My name is Jason, and I was born on March 1, 1988 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I attended school in the Gull Lake School District in Richland, MI and lived in my childhood home with my parents and my older brother until he joined the United States Marine Corps. During my last two years of high school, my morning classes consisted of on-the-job training while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Helping others was and always has been my passion, and building houses was the way I began that journey.
After graduating high school in 2006, I continued to work in the construction field and began to work towards a college degree. I soon realized my need to help others was not being met, so in the spring of 2009, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. I headed home to break the news to my parents that their youngest son was planning to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. My brother, Robert, served in Iraq during the Battle of Fallujah when I was in high school. His absence influenced me greatly as we were able to watch the transformation of a boy to a man. It is because of my brother’s choice to serve that I realized my calling to become a United States Marine as well.
Prior to heading off to boot camp, I had about six month’s downtime, so I decided to spend it with family at Smith Mountain Lake in southwest Virginia. A coworker in this area insisted that she set me up with a friend of hers. On June 1, 2009 I agreed and later realized that encounter would change my life forever. I took this girl wakeboarding for our first date. While she was wakeboarding, she fell off and cracked her head open, falling into the water. I did what any knight in shining armor would do—I jumped in and rescued her. An ambulance ride, seven staples, and a lot of clean up on the boat later, we were in love. We agreed to continue our relationship through 13 weeks of boot camp with no contact other than snail mail, and soon after became engaged. Being apart for the 13 weeks of boot camp was a very difficult time, but this ‘girl’, Holly, is now my wife of seven years and the mother of our two beautiful daughters. We still have the handwritten letters we exchanged during that period. Those letters are something we will cherish forever and share with our grandchildren one day.
After graduating boot camp as a Private First Class and squad leader, I completed Marine Combat Training and was shipped off to Goodfellow Airforce Base in San Angelo, Texas to attend the Department of Defense Fire Academy. Upon graduation, I earned the Military Occupational Specialty of 7051, Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting. This training was one of the most exhausting and physically demanding things I’ve ever done, but I enjoyed every minute of it and completed the course in July of 2010. From here, I was assigned my first duty station of my career, Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. While there, I spent five months on temporary additional duty orders at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and learned more about my line of work than I ever imagined. It was here that I also experienced my first real emergency and lost a brother in arms. This experience was very eye opening and tough to swallow, but things only got worse when that same week we lost another one of our own in a car accident.
I flew back east to marry Holly on June 18, 2011 and help her move away from her friends and family in Virginia to our new home together in California. Our wedding date is significant not only because it was the day we sealed our lives together before God and our families, but also because we chose to be married on her late mother’s birthday and we did so at the church where she is buried.
Fast forward a couple years to 2013—I am fulfilling my dreams in the military and being promoted fairly quickly. Holly is fulfilling her dreams teaching, and we were expecting our first child, Evelyn Ann. Two months after she was born, we received permanent change of station orders to Marine Wing Support Squadron 274 in Cherry Point, North Carolina. We arrived in January of 2014. A month and a half later, I was saying ‘See you later’ to my girls and heading to Afghanistan. Not really knowing what to expect, I was nervous and excited. When we arrived, I was able to reunite with some old friends from Camp Pendleton, as my new squadron was their relief. They were ready to head home and my time was just beginning. The deployment was a very humbling experience and completely changed my life.
While in Afghanistan, I was appointed section leader and put in charge of eight Marines in my crew. From March 27 to November 1, 2014, we worked 24/7 with no time off. We were permanently on call, never knowing when the next call would be and what it would bring. Calls varied from structure fires to medical emergencies and everywhere in between. As soon as we thought we’d get a little break to rest, a medical evacuation call would come in and we began to work again. During this deployment, I was the Incident Commander of two aircraft crashes, seven structural fires, two tactical recovery of aircraft personnel, and over 215 medical evacuations. But this wasn’t all we were responsible for; my crew and I were tasked with training 20 Afghanistan National Army Firefighters. This meant we spent four hours a day for four months training and educating them on firefighting operations, tactics, basic life support, and how to operate machinery. This was all done in preparation for handing over the base once we left. I was away from home for over eight months, missed Evelyn’s first birthday, first steps, first words, and so much more, but at the same time being deployed gave me a unique perspective on life, one that cannot be learned in any other circumstance.
