How I Got Here

By Jason Graven
OIF 1

I am hardly what one would call an “industry expert.” I am, however, a veteran who who has struggled with transition from military to civilian life. This may not qualify me to be an expert, no one has ever rewarded me or gave me a fancy certificate to hang on my wall or even acknowledged this feat as being extraordinary, but I am a veteran who thus far has managed the transition and wish to share it others.

I was medically discharged in 2004. Nothing major, just that pesky burn pit stuff the VA may get around to recognizing someday. I spent a year in Iraq as part of the initial invasion force with the 64th MP Co., 720 MP BN., 3 Corps, Ft. Hood, TX (the fact that I still remember that 12 years later is a feat in itself). Nothing too out of the ordinary occurred during my time over there so I never really thought much of it, or so I thought.

After being discharged, I made the decision to go back to college. I enrolled at the University of Toledo and decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History. I immersed myself into school work, graduating in three years. I was working at a restaurant full-time, in various positions over the years, while going to college full-time. My entire life was go-go-go. Aside from the school work and employment, I also spent time as a founding member and President of the campus veteran organization receiving such accolades as being honored with the keynote speaker title at a “Support the Troops Rally.” I somehow also found time to be the “Veteran Coordinator” for the Toledo region on one of the Presidential campaigns in 2008 and peaked when I was featured on 18 billboards across Ohio. My future was looking fairly positive, and to some affiliations from my past this was certainly a 180 degree turn.

After graduation, I continued my employment with the restaurant while I looked for a position more suitable to my newly earned degree. If you know anyone who holds a Bachelor of Arts in History Degree, then you have already identified my first mistake. Adding to my worthless degree (as I would learn most business’ perceive such a degree as, but are certainly wrong), I graduated during the economic crash of 2009. As the stress of life built, and more free time was available as I no longer had responsibilities such as homework, I found myself making more and more poor life decisions. The most prominent one being arrested for obstruction of justice for not turning one of my employees over to the police. Going much further into detail on that situation is of little concern to this article but certainly highlights the state of mind I found myself. Naturally, my place of employment was not too impressed with an employee being arrested at the front door of the establishment (did I forget to mention that?), so I was fired as soon as I was released. What just a year or so prior had been a life with a bright future was quickly spiraling out of control.

During my new found unemployment, I did more and more drinking, but not the super happy fun time partying I had done prior to service. It became the feeling sorry for myself/depressed type drinking so many veterans become used to. Thankfully, at this time, the new updated Post 9/11 GI Bill  had passed giving me an additional year of schooling that would be paid by the government. I re-enrolled at the University of Toledo in pursuit of an MBA. Never in my life had I thought that I would ever be in the position I was, the position of pursuing a graduate level degree of any kind. I was the kid who barely graduated high school (#truth), I was the guy who made stupid decisions leading to both my service in the military, and my unemployment status. Me? An MBA? This was only going to be a stop-gap until I gained new employment obviously.

Well, I continued to live off of $175 a week until my unemployment insurance was revoked. Somehow I managed to stay afloat with such little income. Once that was taken, I went back into the restaurant industry and worked full time, albeit still waiting for that magical and mythical job to appear relevant to the degree i already earned. Except that now I also had the weight of graduate school work on my plate as well. I was once again immersed in homework during my free-time.

Upon graduation with an MBA (you read that correct), I went roughly 5 months without a job as Toledo is not the booming industrial powerhouse it once was. These five months proved to be quite pivotal in relation to today. Once again I found I had too much free time. Now that this thing called Facebook was becoming more than just a “fad,” I spent more time on it than I should have (don’t judge me, we all spend too much time on it). I ended up reaching out to an old friend whom I had not seen in years. Turns out, she was an ex-junkie on her way to jail. While this would send most people running in the other direction from the jump, I, for whatever reason, found myself trying to be captain save-a-gardening tool. Needless to say, my pattern of poor decisions was once again upon me. After several thousand dollars lost for a variety of reasons I finally came to my senses and saw the path I was on.

This was not before the biggest event in my life thus far had occurred. I managed to find the corporate level office job I had desired. I moved to the Columbus, Ohio region, leaving everyone and everything I had known. All for some girl I don’t even speak to anymore. I do not feel I am alone in saying this, but I find myself generally disliking most people, so a complete move to an area where I knew no one was exceptionally tough, and as I would soon find out, exceptionally dangerous.

From an outside perspective looking in, I am quite sure that most saw my situation as quite stable. However, with nothing or no one to invest my free time in, I found myself being more and more of a hermit. I knew no one and liked even fewer. I would go to work in an office with little peer communication, come home and watch tv. I am also not particularly found of traveling so I rarely drove the 2 hours back home to visit. I grew more and more depressed as I spent more and more time alone analyzing the decisions that led me to where I was. I put on weight, a lot of it, which further aided to the depression because even when I did venture out and struck up enough courage to try and make a friend or God forbid ask a girl out, my negativity shined almost brighter than my obesity. I was a cycle of self-hatred. A cycle I did not know how to break. Only two things saved my life.

I am the child of a suicide victim. My father committed suicide when I was too young to remember. However, when I became aware of what suicide was, early teens I believe, I made a promise to myself that I would NEVER allow life to beat me. I would never allow myself to just give up. I would never just quit on life and those who cared about me. I would rather be a miserable mess than be the cause of anyone else’s sorrow, so there was only one thing left that i could think of, it was time to get my fat ass to the gym.

I had a gym less than a mile from my place and I had always been told in the Army that exercise was the cure for depression. If you feel sad, exercise. If you are homesick, exercise. While a couple of circumstances ultimately led to my decision to join, I was so determined to break out of my funk that I was finally ready to give it my all. I had flirted with gym memberships before, going for a month or two then finding a reason to not go one day, which turns into never going back. This time was different. I wanted it. I had no reason not to. I didn’t know anyone, I had all the time in the world, and for the first time, I had no real excuse to make as to why I couldn’t.

This leads me to today, right here, right now, and why I decided to write this. I am a living, breathing example as to the power of physical fitness. No amount of alcohol or drugs ever made me happy. Nothing could ever change my mood. No one’s words ever inspired me or made me less depressed. The only thing I found was that the adrenaline gained from exercise calmed me. It took my mind off of things. It made me feel better.

My journey taught me that the demons we have inside can sometimes be repressed. If you fill your time and your mind with other things, you leave little time for self-hatred and self-depreciating behavior. I do not claim that a gym membership is going to save someone’s life, or that physical fitness will. I can only tell you that it saved mine.