Editor’s note: Read part one of 1st Sgt. Landon Jackson’s story to learn about his service and what brought him to the brink of suicide.
First Sgt. Landon Jackson walked into the emergency room at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, shaky and uncertain. He had very nearly shot himself, very nearly ended his own life after his post-traumatic stress and depression spiraled out of control. Jackson had already lost his family, but in a last-second moment of clarity, he realized that his suicide would destroy them.
Jackson had flirted with behavioral health a few times before. His standard modus operandi was to simply sugar coat the truth, tell doctors his four combat deployments hadn’t really been that bad. Then he could go back to his wife and tell her the doctor said he was fine. A few weeks before, he had finally been ready to open up, but the clinic at Belvoir had been booked solid for weeks.
So that day, Jackson drove to Belvoir, and said, “I’m feeling very down.” When the ER staff asked if he was contemplating hurting himself or someone else, he answered, “I’m not going to hurt anyone else, but I’m definitely feeling like hurting myself.” They admitted him immediately, replacing his uniform and his boots with a thin gown and socks.
Captain David Watkins, then commander of the 55th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, rushed right over, shocked. He knew Jackson had been having a hard time, knew his wife had kicked him out, but he had no idea how bad things were. Sure, Jackson had a temper and Watkins had seen him yell at Soldiers more than once, “but some of these Soldiers needed to be yelled at. … There wasn’t anything that for me was out of the norm for a senior NCO getting upset with junior Soldiers.
“He was a good first sergeant. He made my job easy,” Watkins, now assigned to the National Guard Bureau, continued. “Of course, I as a commander feel some responsibility. Was I stressing him? Was I putting too much pressure on him? The first call – if I remember correctly, he sought help and they asked these same two questions. My initial thought was maybe he got smart and thought, ‘The only way I’m going to get help is if I say this.’ … For me, it was kind of like, ‘he needs some help with some possible PTSD or anger management,’ but it didn’t seem like an emergency.”
Watkins called Jackson’s wife, Sarah, and she drove to the hospital in a daze. Jackson had been verbally abusive and borderline violent at home and it was escalating. He had even thrown his teenage son up against a wall. His kids were terrified of him, so she had finally thrown him out a few weeks before. She was concerned about her husband, but “any moment it could have gotten worse,” and she had to put her kids first. She worried about their safety.
So did the Army. Jackson admitted getting a little out of hand in a therapy session, which his doctor was required to report. This triggered a Family Advocacy investigation, which ultimately cleared Jackson of committing abuse, but required him to undergo parenting classes and anger management.
Jackson spent two weeks in the hospital. Inpatient treatment is meant to stabilize patients, explained Public Health Service Lt. Cmdr. Robert Burns, an Army veteran and clinical psychologist in charge of adult outpatient behavioral health at the hospital. Providers get the patients on medication and provide some initial counseling. There’s also art therapy, writing therapy and even yoga.
Jackson’s wife and commander visited daily. His battalion commander and sergeant major even travelled up from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to let him know that they supported him. The visits, Sarah remembered, were grueling. “It was all kind of a big blur and it was really surreal.” She would spend her long drive home sobbing, trying to compose herself before going home to her children. She told them their dad was getting help, but left out most of the details.
“As the weeks went on, they started asking more questions about why he wasn’t coming home,” she remembered. The conversation that followed was eye opening. “I don’t think we give kids credit for everything that they might be realizing. They might keep it to themselves or not be expressing it. You can’t just assume that they don’t know or anything like that.”
She also felt guilty. After all, she had been the one who wanted to separate and Jackson had been calling for weeks before his hospitalization, begging her to let him come home. Her children begged her not to let him.
“I knew I had to push him that hard to get him to deal with these things, but I was also afraid I would push too hard and that he might try to kill himself,” she explained. “What do you do? What do you do when you’ve tried everything else? … How are you supposed to know where that line is? … In the back of my mind, that was always a fear of mine, but we were at such a low point I didn’t have a choice. I had to put the kids and myself and our safety and well-being first.”
