Home. Made. Podcast Boots On The Farm Episode 10 Graphic

Boots On The Farm

August 02, 2021

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Trigger warning: This story includes mentions of suicidal ideation, PTSD and combat violence.

“Literally, I had to walk to the shower. I had all my clothes on, and I just stepped in the shower and just cried.”

Jon Jackson had a hard time adjusting to life back at home after doing six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seemingly harmless things, like the flash of a camera, triggered a response in him that he couldn’t control. One day, he overheard his son bragging to his friends about killing a frog. Hearing his son talk about taking a life in such a nonchalant way set him off.

“I was screaming at him,” Jon says in the episode. “I mean, he was so scared, my wife was scared. They saw a side of me that should have only been reserved for the enemies of our country.”

Over the 10 years that he served as an Army Ranger, Jon hit over 20 improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Over time, he found that he had to dissociate to be able to keep going. He learned not to hold onto friendships with the guys he was serving with, because you never knew when you’d lose them.

“When you move that fast, you move outside of what it feels like to be human, because we’re all machines at that point, right?” Jon says.

But Jon held on to one friendship: Kyle Comfort. Kyle was Jon’s biggest supporter, and they did everything together. But in 2010, Kyle was killed by an IED. Jon was the one to pull his body off the helicopter.

But Jon remained numb. Two years after Kyle’s death, Jon was given a medical discharge and went home to face a whole new battle.

“I don’t call it PTSD. It’s just survival, right? But after war, when things start settling down and the dark clouds start catching up to you, then that’s when things become a problem,” Jon says.

The dark clouds were finally catching up; he felt like a danger to his family and struggled with thoughts of suicide. He knew he had to do something.

So he bought a farm.

Jon Jackson on Comfort Farms - Image by Matt Odom

Jon Jackson on Comfort Farms - Image by Matt Odom

Jon didn’t know anything about farming. But he was willing to learn. He started raising pigs and taught himself about sustainable farming. He supplied farm-to-table restaurants with his meat and produce. He had turkeys, chickens, ducks, rabbits, fish. He grew organic tomatoes and cucumbers and cultivated heirloom seeds. In the busyness of farm life, Jon finally had found peace.

“So my theory is that the farm taps into the same problem-solving, being hypervigilant, sensory overload. That kind of chaos is where we tend to thrive the best, we think clearly,” Jon says of why he thinks farming helped his PTSD.

Jon wanted to help other vets find the same peace. So he started inviting veterans to come stay on the farm and spend time working in the fields or the barns. And he gave the farm a name: Comfort Farms, after his friend Kyle Comfort.

“We realized on Comfort Farms, you only grow in your discomfort, and so we run towards the things that are making us uncomfortable, because when we tackle those things and we overcome those things is how we grow,” Jon says.

To hear the full story, listen to “Boots On The Farm” now.

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Episode Transcript

STEPHANIE FOO: In 2013, Jon Jackson came home to Georgia for good. He had been away, on and off, for 10 years. It was a bit of an adjustment, but Jon missed his family. His son Titus was growing up, and he wanted to be there for it. One day soon after returning, he overheard Titus bragging to his friends about killing some frogs.

 

JON JACKSON: It was almost this bravado thing where it was like, so proud about what he's done. And I snapped, because it was like, you think taking a life is fun. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon knew something about taking lives. He was returning home from war.

 

JON JACKSON: Having lived through so much of my friends who have lost their lives because, to me, we were expendable, right? 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: This triggered Jon’s PTSD. He completely lost it. 

 

JON JACKSON: I was screaming at him. I mean, he was so scared, my wife was scared. They saw a side of me that should have only been reserved for the enemies of our country.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So how would Jon keep his family safe from this dark side of himself? 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, the soldier who found a way to manage his PTSD – by wrangling pigs.  

 

STEPHANIE FOO: A trigger warning for this story: There are mentions of suicidal ideation, PTSD and combat violence.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: In 2001, Jon Jackson was 23. He had a good job at a pharmaceutical company. But then 9/11 happened. Jon had grown up looking in awe at the World Trade Center directly across the Hudson River from his home in New Jersey. And so this attack – it seemed personal. 

 

JON JACKSON: I didn't grow up in a military family, but when the towers went down, this was a declaration of war, and that's just a natural reaction, especially from folks to say, "OK, you know what? I'm going to sacrifice myself for the greater good and take the fight back to them."

