CLOSER LOOK: Retired Fighterpilot Struggled With “Life-After” Service

April 30, 2021

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(K-LOVE Closer Look) – Retired fighterpilot Lt. Col. Michael Jackson, aka “M.J.”, spent 22 years in the United States Airforce. Leaving the service was difficult. Coming home was even harder.

“My wife and I struggled with that quite a bit early on  – we have 3 sons – they had their system while I was gone.” He likens the difficulties of reintegration to a canoeing on a river. “You get to a spot in the river and the military member gets out…but the rest of the family continues downstream.” Orders to row and set-up camp were given in the absence of the soldier. “So how does that individual get back into the groove of things?”

Though not every veteran comes out of combat with trauma, M.J. says in his experience many have anxiety or depression that complicate efforts to rejoin civilian society. “Just because someone doesn’t have a PTSD diagnosis doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling in one way or another.”

M.J. works as a Mentor Coordinator for the Veterans Treatment Court in Bell County Texas, one of many specialized courts nationwide that acknowledge violent offenses or drug use for veterans may be related to undiagnosed, service-related mental health conditions. Diverting these men and women to this system can get them the treatment they need. “What I find from them is they are reluctant to ask for help, they often isolate, because they often don’t know how to communicate or relate effectively: that’s who they’ve become.”

Lt. Col. Jackson emphasizes that the experiences of a combat solider are by nature incompatible with life after the service. “Let’s say I return from combat, I’ve seen things, been part of things, done things that I’m having trouble dealing with,” he explains. Those actions can make it difficult for a veteran to bridge the gap engaging the enemy in battle and embracing the relative safety of civilian life. The limbic brain produces unconscious reactions – like hitting the deck at loud noises – a fight or flight response. For soldiers, those kinds of reflexes become deeply ingrained.  “When you’ve trained someone to respond to violence with violence,” as is standard procedure for a soldier, he says it should not surprise us that some would behave that same way after they leave their unit. “Something I always tell veterans is that their reactions in combat are normal – but combat itself, is not normal.” 

M.J. finds spending time with other vets is essential to adjustment and reintegration. In his role as mentor coordinator he leads peer groups and gathers veteran inmates at a pod in Hughes Unit at Gatesville Texas. Many prisons in the United States have begun housing vets together with the understanding that their shared service make them unique. “If you can find other veterans to talk to, without having to explain a lot of the experience, whether acronyms or technical terms. It’s such a good feeling. It’s the best therapy for me.” 

Many veterans will not talk to their spouses, children, doctors or even a therapist out of fear of being judged for their actions as a solider. But if a veteran does choose to honor you by sharing their story?

“Realize they are sharing a sacred space with you. The stories may not be pretty, but do not use the morality we’ve developed back here to judge the actions of another in a completely different set of circumstances.”

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