Never Walk Alone (Part 4)
"You never have to walk alone, and I learned that. In this uniform, in this service, you never have to walk alone."
This is the fourth and final 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 his strength and resilience on the road to recovery.
When he came back to work, Jason Thompson's supervisor said he wanted to hit the ground running, but she made him start with baby steps.
"He's getting better," said Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Misty Hubbard, the Navy element senior enlisted advisor at a joint command in Maryland and Thompson's supervisor. "And he's alive, so I'm happy with that."
As part of his recovery, Thompson channels his energy into hobbies such as woodworking.
"I take old pieces of wood, discarded and reclaimed pieces of wood, and strip them down," he said. "The dents, scratches and flaws in the wood lend the finished product character. It's a great comfort to me to refurbish these old things once abandoned and give them new life. Woodworking requires my full concentration, and it allows me to narrow my focus and be entirely present in that moment."
Thompson has also created a podcast series, showcasing his love for music.
"My show is a way of showcasing those things I appreciate," he said. "My records have been therapy for me. I'm magnetized to record crates, and I spend hours sifting and pouring through them endlessly searching for that next great piece of music that explodes across the acres of my mind and takes my heart strings with it."
Planning for the future
When Thompson isn't engrossed in his hobbies, he's thinking about his future. He plans on becoming a teacher in his hometown.
"I'd like to go back to Detroit and teach high school in my hometown, because education is the way out. The more people we're putting into college, the fewer people we're sending to prison," Thompson said. "It starts with education and a fearless guy who's been to the bottom, who's now going to pull other people up. I don't want to be rich. I want to make a difference."
His mentors see him eventually writing a bestseller or exhibiting his photography.
"When the Navy put a camera in his hand, and they let him write, he found himself. He found his soul," said longtime friend and mentor Ret. Army Chaplain Barry Davis. "He found what he was looking for when he got on those ships so long ago. His photographs - they're beautiful. They're expressions of what he sees. His writings, podcasts - they're him. He would make a great teacher. I believe somewhere in Jason, there are five or six really good novels."
Thompson has also received significant support and encouragement for sharing his story.
"If he comes away with saving one person, then everything he's gone through is worth it," Davis said. "It takes a lot for anyone to get up and say they're wounded...I'm proud of him. I see how he finds ways to cope instead of drinking, whether it's making something out of wood, taking photos or writing," he continued. "These are positive ways of coping. There is help out there, and Jason Thompson is an example that you can get the help if you want it."
It's Okay to Speak up When You're Down
Thompson credits his peers, supervisors, mentors and support groups with his positive recovery efforts.
"The recovery steps help put together the pieces of a life that was very close to being destroyed," he said. "My sponsor is incredibly close to me, and my chain of command is nothing short of remarkable. I can reach out to anybody at any time with no fear, with no stigma, with no worry about perception. In fact, I've been praised for my honesty about how I feel because I've found that the more often I tell my story, it gives others permission to share as well."
His friends have learned a lot while accompanying Thompson on his journey to recovery as well. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Wood Paschall, one of Thompson's friends (and loyal Podcast follower) recognizes that anyone can be susceptible to the negative effects of stress. "No one is immune," he said. "It doesn't matter how strong you are, how smart you are...what rank you are. You could be an admiral or a private-it doesn't matter. We all have things [we] struggle with."
Paschall encourages his fellow service members to reach out to a peer when they're struggling. "As a military, we stand shoulder to shoulder. We can be hurt in our hearts and our souls. Just look for your friends, look for your shipmates, and look for the people who are there to help...There's no stigma to it. It's an injury; it's a hurt. There's no reason to carry it; there's no reason not to get help," he said.
Thompson advocates the many Defense Department and civilian resources available to anyone who feels they need help. "There are so many outlets and people who are trained to not talk at you but listen to you -- chaplains, fleet and family support center members, counselors, military therapists, civilian therapists, even your best friend -- the ones who are willing to tell you the things you need to hear, not the things you want to hear; the ones who will delay judgment. Those are the ones you need to surround yourself with," he said. "You never have to walk alone, and I learned that. In this uniform, in this service, you never have to walk alone."
One resource that Sailors and their families can reach out to when they don't feel comfortable seeking mental health services is their local Navy chaplain, who is committed to providing compassionate and confidential support.
"It should never be a matter of taking your life, but taking control of your life," said Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben, Chief of Chaplains. "As chaplains, we help people reconnect with their sources for hope. That's really our whole reason for being. We are here to make sure you have some place safe, that sanctuary, to go where you have complete confidentiality to share your concerns or fears when things seem out of your control. You talk, and we'll listen. If you just want to sit and not say anything, we'll remain by your side. And when you're ready, chaplains will help you connect with the right resources and get you the help you need."
Leading by Example
Thompson's mentors and co-workers recommend that Defense Department leadership should show their employees that leadership is on their side, and that it is OK to speak up when you're down. Encouraging open conversation and trust, and staying continuously engaged with personnel, are simple yet essential ways to reduce the negative perceptions that become barriers to seeking help.
"Know your people. That's the most important thing you can do as a leader. Whatever rank, whatever service, know your people and know the resources available to them," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Herb Banks, media department Leading Chief Petty Officer aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt and one of the chiefs instrumental in Thompson's intervention. "Don't accept the immediate answer. They may tell you they're not thinking of hurting themselves, but you may have to dig a little deeper. When Thompson told me that, I could have left it alone, but I didn't. Be willing to go the distance because it's somebody's life we're talking about. You're not talking about turning in a task. You're talking about someone's life. If we're going to call ourselves leaders, we have to be willing to go the distance to save someone's life."
Acknowledging the increasing responsibility leaders now have as they're asked to do more with less, Davis implores them to set the example for their troops. "You cannot say you're taking care of your men and women underneath you unless you're taking care of yourself," said Davis. "You can't ask them to do the physical fitness test unless you can do it with them. You can't ask them to go to the field or to go into danger unless you're with them. And I don't think you can say to them, 'I'm there for you,' and then turn your back on them if they have an emotional problem," he continued. "Be willing to say, 'Deployments are hard on me and my family as well...We're all here together. Let's be family and take care of each other.' Military leaders need to realize they don't have to be stone or steel -- that they can be people."
Ret. Air Force Col. Charles Marriott, another mentor of Thompson's who provided support throughout his recovery, believes that the sense of community that's embedded within military service is one of the best protective factors against adversity. As a former special operations C-141 pilot in Vietnam, the military was like his family during his 26 years of service.
"The person who's with you on an aircraft is almost like your brother," said Marriott. "For some children who didn't have family when they were growing up, the military can be that family. There's going to be someone there for you to talk to, someone there to guard their back, to listen to you."
As his support network continues to watch him overcome obstacles and thrive in the face of personal challenges, they know that Jason Thompson is an example that seeking help is a sign of strength.
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.