WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Defense's American Forces Press Service issued the following news:
This month is Suicide Prevention Month, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said preventing military suicides is one of the Defense Department's highest priorities.
"As we observe Suicide Prevention Month," he said in a message to the department's workforce, "we must rededicate ourselves to actively working not only every month, but every day to fulfill our collective responsibility to watch out for each other and take care of each other."
This is the fourth and final article in a series about a Navy petty officer who came close to taking his own life but did not do so, thanks to the intervention of his leadership and the use of support networks, and how he continues to brave his battle with alcoholism and depression.
Due to emotional and physical abuse as a child, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Thompson, an instructor at a joint command in Maryland, grew up with suicidal ideations and attempted suicide as early as age 9. He joined the Navy in 1998 and became a mass communication specialist. He said he battled with his depression throughout his Navy career.
After not getting promoted and having a bad break-up in 2012, Thompson began showing up late for work regularly and missed a duty day. His supervisor and other Navy chiefs on staff said he usually was a superior performer and they knew something was wrong, so they held a professional development board, or intervention. During this session, Thompson broke down and admitted he was suicidal. He was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
At Walter Reed, he received an individualized treatment plan and underwent group and one-on-one therapy sessions. Afterward, he went to Cedar Hills Hospital in Portland, Oregon, for treatment for his post-traumatic stress from childhood trauma and his alcohol abuse. The doctors at both facilities worked with Thompson to give him resources to combat his depression and alcoholism and to give him coping mechanisms.
Getting Back to Work
After two months of inpatient treatment, Thompson returned to work. His supervisor said he wanted to hit the ground running, but she made him start slow.
"He wanted to come back into work with guns blazing," said Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Misty Hubbard, the Navy element senior enlisted advisor at Thompson's joint command in Maryland, who is Thompson's supervisor and a friend of 11 years.
"No, we're not going to do that," she said she told Thompson. "We're going to do baby steps. First, let's make sure you can get to work on time. Let's start with that, then you can start teaching again. We're not going to throw you back into the ocean after you almost drowned."
Thompson is "a million times better" now, Hubbard said. "He's got to go to his counseling and his [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings regularly, but he's getting better. He's not fixed. He's not cured. You're not going to undo 30-plus years of emotional and psychological trauma in two months. You're just not. But he's better than he was. And he's alive, so I'm happy with that."
"You don't just walk away from depression and alcoholism," said Barry Davis, Thompson's mentor and surrogate father. "Every day is the first day. It's your first day of sobriety. It's your first day of realizing how beautiful the world is. With Jason, he's enjoying life. For the first time, he has that purpose. He's always known what he's wanted to do but now he's gotten his chance again. And he wants to share it with people. I'm very proud of him."
Channeling Energy Into Hobbies
As part of his recovery, Thompson channels his energy into hobbies such as woodworking and his podcast. He builds shelves, bedframes and headboards.
"I take old pieces of wood, discarded and reclaimed pieces of wood, and strip them down," he said. "The dents, scratches and flaws in the wood lend the finished product character. It's a great comfort to me to refurbish these old things once abandoned and give them new life. Woodworking requires my full concentration, and it allows me to narrow my focus and be entirely present in that moment."
His friend and fellow instructor, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Woody Paschall, joins Thompson in some of his woodworking projects and shares his passion for music.
"Music has been a huge part of my life for years, so we talk about music all the time," said Paschall, who's been friends with Thompson for seven years. "I listen to his podcast pretty regularly. It's entertaining and off the beaten path of your 'Top 40' radio. You never know exactly what you're going to get. It could be anything, and I definitely enjoy that. He finds different songs and styles I would never have found. He's the kind of guy that whoever's around him, he's going to show them what's over the horizon. And he's going to expand their world a little bit."
Davis said Thompson made his basement a repository for his stacks of records and a home base for his podcast. He said his most memorable podcast was when he was in Israel for an archaeological dig.
