisely love at first sight, it was close. They eloped after only five weeks. Their first child, Jared, was born just under a year later and Sarah got out of the Army.
“You can know somebody for 10 days or you can know them for 10 years and it’s kind of a 50-50,” Sarah mused. “I think you are who you are and you have your values and you have your beliefs and you’re going to fight for your marriage or not.
“He’s a very good-looking man. I still think that to this day. He was just such a genuinely nice guy. Living right next door to each other, we were able to spend a lot of time together. … It was so sweet. He kind of just randomly as we were driving down the road goes – it was like he was figuring it out in his head, like he didn’t mean to say it out loud. … It was so genuine and honest.”
This June marked their 16th anniversary.
The first heartache
Their marriage was tested almost immediately. Jackson had already volunteered for another deployment, but with a new wife and a baby on the way, he was torn. He didn’t want to leave Sarah, but he had given his word and he never, ever broke his word. His team leader refused to let him go through with it, however.
That team leader never came home. Together with two other EOD Soldiers, a Special Forces medic, an Airman and a New Zealand soldier, he was killed when a Navy plane mistook its target and dropped three bombs on their area in March 2001.
Jackson knew all three of the EOD Soldiers, and even gave his son the middle name Richard after his lost team leader. “I would have been there and I would have died right along with them. … I think about it every day,” he said.
“He struggles with a lot of guilt,” Sarah explained. “I would have been a widow at 19 at my husband’s funeral, seven months pregnant. It just changed a lot of perspective and things for us.”
And then 19 terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and crashed another in Pennsylvania — the world changed forever. Jackson didn’t know it yet, but as an EOD Soldier, he would find himself at the forefront of this new type of war against terrorism and its signature, deadly weapon: the improvised-explosive device.
His first deployment to Afghanistan came in 2002, with a second in 2004. A couple of years as an EOD instructor gave him a brief hiatus and then he was back in the sandbox, Iraq this time, in 2009, then Afghanistan again in 2011.
“It was just devastating to the family,” said Sarah of the back-to-back deployments. “There was no end in sight. They came back and you were happy for a day, but inside you were secretly like, ‘OK. Let me get the countdown going for when they leave again. … You just sort of were in survival mode.”
Now Jackson is the first sergeant for the 55th EOD Company at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a nondeployable position thanks to the 55th’s role in protecting the National Capitol Region and even the White House. It’s a plum assignment, basically as good as it gets for a senior EOD noncommissioned officer. The job has given Jackson more time to spend with his family, but the down time has also let a lot of long-buried issues bubble to the surface.
Looking back, Jackson realized that some of those issues actually date from his first combat deployment in 2002. While it wasn’t as bad as later deployments and the IEDs were comparatively juvenile, it still had “some intense moments.” And when he got home, he slept a little less and his temper was a little shorter.
Things got worse when he returned to Afghanistan in 2004. There were more IEDs that deployment, and bomb makers were starting to get good. One mission in particular, called in by the infantry, sticks with Jackson. This was before EOD units had small, extremely portable robots so “you basically just had your hands-on stuff: ropes and hooks.” The work had to be done up close.
The device was remotely controlled, and as Jackson and his team tried to disable it, the unit interpreter monitored the radio. “They were basically talking on their comms about how they were attempting to function the device while we were working on it. He tells us this after the fact. I’m like, ‘Oh, thanks. Maybe you could have yelled at me while I was down there working.’ They said something along the lines of, ‘That’s OK. We’ll get them later.’” And indeed, more IEDs lay in wait for the Americans. One finally got them the next day.
“We were just riding in the back of Humvees,” Jackson remembered. “This was before we had the armored Humvees. … We got hit with an IED and small arms fire, which resulted in multiple casualties. It was the truck in front of us that went up. … It was catastrophic.”
There was nothing Jackson could do to stop it, and it was horrifying to watch. It was so awful in fact that like a horror movie stuck on repeat, the images have never gone away. Even after two more deployments and countless blasts, Jackson can’t forget, “probably because that was the first really catastrophic situation I was in, where people were really messed up and died.”
Other scenes haunt him, too, not just the explosions, but their aftermaths. EOD Soldiers, Jackson explained, not only defuse and detonate bombs, they also have to investigate blasts, determine what type of explosive was used, what sort of device, the blast radius, etcetera. And in the process, they must somehow cope with the sight of bloody, maimed bodies over and over again.
“The thing that really sucks about our job is we have to do post-blast analysis,” he said. “There’s times when there’s local nationals and children. Children are the worst. We lost a child in Afghanistan. He was in a minefield. … We were trying to get to him, but we weren’t able to.
“There are so many times that you wish or you think that maybe if you were a little bit faster or maybe taken a little bit more of a chance – that’s something that’s tough. It doesn’t matter how much good you do. It’s the one or two times when you’re like, ‘man, if I had done this a little bit different, I could have made a difference.’”