That meant Jackson still wasn’t welcome at home after he got out of the hospital. He still had a lot of work to do – hard work. Jackson was assigned to an outpatient co-occurring program run by Army Substance Abuse at Belvoir. The program’s counselors had realized many of their addiction patients also suffered from combat trauma and that many of the same treatments helped either or both afflictions. They developed a separate, non-addiction track to help Soldiers like Jackson.
“I was kind of nervous when I first went over there … because my perception was that I was going to be like the senior guy there,” said Jackson. “I’m going over there as a first sergeant and people are going to be like, ‘What the heck is wrong with this guy?’ … So I go over there and there were a couple master sergeants. There was a captain, two majors, a lieutenant colonel. The lieutenant colonel who was in the program was actually a psychiatrist. There was a major who was a chaplain. These were guys who were senior in the Army, but also had jobs that were helping other people. … It was really eye opening to see that anybody can have problems. At some point, we all need to take a knee.”
The therapy was intense. Under the care of a psychiatrist, psychologist and caseworker, among other experts, Jackson had to talk about his experiences over and over again, in person and on paper. He had music therapy, art therapy and writing therapy interspersed with recreation therapy like horseback riding. He drew a graphic narrative, detailing one of the worst days of his life. It was the day he watched the Humvee in front of his hit an IED in Afghanistan, killing friends and colleagues in a bloody, catastrophic explosion that has haunted him ever since.
“We had to actually draw scenes from the event,” he said of the narrative. “We had to basically do a paragraph for each scene. And then when you had all of that ready, which took weeks because you’re bringing up a lot of old memories, stuff that you’ve been trying to keep away and not talk about. But their whole goal is to get you to talk about it and get you comfortable with the fact that it actually happened.
“After you have that all prepared, one of the therapists actually presents it to you. It’s all on the board. You go slide by slide, and then they’re narrating it to you and they’re recording it. After that you watch it over and over. I don’t want to say it desensitizes you to it because I don’t think that’s right, but it gets you used to it. I can talk about it. It’s OK to talk about it.”
Talking about this and other traumatic events has been therapeutic for Jackson, said Burns, who treated him after he finished the six-week co-occurring program. Similarly, behavior modification or cognitive behavioral therapy “is extremely helpful. … I kind of find that if you can change the behavior, the thoughts will change as well,” said Burns.
In CBT, patients work with providers to confront and negate unhealthy and untrue thoughts. “We’re trying to disprove those thoughts by challenging them and have them stop and think. There’s a lot of hand outs and things like that that go along with what we’re trying to accomplish in session.” If a Soldier thinks he is responsible for getting a buddy killed, for example, the provider will work through all the ways that isn’t true until the Soldier finally realizes that he did everything he could to save his friend.
When it comes to trauma, Burns said, “exposure-based treatments are best.” He added that many patients get used to using something as a crutch, such as anger. Like Jackson, they may not feel as anxious if they react to an uncomfortable situation with anger. Then, because it worked once, they’ll get angry again the next time they can’t avoid whatever the trigger is, probably angrier. It becomes a vicious cycle.
“They’re setting themselves up to fail because they get in those situations and maybe they can’t avoid them (such as crowds), then what do you do? They completely lose it. They freak out,” Burns said. It’s much better, he explained, if therapists slowly introduce patients to whatever they find most upsetting. They might start with a five-minute trip to a small grocery store in the middle of the week and work up to a full shopping trip to a superstore on a Saturday, for example.
Accelerated resolution therapy is also effective, said Burns, explaining that the new, high-tech technique is life-changing for many Soldiers and veterans, and that the Army is currently researching why it works. “It’s a hand-based eye movement. It mimics the eye movements that you would have in a dream state. The idea is to kind of reprogram those trauma images and memories, try to change those into more positive situations. Say you always see a blast, the idea is through the eye movements, we can mimic the dream state. We use a lot of suggestion and replace that image with a new positive image. … Over time, they remember the new image and they remember less of the old image. … It works remarkably well.
“The beauty of it is that they don’t have to describe it. I don’t think (Jackson) even told me what the image was. When we started, it was like an eight out of 10. Within 45 minutes, we got it down to like a two out of 10. When I talked to him the next time, it kind of stuck. He could still remember the original image, but he could remember the new image.”