"Last Fourth of July, while I was sitting on a top balcony of this hotel in East Jerusalem, listening to Jason's podcast and him playing patriotic music, there were real rockets in Gaza," said Davis, a former Army chaplain and former McDowell High School U.S. and World History teacher in Erie, Pennsylvania. "It was something else. I love listening to his podcast. He's fast on his feet, and he loves it. He calls me and says, 'Pops, I think you're going to like this.' I love it."
Thompson said he creates his show entirely out of his love for the music.
"My show is a way of showcasing those things I appreciate," he said. "My records have been therapy for me. I'm magnetized to record crates, and I spend hours sifting and pouring through them endlessly searching for that next great piece of music that explodes across the acres of my mind and takes my heart strings with it. They are a reminder that those pieces of music are more than the sum of their parts. They speak to and for that which is ineffable within me. My favorite songs are prayer and folly, the divine and the lowbrow, and they inspire me to dance, to smile, to go on dutifully, even beatifically at times."
Planning for the future
When Thompson isn't engrossed in his hobbies, he's thinking about his future. Thompson said he plans on becoming a teacher in his hometown.
"I'd like to go back to Detroit and teach high school in my hometown, because education is the way out. The more people we're putting into college, the fewer people we're sending to prison," Thompson said. "It starts with education and a fearless guy who's been to the bottom, who's now going to pull other people up. I don't want to be rich. I want to make a difference."
His mentors see him eventually writing a bestseller or having his photography on exhibit.
"I see him writing a bestseller and being a professional photographer. He has a great skill with a camera," said retired Air Force Col. Charles Marriott, senior aerospace science instructor at McDowell High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, which Thompson attended when his family moved there when he was 14. "He's able to go out there and see something the average person can't see."
Davis agreed. "When the Navy put a camera in his hand, and they let him write, he found himself. He found his soul," he said. "He found what he was looking for when he got on those ships so long ago. His photographs, they're beautiful. They're expressions of what he sees. His writings, podcasts, they're him. He would make a great teacher. I believe somewhere in Jason, there's five or six really good novels, and if he doesn't put me in one of them, we're going to have words, because he owes me."
Sharing His Story
His mentors said they hope that by sharing his story, Thompson will help others.
"Jason sharing his story is an extremely courageous thing to do. If he comes away with saving one person, then everything he's gone through is worth it," Davis said. "It takes a lot for anyone to get up and say they're wounded. Jason's walk for sobriety comes to me whenever he comes home to visit. I'm proud of him.
"I see how he finds ways to cope instead of drinking, whether it's making something out of wood, taking photos or writing." he continued. "These are positive ways of coping with depression. There is help out there, and Jason Thompson is an example that you can get the help if you want it."
Taking Care of People
Thompson's mentors and former co-workers recommend that Defense Department leadership should let their employees know that leadership is on their side and that it is OK to ask for help.
"Know your people. That's the most important thing you can do as a leader. Whatever rank, whatever service, know your people and know the resources available to them," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Herb Banks, media department leading chief petty Officer for the USS Theodore Roosevelt and one of the chiefs instrumental in Thompson's intervention.
"Don't accept the immediate answer," he continued. "They may tell you they're not thinking of hurting themselves but you may have to dig a little deeper. When Thompson told me that, I could have left it alone, but I didn't. I pushed him further. Be willing to go the distance because it's somebody's life we're talking about. You're not talking about turning in a task. You're talking about someone's life. If we're going to call ourselves leaders, we have to be willing to go the distance to save someone's life."
Hubbard said it's important to get to the core of the problem. "That requires a little more creative thought. It requires a little more time," she said. "They are people -- they're not just sailors or Marines or soldiers or airmen. They are people. They have problems, worries, dreams, emotional baggage and all these things that make them complex and challenging, awesome and wonderful. ... If you want to get the most out of them and you want to help them to the best of your ability, you have to really care about them as people."