Then came Iraq. Jackson was a platoon sergeant, so he spent less time going out on missions. In many ways that was worse. Mosul in 2009 was tough, kind of like al-Qaida’s last stand and his guys were out there without him, facing large, vehicle IEDs. “What they were making was unreal. We’re talking some up around 5,000-pound explosive weight. They would just take this large truck, like a dump truck-size vehicle, and just ram into either our bases or convoys and just take out whoever. There were some really nasty post-blasts. … I think it was more stressful with the thought that at any minute one of my teams could get hit and be injured or killed. That was much more stressful than being out there.”
“As the months went on,” Sarah remembered, “there was just sort of less and less of him there when he would call. It was like he was getting more and more depressed. It was becoming harder and harder for him.”
It wore on him, and like previous deployments, the stress didn’t go away when he got back to Fort Carson. “I came back from that deployment really on edge, I think, just from being at such a high anxiety level for so long, just worried about my guys.”
Crashing and burning
Jackson was anxious in crowds when he returned, “jumpy” as Sarah said. Jackson had always talked in his sleep, she explained, but now he was screaming through vivid nightmares. He was angry all the time, to the point that Sarah insisted he visited behavioral health.
Jackson grudgingly went, but “just sugar coated everything,” he admitted, explaining that he preferred to believe he was invincible, that getting help wouldn’t be “macho.” He also feared for his job and his security clearance. So the doctor, who hadn’t heard everything, “was just like, ‘OK. That doesn’t sound too bad.’” Jackson was fine, he could go back and report to Sarah.
But he wasn’t fine and things only got worse after yet another deployment.
His symptoms multiplied. Driving became an ordeal – for Jackson and his passengers – as other cars and litter on the road made him extremely nervous. His anxiety was almost crippling and crowds became overwhelming. His short-term memory was almost nonexistent. He couldn’t concentrate on anything.
And his temper – his temper was out of control. He developed a reputation at work, and, according to Sarah, Soldiers knew to avoid him when he was in a bad mood. He kicked over a mop bucket once in a rage because the stinky water had been left out all weekend. He threw a keyboard. He was even worse with his family.
Jackson would “snap easier and easier,” said Sarah. “He would get more and more angry. (He) was becoming more and more frightful over time, throwing things, breaking things, road range.” He even became verbally abusive.
“These things started creeping up much more,” she added, explaining that when the rages took over it was as though her husband was a completely different person. “It’s like he had checked out of his body. … He was really scaring the kids, especially our oldest, Jared. … Landon was starting to get uncomfortably physical … grabbing him by the collar and slamming him up against walls, some things that I was not OK with, or taking him and throwing him down on the bed.
“He might be holding Jared by the collar up against a wall, just screaming in his face, and I would be trying to push him off and screaming at him to stop and he wouldn’t acknowledge me. He had no idea that I was there. Then, when it would stop, and he would come around again, he would not even have any recollection of what he had just done. … You could look at him in the eyes and he did not look like he was there. … It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen from him. It was just this hollowness. It was just horrifying.”
He was like a “monster” and Jared, then 14, was starting to fight back. He told his mother how scared he was. Sarah became afraid to leave her children alone with their father, and in March 2015, she finally told Jackson that he had to leave. “I reached this point where I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if everything else about you is extraordinary … it’s not OK anymore.’ … I knew I didn’t have a choice. That was hard and scary. I just started working a couple of years ago. I can’t support a family. I didn’t want to tear our family apart. I’ve been married to this man since I was 18. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
By now, the Jacksons had made the move to Fort Belvoir from Fort Carson and there had been another rather pointless trip to behavioral health, but this was the first time that Sarah gave Jackson an ultimatum. She realized she had “been a terrible enabler” and she struggles with guilt for having let it go on so long, for having been in denial about how Jackson’s rages could be affecting their children.
For his part, Jackson didn’t take her seriously at first. He moved in with some friends and assumed Sarah would calm down in a few days, maybe a week. When she didn’t, when he realized she meant it, he started spiraling downward. “I started getting really depressed,” he remembered. “Men, we feel like we’re the protectors of the family. We want our families to feel safe around us. I should be the protector of my family, not the one they need to be protected from.
Suicide started to seem like a real option, he said, explaining that he was hopeless. “I started feeling like I can’t get better.”
Editor’s note: Check Soldiers, Sept. 16, 2016, to read about the treatment Jackson underwent and how he began to get his life back. For more information about suicide, read, “The ones they left behind,” “Suicide: recognizing the warning signs” and “What parental suicide means for children.” Learn more about preventing suicide at Army Suicide Prevention Program, Military OneSource (800-342-9647) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).