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So Jon joined the army, and found that he liked it. Getting pushed to his limits made him feel something that he didn’t get working in a science lab. He became an Army Ranger Staff Sergeant, among the U.S. military’s most elite soldiers. And he was active duty for 10 years. In that time he did six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the biggest dangers to American soldiers was, of course, IEDs, bombs that terrorists buried under roads. Once, Jon was manning the machine gun in a Humvee, standing halfway out of the roof, when they hit one.

 

JON JACKSON: You know you're in an explosion when you see the light flash before you hear the bang. I could feel my eyebrows singed and things like that. And everybody on the radio were freaking out, "What the f*** Jackson." I was just like, "Dude, freaking fireball just rolled right over top of me." And all I said was, "That's cool," you know?

 

STEPHANIE FOO: You just said, "That's cool." 

 

JON JACKSON: You gotta make light of it, you got to have fun with it. If you don't, you'll lose your mind.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon hit over 20 IEDs during his six tours. In order to get back in the Humvee and keep driving, he had to dissociate from the danger. Had to just sort of turn down the volume on the fear that otherwise would be screaming in his head. And that wasn’t the only thing he had to turn down the volume on. He also had to dissociate from his relationships, his friendships with the guys he served with. And he had to learn that lesson the hard way with one of his friends. 

 

JON JACKSON: We were playing table tennis, man, after a mission. And he went out the next day, got killed. And it was like, yeah man, we were just hanging out yesterday, and now he's no longer here with us. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Within a week, the same thing happened, another vehicle was destroyed by an IED, killing everyone in it.

 

JON JACKSON: We definitely had to clean up brain matter, pick up teeth in the vehicle. We couldn't put them back together, but we put that vehicle back together in about 36 hours as kind of, like, a show of force of what we can do. And when you move that fast, you move outside of what it feels like to be human, because we're all machines at that point, right?

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So, it kind of numbed you out?

 

JON JACKSON: Oh, extremely. You can't hold on to those friendships, because that's something that's going to get you killed.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: There was no time for emotions. You had to remain objective out there. Focus on the mission. Jon was reminded of this every time he left the base. 

 

JON JACKSON: There was a huge sign outside the gates before we rolled out that said, "Today could be the day." And that was really a warning shot that said, keep you on your toes. Once you leave those gates, anything can happen. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: But Jon did hold on to one friendship. He met Kyle Comfort on his first day of basic training. They did everything together. Ate in the chow hall, worked out in the garrison. Then they fought side by side. Kyle was Jon’s biggest supporter. 

 

JON JACKSON: We had a pretty good relationship. You know, it was one of those things where in my career, some of the best things that I was able to do, Kyle just happened to be around. He saw something in me that was extremely useful for the battle. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: He basically believed in you.

 

JON JACKSON: Yeah, yeah. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Sadly, Kyle never saw that happen. In Afghanistan, in 2010, he was killed by an IED. Back at the landing zone, Jon pulled his friend’s body off the helicopter. But still, there was no time for mourning, only time for the next mission. It would be years before Jon could properly come to terms with this loss. He remained on the front lines for another 2 years, numb to the dangers of battle. And then he was given a medical discharge. Like many soldiers who were hit by IEDs, Jon suffered brain damage from multiple concussions and head traumas. And so he went back home to settle with his wife and son in Georgia. But of course, this was just the beginning of the battle. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: After leaving active service, Jon wanted to figure out what was next, move on to a new life and career. But there was that numbness

 

JON JACKSON: And I had a hard time. I still have a hard time. Overseas, it's all black and white. Enemy over there, friendlies over there. Back in society, everyone lives in the gray, which is, I think, more tough because there's so many unknowns. I survived for a long time understanding what's right and what's not, and it's not easy to do that back here.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Right. Because people aren't evil, they're just nuanced.

 

JON JACKSON: Yeah. I didn't relearn those things when coming back into civilian life, right? There was no period for me to settle down and to work on that skill set. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: I mean, you'd be an awesome dad if you were in wartime.

 

JON JACKSON: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'd be great. And that's the biggest issue. Your wife and your loved ones and your kids, I mean, they need certain things every day that, me personally, I was just not able to give them, you know?

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Like what?