When it was finally time to come back home to my girls, I was so excited. The first time I saw my daughter walk was when she was running to me at homecoming as I stepped off the white bus. Holly did an amazing job of regularly showing Evelyn pictures of me and talking about me, so she miraculously knew who I was and couldn’t wait to get her daddy back. Through all of this excitement, I was unable to realize the impact that the stress and trauma of my career had put on myself and my family. It wasn’t until I was talking to my wife about our family and daughter that I realized how drastically the stresses of being a firefighter and Marine for the last seven years had taken hold of me. I got over my ego and decided to get help. At first I sought help from my friends and brother, but then I dug deeper and started seeking professional therapy in order to conquer this hurdle. Though it is a long, ongoing battle, I am happy to say that I have a strong grasp on my PTSD and am able to maintain this through self-reflection, and by talking to and helping others in my same situation.
Towards the end of our time in Cherry Point, Holly and I decided to expand our family and had our second and final child, Claire Maureen. Claire has been a funny one from the beginning and gave us a little surprise by entering this world a month early on January 6, 2016, at a tiny five pounds. She started out as our spitfire and hasn’t stopped since. Shortly after her birth, I got the opportunity to return to Goodfellow Air Force Base, but this time as an instructor at the fire academy. We were very excited about this new chapter and decided to take a trip to visit my family in Michigan. While we were there, my mother unexpectedly suffered a massive stroke and passed away. I lost one of the most important people in my life, and my children lost their grandmother. We spent some time mourning our loss as a family, and vowed to continue making my mother proud by achieving goals we had set for ourselves. We moved in December of 2016 and I began my training to start teaching. I was very excited to be able to teach and mentor these students who would become firefighters, and also to share with them my experiences and troubles I have gone through in an attempt to help them. I felt like it was my calling to instruct and teach fellow military members before they were sent into battle.
I completed the Instructor’s Course in February of 2017 and started shadowing an instructor to begin to lead a class on my own. On April 1, 2017, I was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant, started teaching my first class, and was thrilled with where life was going. A mere 11 days later, on April 12, my life was forever changed. During an intramural softball game with my coworkers, I collided with a teammate and hit the ground. I was unconscious for fifteen minutes on the field. People in the stands assumed I had been killed and were trying to get in touch with my wife who was at home putting our two girls to bed. I was transported to the nearest hospital where my wife met me. Before she was able to see me, she was stopped in the hallway by the nurse who informed her we needed to transfer to a bigger hospital, so I could be seen by a neurosurgeon due to the hemorrhage in my brain. Considering this was only eight months after my mom passed from bleeding in the brain, and 14 years after her own mother passed from the same thing, my wife was terrified. By the grace of God, my bleeding clotted on its own and no surgery was needed. In addition to the bleeding, I suffered a fractured temporal bone and completely lost all hearing in my left ear, which we later learned would be permanent. After a lot of research and discussion with an audiologist, I had a Bone Anchored Hearing Aid surgically placed in my skull to have a permanent hearing aid.
The next several months were spent doing physical and cognitive therapy, where after a lot of hard work, I made great improvements. I would regularly travel 3.5 hours one-way to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. That is where I have completed Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation and received physical therapy to improve the pain in my neck caused by the collision. With the help of my medical team and my wife, I have overcome more in the past nine years than most do in a lifetime, but I’m doing it with my head held high. My life experiences have deepened my sense of urgency to help others that may be struggling like I was, and I intend to devote the rest of my life to doing just that. Holly is very supportive of my dreams and goals as she shares them with me. She has been the glue that has held us together the past few years and never ceases to put our family and happiness first. Together we are an amazing team.
My ability to conquer the side effects and issues that come hand in hand with PTSD and TBI has shown me that not only does everything happen for a reason, but everything happens to the right person for a reason. I have experienced hardships so that I may help others who may have hard times to come or those that need help coming out of the dark times. Holly and I feel in our hearts that God is calling me to be that stepping stone or bridge over the rocky waters for other military members who are finding themselves in similar situations to our last several years. I intend to fulfill this calling and by doing so will not only contribute to the happiness of my family but also to other families who need a light at the end of the PTSD and TBI tunnel.
Throughout my time in the Marine Corps I received the following personal awards:
Three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals—2013, 2016, 2017
Five Certificates of Commendation—2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016
Two Meritorious Masts—2010, 2014