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'Can't do it alone': KU scholarship winner navigates system for husband disabled by PTSD

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Jason and Jennifer Thornton and their 5-year-old son Hayden share a family moment on the couch at home in Leavenworth. Jason, retired medically from the Army, suffers from PTSD and chronic depression. Jennifer is getting her masters in social work at KU.

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Jennifer Thornton plays a board game with her son Hayden after dinner Dec. 16, 2013. Jennifer is working on her masters in social work from KU and works at the Gillis Center in Kansas City.

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Jason Thornton in 2003, on the day he left for his first tour of duty in Iraq.

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Jason and Jennifer Thornton dressed for a military ball in 2004, the year after they got married.

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Jason Thornton and his wife, Jennifer Thornton, in 2006. Jason had just arrived home for two weeks of R&R during his second deployment to Iraq.

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Jason Thornton helps unwrap a toy for his son, Hayden, on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. Jason's wife and Hayden's mom, Jennifer Thornton, is working on her masters in social work at KU. Jason, retired medically from the Army, suffers from PTSD and chronic depression.

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Jennifer and Jason Thornton get dinner ready at their Leavenworth home Monday evening, Dec. 16, 2013. Jennifer was just home after a long day at her internship position with Gillis Center in Kansas City and a quick pizza was on the menu.

Wounded Warrior Scholarships

Kansas University’s Wounded Warrior Scholarship program awards up to $10,000, renewable up to four years, to disabled veterans or their spouses, caregivers or children.

KU students Jennifer Thornton and Anthony Schmiedeler received KU’s inaugural Wounded Warrior scholarships for this school year.

The number of scholarships bestowed each year depends on funds available. Learn more or donate to the fund online at gmp.ku.edu/wws.

Her husband — the smiling 6-foot-5-inch soldier who’d respond to “Jump!” with “How high?” and who friends once teased about being whipped — had forgotten they were having a baby that day.

Six hours after he was supposed to be at the hospital, a friend found Jason Thornton at home, not answering the phone or door, wondering where everybody was.

Jennifer Thornton was furious. But not surprised.

In the six years since returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Jason has been completely changed by post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronically depressed, hyper-vigilant, unable to work, in and out of rehab, up and down on prescription medications — he’s needed a beacon, and Jennifer has been it.

Navigating a complex system of diagnoses, care and benefits for Jason inspired Jennifer to help others with PTSD. She is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Kansas University and this year was one of the first two students to receive KU’s Wounded Warrior Scholarship.

In addition to disabled veterans, caregivers are eligible for the scholarship, said Randy Masten, assistant director for KU’s Graduate Military Programs office.

“We’re aware that when someone has a serious injury that it affects more than just that individual,” Masten said. “It also affects the family.”

•••

Jason pulled the car over, breathing hard.

He’d just turned onto the wrong side of the road. Panicking, Jennifer started yelling at him. He yelled back, she said, saying something like, “I’m used to driving in Iraq where we OWN the road.”

That was probably the first sign that something was wrong, Jennifer realizes now. She’d heard of PTSD then, she said, but nobody talked about it and — even as the family support group leader for Jason’s unit — she didn’t know anyone who had it.

Jason had completed one tour of duty in Iraq and was home for a year and a half before his next one. Not long before he was supposed to return from the second yearlong deployment, troops were ordered to stay another three months.

News of the extension was “devastating,” Jennifer said, and when Jason did get home, in September 2007, things definitely weren’t right.

“Problems,” she said. “Immediately.”

•••

Jennifer was a sophomore at the University of Mississippi when she met Jason. Tall, smiling, always the life of the party, Jason was actually known for showing up with glow sticks, she said.

Jennifer hoped to attend graduate school and, figuring one of the two would need a job, Jason joined the Army. He was done with basic training when, in March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. They moved up their wedding from June to April, and while Jennifer finished her last weeks of undergrad school Jason reported for duty at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Jason’s advanced training was as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic and wrecker operator. His combat duties would include recovering vehicles that had been hit by enemy fire.

And when vehicles are bombed, so are the people operating them, Jennifer said. Jason’s job involved climbing inside to work with whatever was left.

•••

A few months after Jason got home from his second deployment, Jennifer was teaching seventh grade full time, attending graduate school, early in her pregnancy and miserably sick. When she asked Jason for help at the house, the “whipped” husband who once would do anything for her sat staring out the window, or rocking back and forth on the couch, completely withdrawn.

“All he wanted to do was just stay in bed in the dark,” Jennifer said.

She later learned that Jason, who’d always been “the good soldier,” was having problems at work, too, everything from mouthing off to superiors to breaking down in tears.

Jennifer rushed him to the emergency room one night the following March, when a leg twitch morphed into a violent, seizure-like episode. Hospital staff helped get Jason out of the car, and when Jennifer returned from parking he was strapped to a bed, still breathing laboriously and slamming his head, doctors injecting him with syringes.

War movie scenes ran through Jennifer’s head. At that point, she said, she realized: “OK, I know what PTSD is. But I don’t KNOW what PTSD is.”

The next day, Jennifer returned to Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state, armed with a notebook — and a lot of questions.

•••

Jason had been flagged as exhibiting signs of PTSD. The March episode removed any question.

“Everything kind of spiraled out of control from there,” Jennifer said. “It went from, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m having some problems’ to our whole world’s crazy.”

He was in therapy, on antidepressants, and seeing a number of doctors but still talked of suicide and couldn’t function at home or work, Jennifer said. He continued to deteriorate and spent time in inpatient facilities in California and New York. Jennifer appealed to get Jason medically retired, to get his treatment paid for and, basically, ensure he got every benefit he was due.

The paperwork was immense.

“He was so out of and just, like, numb to the world that he couldn’t even have attempted to do this,” Jennifer said. “It would have been inconceivable.”

In 2010 the Thorntons moved to Leavenworth to be closer to Jennifer’s parents, who settled in Lansing when her father retired from the military.

Now, Jason is more functional than at times in the past. But neither he nor Jennifer would say he’s OK.

“I’ve gotten better, but it’s never something that completely goes away,” Jason said.

Jason said soldiers like him who don’t have an advocate like Jennifer end up homeless, in jail, kicked out on the street or “dead in a ditch” — where he figures he’d be.

“You can’t do it alone,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

•••

Jason did make it to the hospital for his son’s birth; Jennifer had a cesarean section after he arrived.

Even Hayden, now 5, worries about sitting in the back of restaurants so Jason can have his back to the wall. Jennifer’s one-time “social butterfly” husband now interacts with just one friend.

“It’s sad,” she said. “Every day is a challenge.”

Now, Jennifer knows many soldiers and families battling PTSD. And she knows, on top of stressful home lives, they struggle with lack of diagnosis and confusing benefits.

“When I hear these stories,” she said, “I still get as fired up as I did when it was Jason.”

Jennifer, whose first master’s degree is in education, loved teaching. But she began to feel like there were more important things she could be doing. With her next master’s degree, she wants to help Wounded Warriors.

Masten, at KU, said there’s room for advocates.

“The people that work with vets, they all want to do the right thing, but it is a large bureaucracy, and it’s difficult to navigate sometimes,” Masten said. “If someone has done it, they realize what needs to be done.”

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