Jon M. is all he wants to be known by. That’s what he told me when he agreed to tell his story of being in Iraq and returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Jon is loud and large. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, which sometimes gets him into trouble. His brazen personality and foolish decisions got him into trouble in the U.S. Army. Prior to his first tour to Iraq, he drank too much and vomited all over his first sergeant’s desk.
During his first firefight in Iraq, Jon would change forever. He held down the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun and started screaming at the six or seven insurgents who were trying to kill him.
“I wanted them to know I was crazy,” he told me.
Craziness kept him alive in combat, but after being diagnosed with PTSD a few years later, he knew others would look at him differently if they really knew what he had experienced in Iraq.
Like many military veterans, Jon’s war came home with him. There are sights and smells he’ll never forget. At times, these scarring memories still keep him up at night. Like the day he watched a fellow soldier die before his eyes.
“I was a few trucks back,” Jon recalled, “but I still remember the blood, the pink mist. It was unreal. The man who just gave me a Red Bull and a cigarette was dead.”
Myriad horrific and devastating experiences overseas would change Jon’s life forever. After returning from war, he felt lost, numb and out of place. He was angry. He didn’t feel alive anymore. His best friend and battle buddy killed himself after they both returned home. Jon wondered if life was worth living.
His girlfriend, who later became his wife, told him she loved him. In his darkest moments, he remembers her saying, “Jesus loves you, and your friends love you.”
Instead of fostering thoughts of suicide, Jon instead turned to religion for help. He gave up alcohol, tobacco and a promiscuous lifestyle and became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After Jon was baptized, however, things didn’t return to normal. War had changed him. He told me that he thought the pain and the hurt he experienced in Iraq would have all ended after he got baptized, but his PTSD remained.
After therapy, medications and struggling to make ends meet with a wife and young family, Jon eventually finished his college degree. Bouts with depression and rage were common. Worst of all, he couldn’t find a job. The emotional pain of that alone seemed to burden his mind and trouble his heart more than anything else.
Every time he’d apply for a job, he’d get denied. It happened so repeatedly that he wondered if he’d ever find employment in the profession he was seeking. Fortunately, Jon’s own challenges helped him truly understand people who suffer.
Not long ago, Jon went to church with his wife and family. Before the meetings began and after his wife had sat down in the chapel pews, Jon walked out of the chapel and into the foyer. There he noticed a homeless man in his late 30s walk into the building wearing oversized clothes and an Earnhardt Junior NASCAR hat. No one from church wanted to speak to a homeless man, it seemed.
Jon later told me that it upset him that all these people in church were ignoring the man. Jon figured he’d say hello, offer a smile and a handshake and see what he could do to help.
Upon introduction the transient who didn’t ever attend church told Jon, “I want to see if I can talk to the bishop to see if he can give me some shoes.” The man who reeked of sweat and body odor from the summer heat explained that he was starting a new job the next day and he didn’t have any shoes.
“So, I gave him mine,” Jon said unashamedly. The man took his newly acquired church shoes and left the building.
When Jon looked around, he was surprised to see all the people around him had tears running down their cheeks.
“I then realized I changed everyone’s life with that gesture,” he said.
Shoeless, Jon walked back over to his wife, who was still seated in the chapel, unaware of what had just occurred. Jon asked her for the car keys. “Why? And where are your shoes?” she asked, looking down at his feet.
With a tear in his eye, he said, “I just gave my shoes to a man who needed them more than me.” Jon took the keys, drove home and got another pair of shoes and then came back to church.
Jon may be diagnosed with PTSD, but he’s far from crazy. He certainly isn’t someone to be feared or shunned. When I asked Jon recently about the situation, he gave some great insight that we all need to be reminded of.
“We oftentimes get caught up in our own little world,” he said, “and we’re oblivious to what’s going on around us.
“I think it is important to remember that we ain’t nothing, we came from nothing, and without good people who help us on along the way, we wouldn’t be nothing.”
When I first interviewed Jon for my book “Warrior SOS—Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival, and Living with PTSD” I asked him what inspired him to join the Army. He replied, “I wanted to change my future.”
Jon has done things that other people haven’t done or won’t do — and that’s exactly what makes him so incredible.