 

JON JACKSON: Affection, attention, just a willingness to be vulnerable.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon’s physical wounds didn’t help. He suffers from constant ringing in the ears, extreme sensitivity to bright light, memory loss, the occasional seizure, depression and, of course, his PTSD. He’d known he had PTSD for a long time. But it had gone untreated, because PTSD is an asset in the field. It keeps you hypervigilant, alert, attentive. It keeps you on your toes. 

 

JON JACKSON: I don't call it PTSD. It's just survival, right? But after war, when things start settling down and the dark clouds start catching up to you, then that's when things become a problem. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: At war, there’s constant movement. Go here, do this, clean this, make a list of that. But when all of a sudden, everything is still, everything is peaceful, hypervigilance isn’t helpful anymore. It starts to be a problem. The first time he noticed something was wrong, he was at home preparing dinner. Cutting some veggies at the counter. Drinking a Corona with lime. His wife came up behind him and snapped a picture. The flash went off and instantly his body tensed.

 

JON JACKSON: And I turned around and looked at my wife and she started laughing. She's like, "Well, what are you doing?" And I'm like, "I don't know, I'm feeling kind of weird." And this flood of emotion just came and poured out all over me. I had no control. Literally, I had to walk to the shower. I had all my clothes on and I just stepped in the shower and just cried. I have no worries in the world and just like that, I got put into a situation that triggered a response in me that I could not control. And that was the first time I realized that. This is what PTSD is.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: It's really making me think of that sign. It's really making me think of the sign that says this could be the day.

 

JON JACKSON: Yes.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And then, Jon overhead Titus bragging about killing the frogs. Another flash. This time, the PTSD was directed outward. 

 

JON JACKSON: And so, with my son's nonchalant attitude of killing these frogs, it also triggers something into me, too, about the value of life and why my children have to be this way. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon snapped. And he immediately felt like a danger to his family.

 

JON JACKSON: You got combat veterans, their job is to kill the monsters. And there's no more noble act when you yourself have become the monster and you need to save your family from yourself. That was the most significant part of why I wanted to take my life.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon walked away from his son and wife and sat in his bedroom, cradling a gun in his hands. And he seriously thought about ending it all right then. 

 

JON JACKSON: I think a lot of vets go through that, those last moments before they end up taking their life. When I was in that moment, I finally found that peace that I would be doing something that was as good.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: But of course, Jon wasn’t thinking straight. He wasn’t a monster. He was just a human being who’d survived some horrific situations. Just a guy struggling to keep his chin above the flood of emotions that he’d buried for so long. But then, Jon was shaken out of his reverie. His son wandered into the room, oblivious to the situation.

 

JON JACKSON: We were supposed to go out to eat and I forgot. And he said, "Hey Dad, we still going out to eat?" And it just totally derailed me and literally about, I don't know, 20, 15 minutes of just, just watching sunset go down. And I was about to just be lights out. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: But that moment had brought him back to reality, and the reality was this: Jon couldn’t numb out his family the way he had numbed out his Army buddies.

 

JON JACKSON: So I just needed to just make sure that I was just present and I just said, I had this wild idea of just saying, "Well, this is what's going to happen: I'm going to devote the rest of my life to helping and serving others. I don’t know what that looks like.”

 

STEPHANIE FOO: But being present with his family wasn’t as easy as he thought. So Jon went to the VA clinic in nearby Macon to get help for his PTSD. They said they could get him some therapy in 6 weeks. He didn’t have 6 days. Many vets don’t. Studies have shown that about 15% of service members – about half a million people deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – suffer from PTSD. And PTSD can be deadly. Since 2001, well over 100,000 veterans have died by suicide, about 10 times more than the number of American soldiers killed in combat. So Jon needed to find another form of therapy, something to keep him tethered to this world. He just didn’t know what it was yet.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon had always wanted to run a restaurant, a barbecue joint. And he wanted it to be the best barbecue restaurant in the south. For that, he would need the best pigs. But then Jon thought, well, in order to have the best pork, he would probably need to raise the pigs himself, on his own farm. So he quickly decided that he was going to become a farmer instead of a pitmaster. 

