When you're on the battlefield, veterans will tell you that bond with your team is inseparable. But when you come home, it can be a struggle to fit in the slower pace of real life. Even more so if you've suffered a traumatic brain injury. Some local soldiers want to honor one of the men they came to respect serving in Iraq.
“He was one of the first people I met at Fort Bragg,” said Kyle Hanson of Omaha.
“He was one of the first people to take me around and show me the ropes. He quickly became one of my best friends,” said Jenna Vaughn of Lincoln.
Their friend – their fellow soldier, Specialist Jessie Lee Tolbert's final resting place became the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
He was 26.
“This man who was full of life,” said Vaughn. “He had the best smile and biggest blue eyes, and he was always there for his friends with a go-get-them attitude of honor that a lot of people don't get to see.”
“The last memory I have is of us throwing our boots on the wires,” said Hanson. “It's sort of a military tradition when you get out of the military – that you throw your boots on the power lines. Last time I saw him, he was full of life. He said he'd catch us later – we had a beer and he got out of Dodge.”
Kyle Hanson and Jessie Tolbert provided base defense. They patrolled together as part of the 2-59th Field Service Company. They spent 13 months in Iraq.
After they left the army in 2009, Jessie went back to Maryland and West Virginia.
Kyle went back to Nebraska.
A few weeks ago, Kyle tried to reach his old friend after a fellow soldier had died.
He knew Jessie would want to know.
“None of the phone numbers for him worked anymore,” said Kyle, “And so I went online to look for him – and I didn't find a phone number – but his obituary.”
Kyle knew his friend suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It was often the topic of conversation when we would speak,” said Kyle.
But he thought Jessie was managing it best he could.
Friends acknowledge that on December 30th, 2012, he ended his own life.
“You feel bound by what happens to them,” said Kyle. “You do feel that any one of your military buddies dies or commit suicide – you can't help but feel somewhat responsible. I think people believe that those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have that 1,000 yard stare all the time. That if you shut a car door, they're going to freak out. You could be doing awesome for 12-months – 2-days – 4 weeks and then for a few days, then you're just not going okay.”
As a tribute, Kyle and Jenna – along with a handful of others who served with Specialist Jessie Tolbert – plan to visit his marker at the Arlington National Cemetery to say goodbye.
“If we don't do this – when are we ever,” said Hanson. “You hear from guys at other wars who don't see each other for 30-40 years. In our formative years, we were all we had. It's the right thing to do to pay his respects to a person who would have walked there if he had to. For us, he would have absolutely been there – no matter what. It's only right that we all do it together.”
And to remind other veterans – you've got friends.
“Sadly, some think there are no options left and when those are out, where do I go,” said Jenna.
Kyle and Jenna – along with a couple other members of Jessie's close-knit team – are looking for help to raise a little more than $3,000 to fly to Arlington National Cemetery to honor him.
Any leftover money would go to “Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.”
Arlington conducts, on average, eight funeral services every day with military honors.
Last week, Congress sent the President a bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among veterans.
Local experts believe they are making progress.
“Different things work for different people,” said Terry North, PTSD program director at VA Nebraska-Western Iowa. “I think with our evidence based treatments, there are people who believe their symptoms have returned to a minimal level and hardly come back – and then there are people who have chronic symptoms that they have to manage throughout their lives.”
Dr. North says studies show that veterans who have been deployed have a higher rate of PTSD than the general public.
“It's not like a broken arm,” said Kyle Hanson. “It's so much more abstract. What's even more difficult for military members is that what triggers your PTSD or what it relates to – are often topics that people don't have context to -- so it's even harder to discuss.”
Dr. North recommends several mobile apps for veterans available on the VA website.
“There's certainly a higher risk of suicide for those with PTSD,” she said.