For veterans, home from war doesn't mean the battle is over

President Donald Trump announced Monday the U.S. will "fight to win” in Afghanistan. Senior officials said Tuesday up to 3,900 additional U.S. troops will be deployed in what is already the nation’s longest war. The escalation of troops will no doubt coincide with an escalation in the need for veteran services.

At the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, home to the national Veterans Crisis Line and Center of Excellence in Suicide Prevention, one veteran is adding his voice in hopes of helping other vets.

After Russell Jackson returned from two tours as a Navy corpsman during Operation Desert Storm, he thought he could go it alone — adjust to civilian life with all the might and fortitude it took to survive in war. As a corpsman, trained to fight alongside Marines as a medic attached to a Marine field unit, Jackson experienced horrors he couldn’t let go. Programmed to be combat-ready 24/7, simply adjusting to a different structure and different pace of life was hard in itself, Jackson said from the Canandaigua VA. There, he eventually found the help he needed.

But not before severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder took him to a dark place.

“My life was completely out of control,” said Jackson, 50, a Philadelphia native who eventually came to Canandaigua. He mentioned “multiple suicide attempts.”

In denial for many years, Jackson said he had known deep down he was in trouble. But he couldn’t admit it outright. “I had a good idea, but denial was a whole lot better,” he said.

In 2008, he found the VA — or the VA found him.

“I listened,” he said, adding that he began “to trust.” The support he received “was huge,” he said. He attributes his faith in God and professionals at the VA for saving his life.

He talked about the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy, a vocational rehabilitation program that he has been involved in most recently. It helps vets enrolled in the VA with individualized treatment that includes resumé guidance, interviewing skills, career assessment, job searching, character building, and supportive counseling.

Through the program, Jackson has been working as a biomedical engineer technician. The program has helped him put his recent college degree to use right away.

This past May, Jackson graduated with an associate in science degree from Finger Lakes Community College, where he received accolades including the Rochester Area Colleges Outstanding Adult Student Award. The award recognizes adults who have been especially successful at balancing college study with professional and personal responsibilities.

Now he’s headed to SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse on a full scholarship. He has his eye on a career in respiratory therapy. He wants to stay in critical care and is interested in sleep studies that relate to health, as well, he said.

Since the military, Jackson recounted having numerous jobs. He has been a bouncer, a property manager, a juvenile correction officer. He has been a trauma technician. Now, as he works toward his next college degree and new career, he thinks a lot about those at the VA who played a role in saving his life. He is grateful.

He talked about what it’s like to heal. He is far from where he was nearly 10 years ago. But that is not something he takes for granted because healing is “an ongoing process,” he said: “It will be a lifetime.”

Jackson has a message for fellow vets. The VA “is willing to help any veteran who is willing to help themselves,” he said. “VA programs. They do work.”


By the numbers

11-20% Iraq/Afghanistan veterans with PTSD in a given year

12% Desert Storm veterans with PTSD in a given year

30% Vietnam veterans expected to have PTSD in their lifetime

SOURCES: Figures for U.S. population, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD