In this thing we call life there are so many moments, happy, sad, joy, despair and everything in between. The challenge of truly living your life comes from the ability to face it head-on no matter what the circumstance. Make no mistake it’s not easy – finding a reason to move forward despite what is pushing you back. And if you share your story, others can learn as well.
Courage. Hope. Inspiration.
I am Mark Brodinsky and this is The Sunday Series.
The Sunday Series (62): There Is Always Hope
For Jason Semler it was this day, when as a young boy, he got a cut on his leg. His mom put a band-aid over “the boo-boo” on the side of his left calf, exactly halfway between his ankle and his knee. For this young man who loved to play basketball, it was a turning point. With that band-aid on his leg, Jason went out and played the best game of his life. From that point on, every day of his life, Jason religiously wore a band-aid, his good luck charm, and one he never wanted to give up.
In November, 1997 Jason Semler enlisted in the Air Force. It was an easy decision for him, growing up a “military brat”, Jason was used to the travel, his dad Bernie, had served as an Air Force Master Sergeant. Jason ended up serving as Staff Sergeant, stationed with the 728th Air Control Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He did a brief tour in Kuwait, and later led a communications unit during the War in Iraq. His squadron was also one of the first to be deployed in Baghdad International Airport during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his time in service, Jason said that he had one vision: “To get all my guys home safely!” He did just that and earned the respect, numerous military awards and was held in high regard from all those who served with him. He completed nine years in the Air Force, before separating from the service in December of 2006.
While in Florida in 2000, Jason met the woman who would change his life, Christian Stone.
The couple married in 2005 and Christian said it was Jason’s smile that captured her own heart and could light up a room. She says, “when he walked in everything seemed to be better when he was around.” For Jason and Christian that smile barely dimmed, but it started to flicker shortly after Jason’s return home from the war in 2003.
Christian says the changes were subtle at first, Jason started drinking more, but after a time the trouble with alcohol seemed to fade away. Then there was his temper. Christian says “Jason would get agitated really, really easily, though after a time that also balanced out. What was consistent however were the night terrors, or tremors. Jason would jerk a lot in his sleep. He didn’t even know he was doing it, but he was also having trouble sleeping. It was almost as if he was two different people. When he was home he was reserved, he never wanted to talk about his feelings, but he always quick to “take on” everyone else’s feelings. It was almost like if he helped someone else, he would be helping himself.”
And Christian says Jason loved to help other people. “He was loved by all types of people”, she says. “There was no line for Jason. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, he treated you like family and he helped everybody. He encouraged and helped all of his troops apply for and attend college. He helped our neighbor fill out all his college applications and grant forms and even took him to tour college campuses. The boys parents didn’t see the need for a college education, so Jason took it upon himself to make sure he got one. Everything Jason did was to help other people.”
But in the shadows, it was Jason who may have needed more help than anyone.
Christian says there was never any follow-up, guidance or counseling when Jason got back from his overseas stint with the Air Force and his time with Operation Iraqi Freedom. The transition back into normal, everyday life was a learn-as-you-go process. By 2006 Jason had separated from the military, but he took a job which required top-secret clearance with Sierra Nevada Corporation. Christian says Jason’s position as a field engineer with the company led to three more trips back overseas, “and every time he returned his personality changed even more”, says Christian.
In the meantime, Jason was focusing on helping other servicemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was doing it person-by-person, just talking and listening. Christian says sometimes that’s all it would take. But no one was listening to Jason… because he wasn’t speaking about his own experiences.
As time passed, things were getting more difficult for Jason. Christian says at home Jason needed everything to be a certain way. If one thing was out-of-place it would immediately put him in a bad mood, agitate him. It was not easy. Christian says she and Jason talked about counseling many times, but because he had top-secret clearance with his current job, he was afraid he would lose his job. Christian says Jason felt he could handle it himself.
To work at Sierra Nevada Corporation Jason had to go through psychological evaluations, but Christian says Jason hid his struggles, never being honest with the doctors. His family didn’t notice much and if anyone did and tried to talk to Jason about it Christian says Jason would turn the conversation around and walk away.
All this time Jason was still trying to help other people with their problems. He still had that smile, the one that brought a bright light to others outside his own darkness. Christian says Jason made the family gatherings more fun, he would always attend his nieces and nephews ballgames, and he made sure to always support the family.
The past two years however things had changed.
