Veteran draws on his own pain to ease others, keep fellow veterans alive

In 1983, Gordon Jeans was stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia when a private dropped a 65-pound tank shell on him from six feet above.

His lower back, just left of his spine, locked up. He was rushed to an aid station but within a couple of weeks, despite being in pain, he returned to work.

“We were taught to suck it up, and we might have been taught it so well that we might have done it a little too well,” Jeans said.

“Self-sufficiency is a big thing for us,” he said, “and it challenges your world view when you’re not able to do what you used to do. So when you’re handicapped by what happened during service, it’s hard to get out of the hole.”

Today, Jeans helps others out of that hole, working as a veteran crisis intervention trainer and an adviser to N.C. Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs Larry Hall.

He teaches police officers, firefighters and other first-responders what it’s like to think like a distressed veteran, in hopes that it will create empathy and improve relationships between first-responders and veterans.

“If you can get somebody to just slow down enough to listen a little bit, that could save a life,” he said.

Pain and politics

Jeans was in the Army from 1982 to 1992, serving in Operation Desert Storm, also known as the Gulf War, among other missions.

Horrible back episodes forced him to take off work for weeks at a time. He did light duty until his body caught up to the workload.

But it never really did.

“By the time we got done (with his Gulf War tour), I was ready to come home,” Jeans said. “The pain in my back and the politics were catching up with me.”

He left the Army after then President-elect Bill Clinton pledged to create better incentives for early military retirement and to provide better health care.

Jeans earned two bachelor’s degrees and started his own computer technology company. Within months of starting his business, he couldn’t bend over or pick up computers.

“It’s like erosion on a bank,” he said about his back. “You see the little cuts and after a while, you have the Colorado River formed from a creek.”

Veterans and suicide

Jeans has been a crisis intervention trainer for almost five years, teaching others how to deescalate tense situations. He recently partnered with suicide prevention experts at the Durham VA Health Care System through a program called Together With Veterans to support veterans in rural areas.

“(Sometimes) you get to a point where you’re venting, you’re just so mad and you’re yelling, you’re hollering and you’ve just punched a hole in the wall,” he said. “It’s not that you don’t want to calm down, it’s like a train. You know, you get a train moving even at 10 miles an hour, it’s probably gonna take a mile to stop it. It has a certain momentum.”

Sometimes, that momentum kills.

There were about 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016, totaling around 48,000 deaths, according to the VA National Suicide Data Report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

In 2016, the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for all veterans compared to people who had not served, after adjusting for age and gender. The suicide rate for women veterans was 1.8 times higher than for non-veteran women.

Together With Veterans is trying to reduce these rates, said Gary Cunha, a suicide prevention coordinator at the Durham VA.

“Crisis intervention training is like a basic law enforcement training to put out fires within us,” he said. “We are taught the basic components of combustion, and nine times out of 10 there’s no fire. But there are some situations where, when you try to put out the fire, it gets worse.

“So the idea is to help a lot of folks who have not been in the military or traumatic situations and help them understand where the fire comes from.”

Rural veterans

There are nearly 5 million veterans in rural communities, said Laura McCarthy, a social worker and suicide prevention coordinator at the Durham VA. About half rely on the VA for their health care.

The Office of Rural Health found rural veterans face more challenges than urban veterans, including higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and service-related disabilities. With fewer health care providers, rural veterans also have less access to medical care.

But being in care can save lives. The majority of veterans who have killed themselves were not enrolled in VA care, McCarthy said.

From 2005 to 2016, the suicide rate was lower among veterans in VA care (13.7 percent) than among those who were not (26 percent), the VA Suicide Data Report found.

‘A bad place to live’

Cunha recalled going to meet veterans in prison who were being released soon. After mentioning it to Jeans, he insisted on going, too.

“Here are people who are on the opposite side of the law, and Gordon made an effort to go through the prison and meet with them,” Cunha said. “All eyes were on him.”

Jeans told the veterans he knew what suffering felt like. As the incarcerated men listened, he told them it gets better and advised them to find their purpose.

If they don’t find something to do, they’re just waiting to die,” Jeans said. “That’s a bad place to live. I’ve seen that happen in cancer patients and hospice patients; the big thing is to get a purpose.”

Cunha and Jeans shared information on treatment and housing options and ways to maintain sobriety. The men had questions, and these two had answers.

“One gentleman made a point to find him afterward,” Cunha said. “The man said, ‘I really appreciate you coming out here to meet with us, it shows how much you care.’”

But to Jeans, it’s not about him.

“My goal is to make sure people realize we aren’t ticking time bombs,” Jeans said. “We all have our bad days, but it’s always better when people help you, talk through it, work through it. I don’t want to see any more people die after managing to survive all that.”

‘A lot of baggage’

Jeans has drawn on his own recovery to help others.

“You bring home a lot of baggage and it isn’t only from being in danger,” Jeans said. “The biggest stressors came from the threat of getting hurt, not so much the actualities of the battles, or when you wish you’d done better with something that involves life and death. It wears on you.”

CNN, citing studies published in JAMA Psychiatry, reported that the rate of major depression is five times higher for soldiers than civilians, and intermittent explosive disorder, which consists of episodes of extreme anger, is six times as high. Post-traumatic stress disorder was nearly 15 times higher, the studies showed.

“Stress is cumulative,” Cunha said. “Ask people what else is going on in their life, because you never know what does it in for them, so we have to stop and think about that.”

A lot of this comes from thinking, Cunha said -- you don’t need a degree in psychology to listen to others.

“I can’t prevent somebody from killing themselves in private,” Jeans said. “But I did find that there’s half a chance that somebody with the training might say the right thing to the right person at the right time to make sure that (suicide) never even becomes — it never happens at all.”

If you are a veteran who is in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or know a veteran in crisis, you can call VCL for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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Jacquelyn Melinek covers metro news for the News & Observer, where she works to update readers about the latest in government, crime, schools and other local news stories. She is a Stembler Scholar, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism and grew up in Westchester, New York.