Rebuilding a family
Jackson and his wife continued to talk and went out on dates, and about half way through his six weeks in the program, Sarah felt he had made enough progress to come home. Their kids weren’t convinced, however. In fact, they didn’t even want to be left alone with their father for even a night. “That was very heartbreaking,” she said. “I was very sad and I was worried that they were never going to feel safe with him again. I didn’t want them to feel that way. … I know how much he loves them.” It took a lot of convincing – and a back up plan with a neighbor the kids could go to if they started to feel uncomfortable.
“So many people can’t even imagine being at the point in your marriage or your life where you have to do things like that, but we had to keep finding ways to work this out,” admitted Sarah, still shell shocked more than a year later. “Fortunately, they didn’t need to. They had a couple of moments here and there where I may have gotten a quick phone call, but it was never anything major. … We just had to really ease things along.”
The transition has been difficult, the Jacksons admit, and it’s far from over. “This is going to be a life-long issue we deal with, but you want it to be steady and manageable and keep going in a positive direction,” said Sarah. “It’s a day-by-day process, that’s for sure. … We certainly have our moments when we’re like, ‘Is this worth it?’ We have days when we question ‘are we doing the right thing? Are we making the right choice for our family?’”
Sarah likens it to a redeployment period, a time of tiptoeing and testing the waters, and although the difference is “incredible,” her husband is a different man and some of the trust is lost forever. “Any time I have to leave the kids with him for an extended period of time, I definitely worry that they’re going to trigger him and I’m not going to be there to break things up.”
He deserves the doubt, Jackson knows, but it still hurts. And although the kids intellectually understand that Jackson was sick and needed to get better, he realizes that his family has a long way to go before it’s healed: “It will be something that will be going on forever. I can never take back what I’ve said and done to them as far as how much I scared them and really traumatized them. I can never take that back. I think they’re always going to remember it. It’s still kind of tough. When I have to talk sternly to my children, they kind of tense up.”
And while counseling and the Family Advocacy-mandated anger management and parenting classes have helped Jackson control his temper, he does slip from time to time. He has bad days, and Sarah has had to come between Jackson and their oldest more than once.
Still a Soldier
Going back to work was easier. When Jackson was first admitted to the hospital, he and Watkins talked about what to tell the 55th Soldiers, and Watkins talked to his boss as well. They knew how fast rumors could fly around a company and how outrageous they could get, so the men knew they had to deal with it. And for his part, Jackson wanted his Soldiers to know the truth. Because if he could break down, anyone could.
Watkins gathered the troops before rumors could start, and “that’s kind of the approach that we took, mainly as kind of a learning lesson that this could happen to anyone,” he said. “The EOD world is quite stressful. … If someone came to ask me questions, I answered them pretty directly.”
Watkins left out many of the personal details so when Jackson returned to work, he filled in the blanks and personal details, even admitting to the Family Advocacy investigation. “I told them pretty much everything. I wanted them to know everything just to get rid of any rumors that might be circulating and just to start helping them.
“At first they were really quiet about it. Two or three Soldiers came up and talked to me and thanked me for being so open. Over time, I’ve had more and more people I’ve talked to come up and tell me that they’ve gotten counseling. I encourage them not only to get counseling, but I also tell them to get checked for (traumatic brain injury),” which Jackson was himself recently diagnosed with. (After a lifetime of exposure to blasts, his hearing is shot and his short-term memory is almost nonexistent.) He’s even willing to talk about his specific medications and how he can still work with explosives while taking them, anything to help other Soldiers.
They respect him more for it, said Watkins. “He even had Soldiers come to him and talk about their issues. I absolutely think it was a good thing for the unit and a good thing for the community because now he goes around and tells his story to other units. He wanted his situation to be a learning lesson, which says a lot. That’s what the first sergeant is there for, to take care of Soldiers.”
“I think if anything I gained some respect,” mused Jackson. “I feel like I’ve been treated better. When I talk to a Soldier, I feel like they listen more now.”
Editor’s note: As this story posted, Jackson and his wife announced they have separated and plan to divorce – their children remain their top priority. Check back with Soldiers Sept. 22, 2016, for the third and final part of “Saving 1st Sgt. Jackson,” where Jackson and his doctor discuss how to recognize and respond to post-traumatic stress symptoms and suicide warning signs. 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).