 

JON JACKSON: And then I said, "I don't know nothing about farming. I don't know nothing about any of this stuff." Which was a good thing because I said, "I'm willing to learn." 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: There is an Army Ranger motto, which is “Sua Sponte.” It means “of their own accord.” Do it yourself. Jon was, and always will be, a Ranger. And so he got to work building his farm from the ground up. People thought he was crazy. That he wouldn’t be able to handle farm life. That he wasn’t going to make any money. But he purchased a 20 acre plot of land in Milledgeville, about 30 minutes from Macon. And he and his family moved into the small farmhouse there. The next thing Jon needed to do was get some pigs. So he bought three massive, 500 pound ones, and drove over to pick them up with an old war buddy named Chuck. But they found one pig wasn’t interested in cooperating. 

 

JON JACKSON: And Chuck has this boar's leg, holding it. And the boar's trying to swing around and we dragged him in, and he's dragging out, and he's squealing, he's screaming. And we're, I mean, it took three of us to drag him in that trailer. And yeah, it was fun.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Wrestling pigs was fun. But they also taught Jon a lesson about family. At that point, he was pretty nervous about being with his own kids. He was afraid he might hurt them. 

 

JON JACKSON: I'm watching these piglets grow and just running around, giving mom hell, all of them are like laying on her back and I'm just like, “Oh man.” I had this connection to my own children, right, and their own little ways of doing things. Every time I was around those piglets, I would always think about my kids, and I noticed that there became a time where I really wanted to get back to being present with my own children.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: When the piglets weren’t teaching Jon about parenthood, he was busy figuring out sustainable farming. His rabbits produce manure. The manure contains microbes, which attract black soldier flies. Black fly larvae are eaten by Jon’s turkeys, chickens, ducks and pigs. Plants are grown in aquaponics full of fish that also eat the larvae. And then the plants become feed for the animals

 

JON JACKSON: Yeah, it's a beautiful cycle of how that all works. Our main goal at the farm is to be stewards of the land, right? 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: It's like healing the Earth.

 

JON JACKSON: Yeah, healing the Earth. I have never thought in a million years that I would be so integrated in soil and the health of our planet.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So, after 10 years of being a soldier, Jon was now fostering new life. After he mastered the pig pen, he built a garden full of sweet, organic heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and more. He became fascinated with heritage seeds and started cultivating his own strains.

 

JON JACKSON: I'm growing peas from – that were stuffed in one of King Tut's tombs that they found, archeologists found. And so, they're a purple variety.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: How did they taste?

 

JON JACKSON: Excellent. That's why he wanted to take them with him to the afterlife.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Fancy farm-to-table chefs were featuring his produce and meat on their menus. Lots of people were being nurtured by Jon’s food. But all of this was nurturing Jon, too. Working on the farm helped his PTSD. It gave him peace, purpose, it made him calmer, and so much happier. So Jon wondered if maybe this life could help other people he knew – all of the veterans in the same boat as him.

 

JON JACKSON: So my theory is that the farm taps into the same problem-solving, being hypervigilant, sensory overload. That kind of chaos is where we tend to thrive the best, we think clearly. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: What's chaotic on a farm?

 

JON JACKSON: Oh my God, have you ever been on a farm? Everything's chaotic. It's a f***ing disaster, man. And it's like, you got geese screaming, you get pigs breaking down cages, electric fences down and the sheep are out. Mother nature decides she wants to rain too much, don't rain enough. It's like, how do you win? You don't, you don’t win. The biggest thing is, don't worry about anything that you don't have control over. That is a hard, hard lesson for vets. And when you put them in that situation and they come to that realization, it's funny because that transfers over to family and to relationships. There's a lot of things we don't have control over, but there are things that we can do personally to make our lives better. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: When Jon went to the VA in crisis, he was told to wait. Veterans who can wait long enough get some sort of long-term counselling, or a heavy course of meds. What was missing, Jon thought, was a short-term fix, something veterans could get access to immediately after a meltdown in order to get back on their feet. So Jon created a non-scientific form of behavioral treatment he calls agri-therapy. He moved into a place off the farm and invited veterans to sleep in the farmhouse or camp out in RVs. Vets stay for a few days or several weeks, or they visit on a regular basis. They volunteer their time in the fields and the barns, and in exchange they find a sense of community and belonging.

