Jason Kelly was medically retired in March 2009 for major depressive disorder and anxiety, which he developed while serving on active duty. He works for the Fort Meade Public Affairs Office as its emerging media manager and oversees Fort Meade’s website and social media platform.
“How are you feeling?”
I believe it is a question that probably saved my life. I thought the answer seemed obvious as I sat in my doctor’s office at Reynolds Army Community Hospital at Fort Sill, Okla., but I was wrong.
I arrived at Fort Sill in April 2008 for Basic Officer Leadership Course II as a newly commissioned second lieutenant from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. I was excited about what I had accomplished as a college student. I was looking forward to the challenges that I would face as an armor officer.
Training progressed as expected, but I was carrying around more than just my rucksack and M-4. I began to experience both relationship and family problems. I tried to resolve them myself when I wasn’t training.
The issues eventually took a toll on me and ate away at me. You could call it the perfect storm. I spent less free time with my friends there. I slept whenever I had an opportunity. I figured I just wasn’t feeling well;I hadn’t connected the dots yet.
I went to sick call where the doctors returned me to duty.
So, I continued training. At the same time, I felt like I was getting worse; I still felt uncomfortable. I cried whenever I secluded myself in my room. I tried to “man up” until one day when I was in the field. My chest tightened. I was short of breath. I felt out of control.
I blamed it on the stress of training under the hot Oklahoma sun. I kept it to myself – like I had been doing with my personal problems. When my platoon returned to the forward operating base, I finally said something, “I thought I was having a heart attack.”
I returned to the hospital where I was diagnosed with a panic attack. Later, I followed-up with my doctor. That’s when he asked me the question, “How are you feeling.”
He explained he wasn’t asking about physical problems. I sat there silently as I thought. Then, I began to cry as I answered him. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t care for my family. I felt like I should’ve done better. I felt embarrassed for being a second lieutenant who was crying to a major about his problems.
He listened as I explained, for the first time, how I felt emotionally. Reluctantly, I agreed to seek help at the behavioral health clinic. At the time, I felt like it was another example of being a failure.
As I sat in the waiting room there for my first appointment, I looked around me. There were service members, families and civilians. They looked normal. For the first time, I didn’t feel entirely alone.
I was eventually placed on a medical profile. As a result, I stopped training. My focus was now on my health; I typically had three to four counseling appointments a week for months. I was medically retired in March 2009 for major depression and anxiety.
More than three years since I left the Army, I still receive treatment for depression and anxiety. At times, I still become frustrated and try to blame myself for my depression and anxiety. Then, I tell myself that I didn’t fail. I am alive because someone showed me that he cared about me. I am alive because I sought help. While I never contemplated suicide, I believe that I could’ve eventually reached that point if I didn’t receive the medical care that I needed. I could’ve been a statistic.
Recently, a former college classmate said I left the Army because I couldn’t “cut it.” It couldn’t be further from the truth; I left the Army because I have a medical problem.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health conditions are treatable medical issues; they are no less a medical condition than losing a limb. I wish I would’ve realized I wasn’t weak and sought help earlier.
This is just the second time that I have publicly shared what I now consider a story of survival. A few months ago, I told my story to a small group of young service members. I wanted them to know that there’s no shame in asking for help.
Today, I’m sharing the same message. Reach out for help when you’re dealing with a problem. Resources such as Army Community Service and Military OneSource are available. Both of them offer service members and their families help with almost all aspects of military life. In most cases, help is just a mouse click or phone call away. At the time, I had no idea that I needed help or what help was available.
Remember the acronym “ACE:” Ask, care and escort. Know the symptoms of depression and PTSD as well as the warning signs of suicide. Be aware of what you and others are experiencing. You aren’t being nosey; you are showing someone that you care. It can be as simple as asking, “How are you feeling?” Those words might change or save a life.