The Journey to Recovery
After opening up about his struggles and asking for help, two chiefs from Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Thompson's command accompanied him to the hospital at Walter Reed. He filled out his own check-in form for inpatient mental health care.
"At that point, I was relieved, because there was no reason to lie to myself or anybody else anymore," Thompson said.
"Each patient is addressed individually and receives his or her own treatment plan," said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Bryan Bacon, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. "We help them to remember that life is worth living. We start to address some of the core problems or beliefs that have been bothering them or irritating them or bringing them down; and we start connecting thoughts and feelings together so that behaviors can change."
The treatment plans include group and one-on-one therapy, Bacon said. Thompson recalled sitting down in his first group therapy session, and feeling like he wasn't ready to listen to other peoples' stories.
"I was still hurting and wanted to focus on me," he said. "They're not the ones living my life, but what I took away was not the individual stories of those who had also tried to kill themselves. What I took away was that there's a measure of honesty that, once reached, breaks down all barriers. I realized I was surrounded by a group of survivors. We found strength together."
Thompson's next step was one-on-one sessions tailored to his needs.
"After the second [session], I spent the next day in my room crying the whole day...The dam had finally broken. My therapist waited two days before we met again, but then it just got easier and easier to discuss with unabashed honesty what was really bugging me, why I do the things I do and what happened to me."
"I haven't had a suicidal ideation in almost two years. It just doesn't occur to me anymore," Thompson continued with a smile that lit up his face. "The idea of ending my own life was no longer a viable option. My thinking started turning around once I sought help."
Thompson also received treatment for post-traumatic stress and substance abuse. After some time passed, he began to regain his sense of humor.
"In addition to the breakthrough, I was able to grow a really nice beard," he said with a quick smile. "I found that, at least for me, if I can make fun of my problems, they lose their teeth and they can't bite me anymore. I like who I am now. I appreciate who I am now; I never did that before. I can be honest with those around me."
Thompson said asking for help and admitting his suicidal ideations didn't negatively affect his career.
"When I admitted I needed help, I wasn't thinking about my career. I just wanted to live," he said. "But there have been no negative effects on my military career at all. I volunteered for treatment, self-referred, and I got all the help I needed. I haven't seen an adverse note on any evaluation since then. There have been no negative repercussions. If fact, quite the opposite -- they've been nothing but supportive."
Reconnecting during Recovery
After being released from treatment, Thompson reconnected with his childhood mentor, Barry Davis, a former Army chaplain and McDowell High School history teacher in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Thompson met him as a teenager living in Erie, where he was active in the Air Force Junior ROTC program. His friendship with Davis, and then senior aerospace science instructor, retired Air Force Col. Charles Marriott, continues to this day.
"I lost two twin boys at birth, and Jason became the surrogate son I never had," Davis said. "He's provided a lot of support to me, and I take pride in what he does. I carry a picture of him so he's constantly with me. He became very much a part of my family. I knew there were some difficulties with his family, but he hid it very well."
"I thank God for the Navy," Davis continued. "It saved his life. I don't think he'd be around today [if he hadn't joined]. When he asked for help, the Navy was there and without that, I have no doubt that we wouldn't be talking about him today. They saved his life, and I'm very thankful to God that they were there. When he called me from the hospital, the first thing I said to him was, 'I'm very proud of you, that you took this step, and I love you. I will always love you, and I will be here for you when you get out and we will go on.' And we both cried."
Marriott, a longtime friend and mentor to Thompson, said Air Force Junior ROTC was like a family for him. After teaching hundreds of students for more than 22 years, he has only two photos of students behind his desk. One of them is of Thompson.
"Jason was probably the smartest kid I've ever had in ROTC," said Marriott, a former special operations C-141 pilot in Vietnam. "As a young man, you could see he was hiding some problems, but when he was with us, he was open, happy, patting everybody on the back; a big team player; a leader. He was a vital part of our program. I spent a lot of time with him, talking with him, working with him, listening to him," Marriott continued. "It was fun to watch him grow. He cares about other people, and if he can save one other person, he'll do anything he can to help that person. He was one of the best cadets I ever had. I have a picture of him behind my desk, because I always knew he was going to grow up to be successful. I'm still waiting for his best-selling novel."
Davis and Marriott are just two of the many peers and mentors who support Thompson in his recovery.
"I got phone calls from every continent except Antarctica," Thompson joked. "People I hadn't spoken to in maybe five years called me, wrote me letters. Friends of friends wrote me letters. They rallied around me. I really understood the impact my life has had on those around me, how I affect those around me, how significant that is. I realized how thin and frail the lines are that connect my existence with others. I have an extraordinary set of friends."
Davis continues to be encouraged by Thompson's progress and optimism. "You don't just walk away from depression and alcoholism," he said. "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."
(This is the third article in a four part series, adapted from DoD News for All Hands Magazine).
Help is always available. Contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (option 1), visit www.veteranscrisisline.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 seeking non-crisis support, call Vets 4 Warriors at 1-855-838-8255 or visit http://www.Vets4Warriors.com.
Support for families of service members who have lost their lives to suicide, contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a 24/7 tragedy assistance resource, at 1-800-959-8277.
Defense Department Suicide Prevention YouTube Page