January 13, 2017
From The ledge of The George Washington Bridge
To The Top of Camp Hess Kramer
A Testimonial of my Experience and Volunteering with The Save a Warrior Project
By James P. Connors
There’s only one place for me to start and that’s how I found myself on the ledge with no road left for me to travel… or so I thought. Here I was a Combat Veteran who had Completed 7 Tours of Duty in Iraq, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan along with many other spots in The Sand Box. I just resigned from my Career as a Professional Firefighter where The Attacks of September 11 2001, was my rookie year. At this point I had accomplished a Great Deal in my life and it was pretty exciting and overwhelming up until this point of severe hopelessness and Depression. One minute I’m hung over in the back row on Stage Graduating High School, The Next I’m 19 and In Saudi Arabia with an M-16, Then I’m in Driving a Fire Engine Lights are flashing and Tower 1 has just collapsed and all of a Sudden I’m back in the Middle East in Iraq in a Hangar shaking Hands with President Bush. It seems like right after that I’m in Afghanistan now and doing convoys, where now I’m shaking hands with President Obama. Life is moving quick… A man once told me I was the greatest person on a piece of paper if you didn’t know me. He said wow 7 tours at war and you’re a professional firefighter and in the Air Force Reserve? You’re Like Captain America or Something. What this man didn’t know nor did the rest of the world is that I was out of control Depressed Alcoholic who used Hard Liquor and Women to Deal with his emotions or lack of emotions. I was looking for a Material Solution to a Spiritual Problem. The Things I have seen and Things I have done were eating me from the inside out.
Let’s get back to the Bridge. So here I am I have lost my Career and have embarrassed myself and my Family. I have been forced to resign or be removed from my position as a career Firefighter. A job I worked so hard to get and a job where I worked out and kept in shape… I am now looking at losing my Military career over what I have done (at that time I ended up saving it later on) and have no clue how I’m going to keep up with the Mortgage or Pay my family’s healthcare or even deal with the great shame I am living with or have brought on my family’s name. All the Plaques and Medals were Taken Down in Town hall I was pretty much embarrassed all over town, I had to give back the Key to The City so to speak. I must be the biggest Idiot to do what I have done. Who in their right mind shows up angry and intoxicated at a $100,000.00 a year 2 day a week job and threatens to beat his boss to death? Why am I so fucking Angry? Why did I do this? What is this that’s eating me Alive? Why does it feel like I can’t breathe? Why does it feel like someone is standing on my chest? Why is this never ever going to get any better? I must be the biggest moron in the world. I had no education except the joke of a High school I attended. I will never get a job making that kind of money ever again. People are going to laugh so hard at me when they see me. Along with their other comments… Why do I have so much guilt inside me for my actions overseas? Why on earth can’t I get full nights sleep? I continuously wake up screaming and lost. I’m done I’m just done with all of it. What’s stopping me from leaping off this bridge; all I want to do is wake up and not face all this bullshit I have created. I lost everything over 1 week’s time that I spent years to build up. For some strange reason known only to God I called John Vitale. This was actually harder than Leaping off The G.W.B.
Who is John Vitale you ask? John Vitale is a close friend of mine and also in my Air Force Reserve Unit. This man I have deployed to War with (numerous times) and has helped me try to get sober…. I figured well I have it in my plans to leap of this bridge so I have nothing to lose anyway. That is what was going through my head, if you can believe it. I didn’t have to resign and lose my job as a Professional Firefighter, John Vitale has been telling me for months about This “Save A Warrior Project” and how it changed his life for the better. I just wasn’t ready until now obviously. Although I don’t recommend waiting until you lose your sanity to seek help but it happens to us sometimes we are human beings. I never realized it is a sign of strength to ask for help, NOT a sign of weakness. John told me to go home and that he was making some calls for me to Jake Clark and the Save A Warrior people to get me into a Cohort. I agreed to give it a chance. At this point why not. I got scheduled to go through Cohort #9 in January of 2014.