Jason was losing weight, and he was drinking again, a lot. Christian says Jason would drink on the weekends, but he was going one step further now, lying about the alcohol abuse, by telling her he was at work, when he was really out at the bar. There were secret hiding places in the house where Jason had stashed his liquor. Places Christian never knew existed. Lies and deceit.
And Jason had stopped doing something else he loved – going to the games – he would no longer show up at the ballgames for his nieces and nephews – claiming work was getting in the way.
Just a few weeks ago Christian needed to fly down to Florida to visit her father, who is battling stage 4 cancer. She left on a Thursday, planning to return the following Tuesday. On Sunday, March 1st she received a text from Jason. He said someone sideswiped his car. “I immediately called him”, says Christian. “He said he was at work and somebody sideswiped it. I said to Jason, ‘It’s Sunday, why would you be working? And even if you were, you are so careful to have everything in its spot, you park in a place where no one could have hit it’. He got angry with me and hung up.”
Forty minutes later there was another text from Jason: “I hit a car tonight and the cops were just here.” Christian immediately responded, “I called him back and he said to me, ‘my life is over, there is no hope.’ “I told him, Jason it’s not, there is always hope, if you allow yourself to get help. He said, ‘it’s too late, it’s too late’. “I said it’s not too late. Then he said, “I love you babe, you are the best thing that ever happened to me.’ “He hung up the phone…. and he was gone.”
With a single gunshot, Jason Semler chose to end his life that night. After a frantic call from Christian, Jason’s father and brother-in-law went to the couple’s home – only to find the TV on, candles lit, and in Jason and Christian’s bedroom – the shock of their lives.
“His parents, me, his friends, everybody is still in shock”, says Christian. “Everyone is taking it really hard, nobody saw this coming. He never talked to anyone about anything like this and I’ve asked everybody.”
Though there has been no official diagnosis, all signs point to Jason dealing with the consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although now nearly a decade since separating from the Air Force, sometimes these symptoms don’t surface for months or years after an event, or returning from deployment. They may also come and go. It appears the same struggles Jason had been helping other friends in the military to overcome, by talking with them, by guiding them through it, in his own life, Jason’s path became unbearable. His bright smile that “lit up the room”, was masking his own demons, hiding his tears of pain. In his mind, hope was lost.
But as Christian told her husband the last time they ever spoke, hope is never lost. “I think that Jason knows that no matter what would have happened, I would have loved and supported and been there for him”, she says. “And his family would have done the same thing. I don’t know what would have caused him to do this. We always had an honest relationship and the hardest part to get over are the lies about his pain and about the drinking. I’ve tried to research PTSD, I’ve tried to research suicide, but I read a few pages and then break down. It’s not obvious if you don’t know what you are looking for.”
(Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include recurring memories or nightmares of the event(s),sleeplessness, loss of interest, or feeling numb, anger, and irritability, but there are many ways PTSD can impact everyday life. The secret may be awareness. There are numerous resources on the internet, the link to the official government site is here: (http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp).
Christian’s ability to share this very private story only three weeks after Jason’s death is beyond courageous, and it is her hope in doing so she might save a life. In her own life, Christian is left trying to understand. She says there is no message, no lesson yet in all of this because she is still trying to “figure it out.” But she does have a place to start.
After everything that happened, Christian went into the couple’s bedroom to retrieve some of Jason’s clothes, but what she saw on the floor was a band-aid, one of the band-aids Jason always wore on his left calf, for good luck. “I saw it as a sign”, says Christian. I wanted to get the actual band-aid permanently secured onto my own leg, but they couldn’t do that, so I got a version tattooed on my calf. Two of Jason’s friends have gotten band-aid tattoos and his father and brother-in-law are getting a band-aid tattoo on Monday.”
Though a band-aid will not heal the deep, cavernous wound in Christian’s heart, it’s a start. You have to start somewhere. Memories of the warmth of her husband’s smile, and time, lots of time, will eventually create the permanent bandage to secure Christian’s own heart, as well as listening to the stories from Jason’s friends and the many, many lives he touched and helped. Despite his own demons, Jason managed to live a life of significance by doing the things that will forever endear him to others – giving back, serving his country and serving others, so many others with whom he came in contact.
When that happens, when you touch and serve others, you’ve done the one thing that leaves your mark on the world, for which you will be forever remembered – you made others glad you lived.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
(To read more about Jason’s life and how he affected others, visit the Facebook Page: Remembering Jason Semler: (https://www.facebook.com/groups/JasonSemler/)
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Speaker, Emmy-Award Winner, Financial Services
Author: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
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