Davis said leaders often try to project a hard veneer that they are in command and control of themselves, when in reality, they have the same fears. "They now have the responsibility of so many people," he said. "You cannot say you're taking care of your men and women underneath you unless you're taking care of yourself. You can't ask them to do the physical fitness test unless you can do it with them. You can't ask them to go to the field or to go into danger unless you're with them. And I don't think you can say to them, 'I'm there for you,' and then turn your back on them if they have an emotional problem.
"Be willing to say, 'Deployments are hard on me and my family as well. I'm depressed too. We're all here together. Let's be family and take care of each other,'" Davis continued. "Military leaders need to realize they don't have to be stone or steel -- that they can be people."
For Those Who Need Help
Thompson's mentors and co-workers said anyone who needs help shouldn't be afraid to reach out and use the many resources available to them.
"We have this phobia about going to ask for help whenever we have mental illness or mental problems but we don't think anything about going to a doctor if we have a broken toe or sprained ankle," Davis said. "When we talk about suicide, about depression, we somehow think there's a stigma that's there, but it's just another disease. People of all ages should realize that if they have these feelings, they should get help. They're not alone. They have a whole command structure set up who want to help them. They have friends who are out there who love them."
Banks noted that numerous resources are available for the asking. "You're not going to be judged or looked at differently," he said. "You're going to receive all the help you need. Everyone in your immediate chain of command will do whatever they can to help you get back on track. You need to be healthy. Your family needs you healthy. We're all here to protect and serve, so your country needs you healthy. You do everyone around you a disservice if you don't get the help you need to get back on track."
Marriott, a former special operations C-141 pilot in Vietnam, said the military was like a family during his 26 years of service. "The person who's with you on an aircraft is almost like your brother," he said. "Get to know him really well. He'll be there for you. There's going to be somebody you can rely on. In special operations, we were very close. If something was happening, I could pick up the phone and call someone and know that he was going to be there for me. For some children who didn't have family when they were growing up, the military can be that family. There's going to be someone there for you to talk to, someone there to guard their back, to listen to you."
No one is immune, Paschall said. "It could happen to anybody. It doesn't matter how strong you are, how smart you are, how much you work out, what rank you are -- you could be an admiral or a private, it doesn't matter," he added. "We all have things we have to struggle with. Be aware that when things start to get overwhelming, when things start to look like there might not be any hope, [you can] reach out to your brothers and sisters in arms.
"As a military, we stand shoulder to shoulder," he continued. "We expect them to be there to pull us out of the fire or to bandage us when we are wounded. This is similar. We can be hurt in our hearts and our souls. Just look for your friends, look for your shipmates, and look for the people who are there to help. There's nothing imaginary about this. There's no stigma to it. It's an injury; it's a hurt. There's no reason to carry it; there's no reason to not get help."
Hubbard said seeking help for yourself will also help others. "I promise you, no matter who you are, somebody out there, at least one human being would be crushed if they had to wake up in a world without you in it," she said. "Please give somebody a chance to show you that they care about you, to show you that you are a person of value and help you because you're not going to get out of that hole by yourself, and you don't have to. Somebody wants to help you, if you just give somebody a chance and ask."
This is the fourth article in a four-part series:
- Navy Petty Officer Considers Suicide
- Intervention Saves Suicidal Navy Petty Officer
- Navy Officer Overcomes Suicidal Thoughts with Mental Health Care
- Navy Officer Works Past Depression to Live Fulfilling Life
If you need help, if you know someone who is, or even if you just need someone to talk to, contact the Military Crisis Line via phone, online chat or text message. Just call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1; visit http://www.militarycrisisline.net; or text 838255. It's free, easy and confidential, and trained professionals are there for you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For service members and their family members needing support, call Vets 4 Warriors, a 24/7 confidential peer-to-peer support help line run by veterans at 1-855-838-8255 or visit http://www.Vets4Warriors.com. For family members of service members who have lost their lives to suicide, call Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a 24/7 tragedy assistance resource, at 1-800-959-8277.