Never Walk Alone (Part 1)
One Sailor's story of coming back from the brink
As Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said preventing military suicides will remain one of the Defense Department's highest priorities.
This is the first article in a four-part 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.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Thompson, a mass communication specialist, is an instructor at a joint command in Maryland. He began his journey in Detroit as the child of a mother and stepfather who were drug users. He suffered physical and emotional trauma, he said, and his mother repeatedly told him he was a liar and a cheater, that he was stupid, and that life was only going to get worse.
Because of this, Thompson said he first thought of suicide when he was eight years old, and he attempted it when he was nine.
While living with his mother could be challenging, Thompson said his father fought for custody and was a positive influence in his life.
"My father was and remains my best friend," he said. "Unfortunately, given Michigan's legal processes at the time and my mother and stepfather's unified efforts, I was terrified to speak out against them, and my father simply could not get any legal recourse.
"Over the course of weekends and holidays," he continued, "my father and I bonded truly as a parent and child should. We continue an excellent dialogue that both nurtures and guides while also being a slapstick comedy show. He's one of four people in my entire family I speak to regularly."
Choosing Navy service over suicide
Thompson said he thought again about suicide at 18, but decided his best way forward was joining the Navy, and he enlisted July 7, 1998. He began his naval career as an undesignated seaman aboard guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53), where he became a boatswain's mate and then a quartermaster. In 2003, he cross-rated into the journalism career field, and then in 2006, the career field merged into the mass communication specialist rating.
"My time in the Navy has been adventurous," Thompson said. "It has been bittersweet at times. It has been melancholy and lonely at times. My time in the Navy has been marked by tidal shifts of long periods of sustained superior performance and also intense depression, melancholy, [and] loneliness."
Senior Chief Petty Officer Misty Hubbard, the Navy element senior enlisted advisor at Thompson's command, has known him for 11 years. They first served together aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in Norfolk, Virginia, when Thompson was a petty officer third class, and as a petty officer first class at the time, she was the lead petty officer of 10 mass communication specialists on the ship. The ship would deploy for six months at a time, and the Sailors would work 12- to 16-hour days.
Hubbard said she can describe Thompson in one word: "phenomenal."
"He's always been a phenomenal worker," she added. "We used to tease him all the time [that] he was Superman. Anything that needed to be done well and quickly went to him, because he could perform like a champ in a pinch. He did great work under pressure -- really enjoyed tight deadlines, because adrenaline went up in those kinds of circumstances. He was always an incredible worker in that regard. The challenge was he wasn't very good at letting people know when he was overwhelmed or when he had taken too much on his plate."
Hubbard noted that when people are deployed, they learn each other's quirks, and that one of Thompson's quirks was that he had a bit of a temper and would have little "hiccups."
"He would have a blow-up but then he would very quickly get control of himself again and pull himself back together," she said. "And 95 percent of the time, he was No. 1, on fire... just [an] incredible Sailor [and] worker.
"But every three or four months, you could guarantee he was going to do something impulsive and silly and not well thought out that was going to result in him getting in trouble," she continued. "And he would have to bank on all the great work he had done up until that point to kind of rescue himself from the situation he would get himself in about once a quarter. You could guarantee that about once a quarter, Thompson was going to do something stupid."
Thompson kept in touch with Hubbard and maintained a protegee and mentor relationship with her. They met back up as instructors at the joint command, and Hubbard continued providing professional development to Thompson and felt responsible for him.
A series of setbacks
In 2012, Hubbard said she started noticing a change in Thompson when the chief petty officer promotion board did not select him.
"Initially, he took it hard, which is not abnormal -and we sat down and talked about what the factors were that prevented him from getting promoted and what we could focus on in the upcoming year to make him more competitive for promotion," said Trent. "In my mind, that's when it started - when he wasn't selected for promotion."
Not long after that, Thompson broke up with his girlfriend; a relationship she said was one of the healthiest she had seen Thompson in since she had known him.
"He didn't get promoted; the relationship ended; those were two big things that happened within a few months' span," she said. "He started oversleeping, showing up unshaven with his uniform not looking its best, and then he missed a duty day. He was behaving out of character. These are the sort of things you see from a junior Sailor who is struggling to adapt to Navy life. This is not what you see all of a sudden from this senior E-6 who's been in the Navy for 14 years.
"It went from a slip every three or four months to a screw-up every other week or every week," she said. "We verbally counseled him and did written counseling to document this stuff to explain to him that these things were going to be factors in his annual performance evaluation. There was just no way around it."
During this time, Thompson, at age 32, had decided he was going to take his life. He said he did not say goodbye to anyone, because he did not want to give away any kind of signs. "I didn't want an intervention," he explained. "I didn't want to cry for help. That wasn't my interest. That wasn't my goal. My goal was to die. I wanted to die."
(This is the first 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.
More information on suicide awareness and prevention can be found at www.suicide.navy.mil