We asked you to tell us about a veteran who continues to serve and inspire. From hundreds of compelling entries, we chose to tell the stories of eight veterans. The first-ever Veterans Community Showcase is presented in partnership with UMUC.
“I was sitting there, watching my last sunset. I was happy, I was going to end it all. Then my son walked into the room and asked if we were going to dinner and that kind of derailed the process.” Meet Jon Jackson, the featured veteran for today’s Veterans Community Showcase.
Jon joined the Army in 2003. From Jersey City, NJ, the terror attack on the Twin Towers was his impetus to joining the military.
“Once the towers went down, that was part of my childhood,” Jon explained from his farm in Georgia. “Once they went down, it was a pretty good fit for me to join the Army.”
Originally signed up for Combat Arms, once in, Jackson was given three choices for a job: cook, heavy wheel mechanic or fueler.
“I love cooking and I’m not gonna ruin my experience being a cook in the Army,” he said. “I’m not mechanically inclined, so no. So I became a fueler with the 115th Infantry.” Somehow, that led him to become a 50 caliber gunner on a Humvee.
He was deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan four times. In his first eight years in, Jon spent 40 months overseas. He says the first two deployments were the toughest—then, he realized something.
“If I’m going to be out here again, and the war wasn’t letting up anytime soon, then I’m going through a special operations unit,” Jon explained. “I always wanted to be a Ranger. After my second tour, I just realized I needed to be a ranger. If I’m going back over there, I’m going back right. With proper training and leadership. I was striving for excellence.”
He never once thought that anything would happen to him internally, but it was the at-least 20 IED close range explosions he survived that damaged him. “Later, as my Army career progressed, I found out that I had TBI (traumatic brain injury).”
There wasn’t time to think about much of anything. He would go out on missions, someone would get killed. He would have to clean out the vehicles afterwards, and within 24 hours the vehicle would be back up running with all the parts.
“My buddies… we couldn’t put them back together,” he said slowly, his voice cracking under the emotional weight of the memory. “They’d be put in body bags and sent back home.”
This is still very difficult for Jon to talk about.
“I’m opening up some part of my life that usually I keep tucked away in a box,” he explained. Talking at this point became difficult for Jon. The memories and emotion became too much for him to share, so instead he shifted to how he helps his fellow veterans.
Jon will tell you that he’s a problem solver: “My background as a Ranger means I can do everything,” he said, and as a way to help his own problems and help homeless vets at the same time, he created STAG Vets, Inc.
A few years ago, Jon was helping with a stand down. There were about 1,800 homeless vets in the area where he was living at the time. They gave out food, gave haircuts, helped with medical bills, dental, legal advice and even had about $1,500 worth of gear to hand out for each person.
“Everyone was happy and proud of themselves,” he recalled. “Everyone was high-fiving each other, this is great!”
While helping out, Jon saw a familiar face in the homeless crowd. It was someone he had gone to war with, but now he was sitting there, homeless. Jon had an emotional response. “Everyone else was sitting around happy, thinking we did something,” he recalled. He remembered thinking to himself that the next year, they all would come back, maybe more but defiantly not less of them. As the homeless veterans left, they were dragging the stuff they had been given behind them. Jon realized they didn’t have cars, but now they had all of this stuff to deal with.
“It hit on me, if we’re going to do something, let’s do it right!”
For Jon, on that evening when he thought he was watching his very last sunset, something changed. He knew he had to do something different. He liked being outside. He found that working in the dirt was therapeutic for him. No matter what was happening, gardening gave him clarity. The Acute Crisis Veterans Agricultural Center, better known as Comfort Farms, was born.
Named after an Army Ranger friend, Captain Kyle A. Comfort, who was killed in action on May 8, 2010, Comfort Farms serves two purposes. It’s a place for veterans and students who are looking for careers in sustainable food production. They learn how to be profitable, practice environmental stewardship as well as healing through the use of agri-therapy and natural approaches.
It’s also a place for vets in acute situations, when time is of the essence. The mission, according to the website, is a structured, holistic approach for displaced veterans suffering from PTSD and other invisible disabilities, aiding their reintegration into family, society and economy. In the first 11 months after opening the farm, 20 veterans had been helped through the farm’s crisis services. More than 500 vets got education and assistance at Comfort Farms within the first nine months.
Opening a farm seems like a bit of a stretch, even for a former Army Ranger.
“I had to set up a farm, and I had no idea how to do it,” Jon laughed. He likes to eat—in fact, he says he’s used to eating high end food—so why not start with that?
“Local food and sustainability,” he added, the life starting come back to his voice. “It’s a big project and veterans, like myself, we can feel better and be a part of a new mission to feed our communities.”
Part of Jon’s therapy is getting out and making sure the animals are all cared for.
“It keeps me present,” he explained. “My issues have me wanting to be distant from my family. If I didn’t have this, I’d probably be gone.” You can’t help but feel the joy and satisfaction in Jon’s voice.
“I have huge issues with feelings, it’s the hardest thing with me. But go in and see a piglet being born, you just build those emotions back again. I use animals as a bridge back to being human. Talk to my wife, I’m more present and am really actively engaging with my children. I’m working it through farming!”
There’s still a lot that Jon wants to do with Comfort Farms. He’s trying to raise $1.5 million to fund the next three years of farm production. With that money, he’ll be able to hire staff. His goal is to build the place up so he can help up to 10 vets at a time. His plans include more education, apprentices, certification and just simply helping vets rebuild their lives.
“I know it’s hard at times,” he said, thinking about this upcoming Veterans Day. “Especially the feelings like you’re losing your edge, like you’re not as sharp as you used to be. We can become something better than what we were. We will never be back to the person we were before joining the military. Life after the military is like a well-aged wine, it becomes better. We become better and our community needs us.”
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