Exploring Mental Illness In Soldiers and Their Challenges at Home: Jerry
Having gone through a whole month of intensive group therapy, joined by many men and women in uniform and listening to their stories and their challenges first hand, I felt the need to touch on this subject in my book, creating the character of Jerry, which exemplifies, in many ways, these men and women that have sacrificed so much and that go through so much. Here is a full chapter of my novel, The Flawed Ones, that allow us to know a little more about Jerry. I hope you enjoy.
It was almost time for Jerry to leave the joint and he had gathered, like a superstar, a small group of fans outside the room, waiting eagerly to say their goodbyes.
“They are all God’s children,” Jerry would say, and he meant it. During breakfast that morning, he ran around making sure the patients that had a hard time eating were out of bed and sitting at a table. He helped the nurses distribute the trays and would personally deliver some of them to his “low appetite” friends, to make them accountable for not refusing his food. He then sat down with Oliver, who was almost completely blind, and spoon fed the old man while sharing war stories. Out of the many things they had in common, the Marine Corps was the main one. Oliver’s murky eyes would glisten as he listened to Jerry talk, and from time to time he would let out a faint but honest laugh that would make Jerry smile.
That day when the plate was empty and Jerry stood up to go return the tray, he felt Oliver’s hand feeling around his upper arm, attempting to connect with his. When the blind man finally succeeded, he squeezed hard and held Jerry’s hand for a while, lost in the darkness that was now his entire world. Neither Oliver or Jerry spoke; they just stayed there, motionless, saying with their silence what they couldn’t say with their words. They understood each other almost telepathically, their trajectories in life not having been so different. Jerry knew that out of everyone in the entire world, Oliver was the one that saw him best. He finally tapped the old man on the shoulder a couple of times, discreetly wiped a few tears from his face and moved on to Tara, who was refusing to eat, as she was convinced that her bagel was poisoned.
I didn’t quite hear what he whispered in Tara’s ear, but it worked. She instantly, although still weary, took a few bites from her bagel, cautiously looking over her shoulder, to make sure that she would not be attacked from behind while she was focused on her food, distracted.
Afterwards Jerry had briefly met with his social worker to discuss his departure, and after a few minutes of what looked like upsetting conversation, he ran into the room, visibly distraught. I discreetly walked in behind him, first to make sure that he was ok and offer my assistance, secondly because being out there, without him close, was still somewhat terrifying.
We found ourselves both laying in our beds, looking at the ceiling with our hands on our heads. We looked more like teenagers resting in a field of grass on a summer night, trying to keep track of all the falling stars that followed their path to only-god-knew where, or why. The confinement of the psychiatric floor disappeared momentarily, and we felt not only free, but a bit more alive. It was the intrinsic connection that I had created with Jerry that made me feel safe around him, knowing that he sincerely had my best interest in mind, and for a few seconds, I felt a hint of peace. Jerry was still distraught over his meeting with the social worker, and after a few minutes of silence, he decided to break it.
“I risked my life for this country you know, some would say courageously, and this is what I get.” He turned his head and looked at me.
“Do you know why I’m here, Jay?
I shook my head. “No Jerry, I don’t. For a minute this morning I thought you were an undercover nurse!” The thought brought a laugh to both of our faces, then there was momentary silence again.
“Three tours in Iraq scarred me, deep. I’ve never talked about it, not even to the doctors. They say I need to process the feelings and the pain, you know, but I’m too macho for that. It’s bullshit, we ain’t nothing but flesh and bones waiting for their turn to rot. The images of the field of battle…” – he paused. “…they’re stamped in the back of my head, superglued, I should probably say. I lost friends, good men, good fathers, and sons, and husbands. I saw them bleed out; I carried their severed limbs and their bodies, mutilated by shrapnel. Some died in front of me, a few of them in my arms even. You don’t know Jay, you just don’t know what it’s like to feel that helpless. Sometimes I wish it had been me, I wish I would’ve been the one laying in someone’s arms, ready to finally meet my maker and be accountable for what I’ve done. Sometimes I feel selfish for thinking that way. I came home tired, defeated. I had lost my purpose, I misunderstood the reasons that led me to become a soldier. I could not figure out why I decided to fight for our freedom, choosing to imprison my mind in the gates of hell instead. I was physically home now, but mentally, I was still at war. If I went shopping or to the gas station, or for a walk in the park with my wife, the enemy was always there, stalking me, waiting for the right time to strike. I was in defensive mode all the time; my instincts were misleading me constantly. I got lost inside the fear in my head, and couldn’t find a way out.