January came and there I was at Newark Airport not knowing what to expect. I called John from the Airport and told him this all seemed like bullshit and some tree hugging nonsense and I didn’t know what this program really was. Was this some type of Western Bohemianism? What is this? I told John I’m going home this isn’t for me. This program is probably for someone else not me. John told me to stay put and he felt the same way at one point in time. John said “jimmy just get on the plane there will be someone on the other side to pick you up” just do it. So I did. This was probably the best decision I made in a very long time to work on my life. I went to California and I learned how to let go of all the stress I was holding onto and that was eating me from the inside out. These men and women taught me how to let go of all my Trauma and military experiences and the effects of 9 11. I believe that Philip Folsom was the first person I heard say “look back at the past but don’t stare” I was instructed how to meditate and I learned to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes which calms me and squashes if not rids me of my anger that was built up inside me from the 7 deployments to the Middle East. The week I spent at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu California seemed like months to me. Every day was filled with challenging activities and group exercise with Men and Women who were dealing with the same issues if not worse then what I was facing. Nobody understands as well as our own. There is a saying that we stick to from day #1 at S.A.W. and that’s “Play like it’s a game and your life depends on it” basically keep an open mind and absorb what is being Taught. Dr Michael Salonius breaks down and explains the human brain and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it affects the Amigdula and brain function along with your way of life. During this week I shared and was open about my issues and what I was feeling. I also listened to the 12 men that were going through the Cohort with me and what they were dealing with, whether it is P.T.S.D. or problems with their wife’s or ruining their families or even isolating themselves to the point where they don’t even come out of the basement for weeks… It was allot to take in. During this time we worked together though understanding and not judging each other and getting it all out on the table. We worked with Horses and did equine therapy and we also worked together on a ropes course where we supported each other. During this week we built a community to check on one another and hold each accountable for our actions without Judgment. Some guys saw allot of Combat and some men were bothered by the things they have done and seen like myself, and some of these men have just been laughing at death after being so immune from dealing it and seeing it go on. Like they say War is hell. This program opened up my eyes a great deal. I realized I was talking to the wrong people and dealing with things by self medicating in my own way. I just wished I had found it sooner. But as Bobby Farmer a 10 Tour Decorated Combat Veteran and former Green Beret says, “You can’t fight your way out of it you can’t Drink your way out of it, and you can’t fuck your way out of it” you have to learn to deal with it get it out and move on with your life otherwise you will be back on that bridge. A place I don’t want to be. People don’t commit suicide to punish the ones left behind or make a statement. People Commit suicide just so they don’t have to wake up and keep feeling the pain and the way they are feeling inside. Words will never be able to express the thanks to Ronald Clark “Jake” for creating and putting this program together for us. Jake didn’t have the easiest life himself and had plenty of dark times though, he overcame allot of adversity thrown his way. That story we will save for another day though.
After my Cohort was over I expressed interest in returning as a Sheppard to help out. I realize that someone took the time out of their life for me to spend a week helping me get my head together and my sanity back. I was granted the Honor of sheparded Cohort #10 which was the subject of a CNN Documentary. I did the best I could and saw that the program was allot more moving for me the second time around. When you come back to Sheppard a cohort it is no longer about you. I should say that it is and it isn’t. In my experience I found it very moving to say the least. The 2nd time around you are there earlier and you see the men and women arrive. Whether it is a female cohort or a male cohort and you can see the stress and the pain on allot of their faces. The Warriors are all not sure if they should be there or whether they belong in this group, or just nervous about what challenges there about to take on in the upcoming week. Allot of the Warriors along with myself felt that someone else “not me belongs in this seat” there’s got to be another Soldier who is suffering more than me, my problems are nothing. What we realize though from day 1 of the Cohort is that when is time for you? Allot of us have spent a great deal of years and time in the service of others, so WHEN is it time for YOU??? Jake is always saying that to us. Dr. Mike and Philip Folsom sometimes quote Hillel and remind us “If I am not for myself who am I? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now then when?
So now after Shepparding 17 Cohorts and almost 3 years worth of Volunteering almost 1,700 hours, 350 Warriors and having an effect on 114 families It makes me more humble every time I am given the Honor to come back and work with S.A.W. If you told me my first day when I went through Cohort #9 that I would return 11 times to help I would have told you that your are crazy! The point I’m trying to get across is that sometimes in life the most important Crosses besides are own that we will bear are the Crosses in our lives that belong to someone else. Thus, how well we bear our personal Crosses, whether of our own making or an accident by birth, is much less of a story than how well we carry the Crosses of family, friends other Warriors and most importantly the Crosses of strangers. What I have found is it is very rarely in life we have an opportunity to select the Crosses that we are compelled to carry. I have become a humble bystander and Sheppard among great men and women who are giving an aid in the fight and support effort to Men and Women returning home from our current conflicts in War or in support of protecting our Nations National interest and assets. You can’t do this alone. In Carl Marlantes book What it is like to go to war Karl talks about how the number of Veterans who return from War and who kill themselves is largely ignored by society. You can’t be a soldier and not be deeply involved with suffering and responsibility. I have to agree with Karl Marlantes and say if I had to choose after the things I did overseas and here at home, I would chose sadness over guilt. S.A.W. helped me face how bad I thought things were and taught me how it can be countered and conquered. I couldn’t become a ladder for someone else until I could confirm consciously and put my own affairs in order. The people of this amazing program I will forever be in debt, for changing my way of sight through times of darkness in my life.
In Conclusion I feel I can’t give enough to give back and have found very few programs even close to something as spiritually initiating and life changing for the better. I mentioned there was a man who once told me that I was the greatest man in the world on a piece of paper, if you didn’t know me. He was the clerk at the liquor store. He always saw me whether it was happy times or dark times. I now have my life back. Five and a half Days isn’t going to fix all of your problems that you’re facing, nor will it erase your past. This program gives you the tools to fix your life and deal with life’s challenges better than before. Thank you Save A Warrior.