(This is the fourth in a series of stories by CBS 5 News morning anchor Nicole Crites looking at the issues Arizona military veterans face as they return to civilian life.)
Andrew Jones is an Iraq War combat veteran. And like so many veterans, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, just one of the many challenges facing Arizona veterans trying to make the transition and lead productive civilian lives.
It hasn't been a smooth road for the Phoenix man, but after more than a decade, he is proving to be an inspiration by overcoming PTSD, working with politicians on new solutions for transitioning and publishing an anthology of stories that resonates with his fellow veterans.
Jones was with one of the last U.S. Marine platoons sent into Baghdad as American forces seized Iraq's capital city.
"April 8, 2003," Jones began as he recalled the day that would change his life. "We were up on the rooftop- trying to find our targets up there. Out of nowhere, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) smashed into the wall right in front of my face; blew me back; knocked me out."
"We were takin' heavy fire up there and then everything blacked out," he continued. "By the time another Marine was helping me up to my feet we were being told to fall back from our position."
As his squad scrambled for cover, they were approached by a caravan that would not stop, Jones said.
They took out all three drivers, fearing a suicide bomber sabotage.
But they were civilians.
"They were a Romanian family. They weren't Iraqi. They weren't Muslim," Jones said.
"The mom ended up coming out of the vehicle trying to say that they were the peace people, that is what she was saying. To stop. Stop shooting. That she wanted to let us know that they weren't trying to hurt us. They were just trying to get home."
Guilt follows Marine home
He brought the guilt of that incident home.
"I can remember seeing them. I can remember seeing the blood on them," Jones said. "I was having nightmares about it. I couldn't go five minutes without it going through my head. It was driving me crazy."
"For so long, I felt like I was alone. I felt like I was the only one who felt this way. I felt like I was the only one who had these nightmares and went through these troubling times."
He said he tried to seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006 for his problems, which also included thoughts of suicide, but had a bad experience and found no solutions to his problems.
Jones said his guilt turned to anger, and he numbed the pain with alcohol and drugs.
"Nobody wants to talk about when they put their hands on their wife," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about scaring their children. But it's what happens. It's the reality of it."
Jones lost his wife to divorce. He also lost his second wife to divorce. And he lost custody of his two sons.
His violent episodes scared members of his immediate family so badly that his mother called 911 on him at one time.
He assaulted a police officer and ended up serving three months in the Pinal County Jail.
But, he said, he's been sober since April 8 of this year, ironically one decade to the day after the incident that sent him spiraling in the first place.
Finding a source of inspiration
It's not that he hit rock bottom, though it certainly could appear that way.
Jones said he had an "ah-ha" moment when a friend, Chelsea La Barr, gave him a glimmer of hope.
"It all goes back to that moment," Jones said.
"Me staying there and refusing to be just another person that walked out on him was what helped him open up to me," said La Barr, who is now Jones' fiancee.
Jones said he tried to push her away like he did everyone else, testing her to see if she would give up, too.
"I'm just a stubborn person," La Barr said. "I just said, 'So, that's not your decision of whether I'm going to leave or not.'"
From there, Jones said, "It all got better."
At La Barr's encouragement, Jones sought counseling and returned to the VA in 2011. He was diagnosed with PTSD and for the first time, he learned he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
He also started attending church with La Barr and has found hope in his faith. He also drew on the experience of a combat veterans retreat in Payson, where he was surrounded with troops undergoing similar problems.
Writing as a form of therapy
Jones created his own unique PTSD therapy to help quell those constant flashbacks of that April day 10 years ago.
"I came up with this idea that if I can just get it out of my head and put it on paper, then I can move it from my head and transfer it down to paper," Jones said.
So he began writing, a process that worked, and the result of which is a published anthology Healing the Warrior Heart, a compilation of stories to help combat veterans struggling in silence find their voice, Jones said.
"It's amazing how you have this huge group of guys who went through a situation together and people who you can turn to and talk to but they all think they're alone," Jones said.
The future now appears bright for Jones. His relationship with La Barr is flourishing, and he is confident in his therapy that he is working to get joint custody of his sons, both of whom he sees regularly.
Jones is now working to lobby lawmakers to increase the mandatory transition out of the military to a 60- to 90-day program instead of the current five days, and offer more outreach to families so they have a better idea of what to expect and how to help.
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