“My paranoia led me to carry a gun everywhere, even to bed. Sometimes the nightmares would wake me up and I would draw it in the shadows, pointing it at the silhouettes that I saw running toward me, not realizing there was nothing there. The gun went off a couple of times, and I thank God to this day that no one was hurt. I started drinking occasionally, just to, you know, try to get away. The fights at home became more frequent, more violent, and I… I did things that I greatly regret. My wife, she became scared for her life because of my erratic behavior, so she took our twelve-year-old son and moved to Orlando with her mother.
“It was after the restraining order and losing my house, the right to see my kid and my dignity as a human being that alcohol took a complete hold of me, and I now found myself fighting the demons inside my head while begging on the streets for my next forty…” He smirked sarcastically. “A decorated soldier, national hero, begging on the streets… It’s the only thing that quiets them Jay, the only thing.”
“I know the feeling Jerry,” I said, feeling a great deal of empathy for the man.
Jerry tried to change the tone. “So, every once in a while, when I get tired of the streets and the crowded shelters, and when I need a refill on the meds I barely take, I make the VA pay for a few days here, just so I can get a decent night’s sleep.”
“Your son?” I asked.
“All grown up,” he answered. “Married, two kids, a much better father than I ever was. Social worker called him this morning, to see if he could take me in for a while. He refused, so I guess it’s back to the streets for me kiddo. See, I told you, this ain’t so bad!” He smiled and continued gazing at the shooting stars for a little while longer, but reality was already bringing the ceiling back to its original place. We both knew we had very little freedom left.
“I have six dollars to my name, what will it be, Uber or meds? Only enough for one. Decisions, decisions,” he said with a bitter smile.
After a while Jerry noticed the growing crowd outside, jumped off the bed with child-like energy and put on his best smile to go greet them. “There are my peeps!” He said as he opened his arms and began to embrace them, almost like they were that child he didn’t have the chance to make amends with.
Some of the patients had colored pictures for him, others had written him goodbye letters and a few poems. They had also brought him gifts; menial knick-knacks, like hair combs, bibles and used notebooks. Jerry knew that to some of them these were valuable possessions, and he showed sincere gratitude with smiles and hugs.
A well-groomed, older gentleman came up as Jerry still said his goodbyes.
“Jerry…” He said in a soft yet stern voice.
“Bob, glad you came by,” Jerry said. “Let me introduce you to him”.
They walked into the room and headed towards my bed, where I still laid, absorbing everything that was happening outside.
“Jay, this is Bob,” Jerry said as I sat up. “He is a friend who has been having some issues with his roommate and I figured you two could bunk together.”
“The son of a bitch wouldn’t let me sleep with his babbles,” Bob said as he extended his hand to shake mine.
“Jay doesn’t snore or talk,” Jerry intervened, “although he did scream somewhat loudly last night.” He smiled.
“I thought you hadn’t heard that!” I said, surprised.
“I hear everything,” he smirked with a sense of pride.
A couple of hours later, Bob started to move his things into the room as Jerry prepared to make his way out. Meanwhile, I headed over to the nurse’s station and politely asked the one by the computer if I could be escorted to the lockers to get something out.
She took me all the way to the back of the station to a small locker room, looked at the bracelet on my wrist and found the right locker, opening it with a three-digit combo. She then stood by my side as I dug in the bag to find my wallet, and inside a ten-dollar bill, the only one that had survived the madness of the previous weeks. It was all the money I had left in the world, and it would now help Jerry get his meds as well as a ride to nowhere, to face a bleak and uncertain future at best.
I stood by the counter on the nurse’s station as the double doors swung open and Jerry went back to his reality. As I saw him walk out, I couldn’t believe that in such a short amount of time this man had grown so much on me. But he had, and I knew that in the limited moments we shared, we both had a positive impact on each other’s lives. I was extremely grateful for that.
Thank you for your service to our country Jerry. Your courage, honor and sacrifice should not be forgotten.