“I am a survivor; I am a warrior.”
American citizens have certain “unalienable rights” that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, according to the Declaration of Independence.
Some citizens, however, take for granted the rights they have, forgetting the sacrifices that American soldiers made and are still making today.
For members of the US Armed Forces like retired Capt. Cherissa Jackson, Veterans Day is not simply another day in the 365 days in a year. It is a day of recognition, honoring and sacrifice in which she, like many other veterans, have fought bravely to protect her country.
Retired Capt. Jackson, 45, of Germantown, Md., devotes her life to insuring the health and the safety of veterans who served or who are serving this country abroad.
“Before I leave this earth, I want to know that veterans are taken care of better, especially when it comes to their mental health,” said Jackson.
As a retired Air Force Nurse with 23 years of active duty military experience, Jackson has seen her fair share of battle wounds and injuries from soldiers in combat. She completed four tours overseas with three of those tours being in combat hospitals.
Jackson served in Iraq on two separate tours in 2005 and 2006, and in Afghanistan in 2011. On a day like today, Jackson remembers her experiences of what it felt like to protect and serve her country.
“My experiences were life changing because I didn’t know what to expect” Jackson said. “When I went back to Iraq the second time, I went to the same location; so, I kind of knew what to expect. When I went to Afghanistan, however, it was a new location. The types of injuries I saw, the troops that I took care of, including the enemy, it was truly life changing.”
While serving in Afghanistan, it was this tour that truly impacted her life and why she lives her life in the manner that she does today.
In July of 2011, Afghan forces bombed Jackson’s building. At this moment, thankfully, she was not in the building.
Jackson said she remembers this day like it was yesterday.
“As an officer of my unit, I received a call from my commander to report to the emergency room because some of soldiers in my unit had been injured,” Jackson said. “When I approached the burning building, I knew something was not right.”
The tent that Jackson and her unit soldiers were living in had been moldered.
“A rocket hit our generator,” said Jackson. “When the incoming rocket hit the generator behind our building, the shrapnel totally pierced through the tent, causing the generator to blow up. The first thing I thought of was this could have been me.”
“This could have been her” happened the next day while Jackson worked the night shift in her building.
The Afghan troops bombed her unit again but Jackson managed to escape to a bunker as she listened to the firing of loud gunshots and rockets flying over her head.
Jackson said she prayed to God immediately to allow her to survive the near-death situation she was in.
“I told God if he allowed me to survive and get back home, I will definitely do something that will be of service and do something that will be impactful for veterans.”
Part of her will to survive came at the fact that she was a single mother of two 17-year-old twin daughters.
Being a single mother forced Jackson to be strong, reminding her that she had to do what she had to do to get things done while she was fighting for her country as well as her loved ones.
“I didn’t get much help from their father; so, I was always in survivor mode,” Jackson said. “I always checked to see if they were OK. I always made sure that I was getting things done for them as well as myself.”
Before coming back to the United States, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) emailed Jackson and asked her would she be apart of a surprise reunion with military families. KFC told Jackson that she had been selected to be one of the company’s first and only military families on the coming home show.
In addition to Jackson surprising her daughters, her daughters would receive $20,000 scholarships each to attend college.
Jackson was excited to reunite with her daughters and thankful for KFC’s financial contribution to her daughters.
In January of 2012, Jackson retired from the US Air Force and returned to the United States.
For Jackson, it was a sigh of relief.
“Once you leave war and you are in the air to return home, you don’t have to keep the frustration around and be on hyper alert anymore,” Jackson said. “In a war, you have to be on hyper alert because anything can happen at any time.”
On the other hand, Jackson said returning home meant figuring out where she would fit into the lives of her two 17-year-old twin daughters, Anita and Ashley Lee.
“Being a single mother of two daughters, I wondered where I would fit into their lives after six months,” Jackson said. “They were getting older but while figuring out what to do, I simply wanted to come back, hug them and hold them.”
The excitement and family bond that had been missing between Jackson and her girls took a change for the worse.
In August of 2012, Jackson took her girls to school to begin their first year in college. After dropping them off and getting them settled in school, Jackson began having flashbacks of what she saw and experienced in Afghanistan.
When the flashbacks continued on a daily basis, Jackson said she knew she was in trouble because she was experiencing symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More importantly, Jackson was not sure as to how she would deal with the issue.
“Who would I tell,” Jackson said. “The stigma of PTSD is very rampant in the military community. I knew I had a job to do. I had to figure out how to cope and keep this hidden while remaining a stellar nurse.”
Afraid and nervous to discuss her PTSD with anyone, Jackson took a leap of faith and sought out a therapist who gave her medication to help her deal with depression, insomnia and hyper alertness, all characteristics of PTSD.
Jackson, however, realized that medication alone would not help her deal with PTS. She, then, began to use daily meditations, spirituality and exercise as means to cope with her symptoms.
Four years later, Jackson stands as a PTS survivor. Now, she dedicates her life to bettering the live of veterans as well as anyone who suffers from PTSD.
“Everywhere around the world, people think those who suffer from PTSD are coo coo for cocoa puffs,” Jackson said. “I just want to change that stigma.”
Jackson started a nonprofit organization, PTSFaces, an online platform designed to provide support groups, partnerships, medical teams, webinars, survival stories and other resources to veterans who suffer from PTS.
On Nov. 5, Jackson also launched PTSVoices, an online and offline training program that helps veterans as well as others by providing non-traditional means to deal with PTS. Online, the program offers peer-group discussions while offline it provides one-on-one consultations.
“PTSVoices gives me the opportunity to not only train veteran soldiers but first responders, cops, nurses and anyone suffering from PTS,” Jackson said.
In addition to her non-profit organization, in October, Jackson published her book At Peace: Not in Pieces which discusses how she overcame her obstacles, her disappointments, her suffering from PTSD and her successful moments.
From the book, Jackson used seven principles to help her maneuver through some of the roughest times in her life. The principles are acknowledge, transition, perseverance, engage, accept, courage and empowerment.
“My book allowed me to put my journey on paper with hopes that it would help someone work through their problems,” Jackson said.
While Jackson has done a lot to help veterans already, she said that she has additional plans to help veterans who suffer from PTSD.
“I would love to be an advocator for the US Department of Veteran Affairs, helping them to change some of their policies for veterans with PTSD,” Jackson said. “I want to unite with others, take my non-profit organization to the next level, create documentaries, show all of the wonderful things that veterans are doing in this country.”
Jackson’s constant pursuit to change the image of PTSD has given her the opportunity to complete a 10-day PTSD project in Vatican City, where she will partner with SheRoes United to help people who suffer from PTSD.
SheRoes United is an organization that embraces female, super role models in local and global communities to empower their voices and become triumph creators for positive change.
Since her retirement from the US Air Force, Jackson said she is living a purposeful life.
“As a nurse, I worked beside and I was doing great and serving people,” Jackson said. “When I retired, I tapped into my true calling of providing service and giving up myself to others. It makes me feel great.”
While some businesses will close and most Americans will enjoy the normal freedoms they have like any other day, Jackson said those who are fighting for this country and serving abroad should be proud.
“Veterans Day should be a proud moment for them,” Jackson said. “This is only the beginning of their journey of who they are supposed to be. Go for the ride and embrace the journey.”
As for Jackson, she will continue her journey of bettering the lives of veterans and people who suffer from PTSD, hoping that everything she is doing will not be in vain.