On September 20, 2004, 35 days after landing in the Sunni Triangle, Jake Schick had a bad feeling as his Marine Corps unit went out on their 29th mission. As they drove out, they ran over a mine, and Schick was severely wounded and lost his right leg. When he returned to the United States, Schick was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), becoming dependent on pain medications and contemplating suicide.
Two years later, he got clean. Now, he’s the executive director of 22Kill, an program dedicated to raising awareness of veteran suicide— an epidemic affects an average of 22 veterans a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2012 Suicide Data Report.
“There’s nothing I’ve been more proud of, outside of being a father and husband, than being able to say that I’m a U.S. Marine,” Schick, 33, who lives in Dallas, told FoxNews.com.
That pride carries over into his work with 22Kill, as veteran suicide affects not only families but communities.
“It’s something we’re trying to spread awareness about because we can’t do it alone,” he said.
22Kill is a program of Honor Courage Commitment, Inc (HCC), a nonprofit focused on training and positioning military veterans to become successful entrepreneurs, and business and community leaders.
As part of its campaign, 22Kill sells Honor Rings that are meant to be worn on the trigger finger to symbolize people who have served and those who are currently serving. Most important, Schick said the ring starts conversations about 22Kill’s cause.
“You don’t see a lot of men wearing a black ring on their index fingers,” he said. “I’ve had more people asking me about my ring than my prosthetic leg.”
Fighting the “demons between the ears”
Much of the funds raised by the 22Kill program go to HCC’s education programs, which include a partnership with the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business called 22Fellows. Veteran participants receive entrepreneurial training including lessons in formal etiquette and dress, as well as sessions on how to run their own businesses.
“[Veterans] are trying to redefine who they are— their new norms and their purpose now,” Schick said.
While there are more resources out there than veterans may realize, it’s not just about taking care of the warriors but also partnering with family, said Tempa Sherrill, LPC, the CEO of Stay the Course Veterans Services in Burleson, Texas.
“There are gaps that need to be filled, other than therapy,” Sherrill, 49, told FoxNews.com. “Helping them find their purpose the way HCC does with their entrepreneur program is a great example of what these warriors need.”
Schick and Sherrill emphasized the veteran community is tight-knit. Sherrill’s husband A.J. returned from deployment “a different person,” she said, which inspired her to get her master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She developed a relationship with the VA, and many of her patients are referrals from the organization.
In the Dallas-Ft.Worth metro area, Schick has found a growing community in fellow veterans.
“What we’ve been able to establish here [at] HCC and 22Kill is bringing you back in the family. [We] have a place for you, you fit, you don’t have to come here and try to be somebody you’re not, we’re going to take you just the way you are,” he said. “It’s one team, one fight.”
Part of 22Kill’s education is to tell the public that, of the 22 warriors that die by suicide each day, over 50 percent of those are Vietnam War-era veterans. For Schick, it’s an urgent reminder that allowing this to happen to his generation in 30 to 40 years is unacceptable.
“I’m not OK with it, and I won’t allow it,” he said. “I’m going to be able to look at my son on my deathbed and know that I fought like hell to make it a better place. That’s why we have this nonprofit— these are the spearheads of bettering the lives of those warriors and those families.”
One realization that especially affected Schick was that the fighting the “demons between the ears” is a societal issue.
“I think our veterans are going to be the ones leading the fight on changing the stigma on issues above the neck and talking about it, letting people know— because at the end of the day, we’re all humans.”
“Everyone has a story. Everyone is struggling with something in their lives, and we’re tackling that stigma that it’s not OK to get help when you need it and reach out,” Sherrill said. “What we’re trying to do is make it OK.”
“I signed on the dotted line.”
An avid football player, Schick joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in Coppell, Texas. Influenced by the legacy of his late grandfather, a World War II Marine veteran and his uncle, a Vietnam War Marine veteran, he knew he wanted to join since he was 8 years old.
After boot camp, he volunteered for the infantry and was deployed in 2004 to the Sunni Triangle in combat operations. On the day of his accident, Schick listened to his intuition and told his fellow Marines to put on all their protective gear, and he kicked the driver out of the Humvee and got behind the wheel. Three minutes later, they would hit the triple-stacked mine that detonated directly under the driver seat.
Schick was thrown 30 feet into the air and was fully conscious for the 42 minutes before support arrived. His unit members told him it was his chance to go home, but he didn’t want to leave.
“I was leaving my family to go see my family,” he said. “That was painful, much worse than the compound fractures in my left leg and arm, the broken ribs, the shrapnel and burns. The fact that I was leaving my brothers hurt more than anything … I had to leave them knowing they were in harm’s way and there was nothing I could do about it.”
In Iraq, surgeons amputated Schick’s right leg. He eventually ended up at the Brooke Army Medical Center San Antonio, Texas, where he spent 15 months. Overall, he had 46 operations and 22 blood transfusions. He received his TBI and PTSD diagnoses while stateside. He became addicted to pain medications, but two years after his release from the hospital, he stopped the abuse. In 2008, he medically retired from the Marines.
When Schick first returned to the U.S., he went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. A new nurse on her first night of trauma rotation was assigned to work on his ICU preparation for the operating room.
“I was still in combat mode … I started bulldoggin’ her and the next thing I know, she’s leaving my room in tears, handing the chart to another intern,” he said.
Schick ended up marrying that nurse, Laura, who he said is “10 times stronger than I’ll ever be” and who eventually became a flight surgeon in the Navy. The couple has a son Jackson, who is 4.
It wasn’t until Schick moved to Dallas in 2008 that he started working on what he called “the healing process above the neck.” His grandmother asked him to speak at her Rotary Club and, although he was nervous, he felt lighter after leaving his comfort zone. He continued to make other speeches and now travels the country sharing his story. He joined 22Kill in October.
In spite of the physical and emotional trauma he has endured, Schick said he would absolutely serve his country again, with no hesitation.
“I signed on the dotted line and promised my country to do everything in my power to protect them from enemies both foreign and domestic,” he said. “I just happened to have a bad day in the office.”