 

JON JACKSON: So yeah, man. You got Troy and you got John. Both sergeants in the Army. John would most likely be on the John Deere tractor, moving piles of manure, or Troy is out in the garden, working on an irrigation system that he puts in. You got Simon who is active duty and he's there picking weeds or digging holes to put fences in or spreading seeds or watering or doing a number of things.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Since 2016, about 1,000 active-duty and retired veterans have come to Jon’s farm. When they show up, he quickly puts them to work picking vegetables, plucking eggs or wrangling pigs. And soon, their outlook starts to change. They describe a newfound sense of purpose and stronger friendships. Soldiers and spouses tell Jon the farm has saved their marriages and lives. So Jon decided to name his farm after the guy he considered his good friend in the army: Kyle Comfort. Finally, this was a way to memorialize the guy who encouraged him, who believed in him, who said he could be a leader. He thought it was perfectly appropriate: Comfort Farms. But, there’s a twist.

 

JON JACKSON: Kyle didn't join the Rangers because he wanted a comfortable life, right? He wanted an uncomfortable life. And we realized on Comfort Farms you only grow in your discomfort. And so we run towards the things that are making us uncomfortable, because when we tackle those things and we overcome those things is how we grow.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon is the perfect person to run all of this. Because he’s a stickler, because he loves teaching people about good soil and most importantly, because he gets them. Like this one time, at a festival he puts on to honor fallen soldiers, Jon noticed one of the guests sitting off by himself, down by the fire pit. Despite the festivities, he looked sad. Jon walked over and asked him what was wrong.

 

JON JACKSON: He kind of turned away from me a little bit because he was crying and I said, "Hey, you know what, dude? It's OK, brother. It's OK." Because I knew what he was feeling. We'd done a sweat lodge, Native American sweat lodge that we do every Saturday. And it kind of opens you up. It kind of makes you feel extremely vulnerable. And one of the things he said was, “You know Jon, I've never experienced anything like this in my entire life. What I'm afraid of is that when I leave here, I don't have this when I go back home to Boston”. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Jon did know. Now that there was all of this love and bustle and brotherhood, everything was OK. But he knew that this veteran was afraid of what would happen in the quiet. 

 

JON JACKSON: I spent pretty much the rest of the day talking to him and then we hugged, shake hands, cried and I felt good about him leaving and just kind of put like a realistic face on what's going to happen and what his job is to do now, which is to go out and give light into the world. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: To me, that sounds like the opposite of numbness. That seems like intimacy. Vulnerability. Connection. All of the things Jon was afraid he’d lost at war. It sounds like healing. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: We often think of PTSD as a disability. As something that weakens soldiers when they come back. But look at Comfort Farms. It has grown from one pig pen to an expanding farm-slash-facility designed to help veterans. Volunteer social workers now triage veterans upon arrival and provide addiction and mental health treatment. The VA now refers veterans there. And Jon has partnered with the USDA and a couple of local colleges to offer vets a certificate program in sustainable farming. They hold events like a farmer’s market and other celebrations that attract 20,000 visitors every year. This wasn’t built in spite of Jon having PTSD. 

 

JON JACKSON: So when I tell people, like, are you afraid of veterans with PTSD, look around you, because this is what PTSD created. I can let it consume me and ruin me or I can take ownership of it and go ahead and do some good stuff.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And that good stuff has finally trickled down to the person Jon struggled to connect with most when he first came home: his son Titus. Titus is in college now, but comes home to visit. Jon recently taught him how to catch a pig. But the farm work is the diversion that allows for a deeper connection. 

 

JON JACKSON: I come back and I want to talk to him about the things that may have troubled him, or my reaction to the frog situation, and really kind of come back to let him know where my head space was and things like that. So we talk about all those things.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Has he forgiven you?

 

JON JACKSON: Oh, yeah. He knew. He understood. But more importantly, he understood why the value of life meant so much to me.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And has the farm, like having the farm and having it there, allowed you to have those conversations more easily?

 

JON JACKSON: Absolutely. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: It’s never easy to escape the fear of war after you come home. Some soldiers seek to comfort themselves with more dissociation: alcohol, drugs, risky behaviors. Anything to get you away from those feelings. But Jon’s farm provides something else. A safe place to sit with that discomfort. The fear and anxiety swells up, and you embrace it. Then you look up, at the blue sky. Look around you, at a field of beans, at dozens of hands all working together. Today might be the day you die. Or it might be the day that you begin to heal. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.

 

ANNOUNCER: Equal housing lender licensed in all 50 states. NMLSconsumeraccess.org #3030.

Home. Made. Podcast

Home. Made. is a new podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. Inside every home, there’s a story.

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