Memorial Day has deeper significance for survivor of deadly attack in Afghanistan

Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, commander of Air Force Office of Special Investigations out of Quantico, Virginia, left, called Special Agent Jonathan Jackson, “a great American airman” during the May 23 ceremony at The Landings on Dover Air Force Base in which Special Agent Jackson was awarded The Purple Heart. He also was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)

Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, commander of Air Force Office of Special Investigations out of Quantico, Virginia, left, called Special Agent Jonathan Jackson, “a great American airman” during the May 23 ceremony at The Landings on Dover Air Force Base in which Special Agent Jackson was awarded The Purple Heart. He also was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)

DOVER — Memorial Day, when Americans remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, carries a new significance for Special Agent Jonathan Jackson, his family and friends this year.

One of three survivors of a Dec. 21, 2015, attack in Afghanistan, Special Agent Jackson came close to being one of those honored dead.

Six members of his team died when a suicide bomber rode an explosives-laden motorcycle into his joint NATO-Afghan patrol near Bagram Air Base, outside Kabul. It was the deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan since May 2013.

On May 23, Special Agent Jackson, with two ball bearings from the attack still lodged in his body, was awarded a Purple Heart in a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, where he has been stationed for more than three years with the Office of Special Investigations.

The medal, with its profile of Gen. George Washington inside a purple heart, is awarded to members of the armed forces wounded at the hands of the enemy.

He also was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

The Jackson family of Dover: Jeanette and OSI Special Agent Jonathan Jackson with Katelyn, 10, (left), Fabiana, 9, and Nathan, 11. Special Agent Jackson was awarded a Purple Heart and Air Force Combat Action Medal in a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base’s The Landings on May 23. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

The Jackson family of Dover: Jeanette and OSI Special Agent Jonathan Jackson with Katelyn, 10, (left), Fabiana, 9, and Nathan, 11. Special Agent Jackson was awarded a Purple Heart and Air Force Combat Action Medal in a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base’s The Landings on May 23. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

“No serviceman wakes up saying, ‘I want to get one of those today,’” said OSI commander Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, minutes before he asked Michael Jackson of Piney Brush, New York, to clip the Purple Heart on the lapel of his son’s rarely worn dress uniform.

While the distinctive medals signify honor, they also are a visible reminder of Special Agent Jackson’s OSI and Air Force comrades, the five men and one women who didn’t return to their families.

The medals come, Brig. Gen. Givens said, with the thought “why did I survive?”

“I knew pretty much right away that a lot of people died that day,” Special Agent Jackson, 35, said Wednesday. He learned the exact number shortly before being medically evacuated, first to Germany and then the United States.

His emotions were on a roller coaster ride, he said, as the realization of what had transpired hit him.

“They went from being scared for what is about to come to angry and sad.”

Thoughts of home were far away.

“I really did not think about returning or wanted to return home after the event,” Special Agent Jackson said. “I wanted to stay and continue the mission.

“As everything started setting in that I would not be able to stay, I started worrying about (wife) Jeanette and what she was going through. I thought about the families of the fallen and how they were dealing with (everything).

“I never really had any time to really think about coming home,” he said. “All that was on my mind was the fallen teammates and the

The Purple Heart was established in 1782 by then Gen. George Washington as a Badge of Military Merit, to be attached to the uniform coat above the left breast. It permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge and to have his name and regiment inscribed in a Book of Merit. The Air Force Combat Action Medal recognizes any Air Force member who comes under direct and hostile fire while operating outside a defended perimeter, or physically engaging hostile forces with direct and lethal fire. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

The Purple Heart was established in 1782 by then Gen. George Washington as a Badge of Military Merit, to be attached to the uniform coat above the left breast. It permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge and to have his name and regiment inscribed in a Book of Merit. The Air Force Combat Action Medal recognizes any Air Force member who comes under direct and hostile fire while operating outside a defended perimeter, or physically engaging hostile forces with direct and lethal fire. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

question why did I survive.”

That survivor’s guilt was the strongest emotion immediately following the attack.

Five months later, it remains.

“I’m coming to terms with it, but it’s still hard,” he said.

His wife, Jeanette, is on her own roller coaster.

“I have such mixed feelings about everything,” said Mrs. Jackson, herself an Air Force veteran. “It’s almost as if I have survivor’s guilt, too.

“It’s hard to be happy and rejoice that Jon is home knowing that others were lost, and they were a part of him.”

The 35-year-old mom thinks often of the families not as blessed as she and the Jackson children — Nathan, 11, Katelyn, 10, and Fabiana, 9.

“I (can’t) help but wonder if I would be able to handle being a widow …,” she said. “I feel horrible knowing so many little children won’t remember their parents.”

Healing and honoring

The Jacksons have found a measure of healing by reaching out to the team’s families.

On the day her severely wounded husband was scheduled to arrive at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethsada, Maryland, Mrs. Jackson first attended the Dec. 24 dignified transfer ceremony at the Air National Guard Base in New Castle before the bodies were transported to Dover Air Force Base, home of the military’s port mortuary.

Weather conditions at Dover Air Force Base, rainy and foggy for most of that sad Christmas Eve, had forced the ceremony’s shift to New Castle.

It was the first of many ceremonies for Mrs. Jackson, and later Special Agent Jackson as he progressed in his recovery.

“Some days were good and some were bad,” he said, reflecting on the last five months. “I do not go a single day without thinking about my teammates, especially my partner.

“The first 30 days of being home was the roughest for me,” he said. He arrived at his Dover home eight days after the attack.

DEC. 21 CASUALTIES • Air Force Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride: The 30-year-old, of Statesboro, Georgia, was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.  • Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, of Plymouth, Minnesota. She was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 9th Field Investigations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.  • Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.  • Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 816, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.  • Technical Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of Bronx, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.  • Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

DEC. 21 CASUALTIES
• Air Force Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride: The 30-year-old, of Statesboro, Georgia, was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
• Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, of Plymouth, Minnesota. She was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 9th Field Investigations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
• Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
• Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 816, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.
• Technical Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of Bronx, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.
• Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

“I really did not have any type of closure until I attended the funeral of my partner.”

He has visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia twice. The first time was for funeral of his commander, Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen. The second was with his family.

“It was very difficult the second time because the marker/headstone was in place which made it all very real to me,” Special Agent Jackson said.

“Emotionally I could not stay very long which later hit me again when my son was asked to work on a project about Arlington which was hard, emotional, for him.”

He plans on visiting all the fallen in the days to come.

“For me, visiting them is a way to honor them and keep their memory alive.”

They live with him daily.

“I have a photograph of our team praying before a mission hanging in my office which I look at,” he said. It’s a “reminder to honor them every day with my actions and how I treat others I come in contact with.

“Those that we lost that day were good people who loved life, friends and family.”

His wife continues to look for ways she can help the families.

At the Dover ceremony, Brig. Gen. Givens singled out Mrs. Jackson for the strength she exhibited “from Day 1” of receiving the news her husband was severely wounded in what the general described as a “horrific attack.”

“Jeanette has shown strength in support of the families,” he said. “She has attended every memorial service and has been instrumental in helping Jon.”

She often shares posts on Facebook, with information on memorials for the six — Maj. Vorderbruggen, Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, Technical Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm and Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa. Posts frequently end with requests for prayers of healing for their families and friends.

Special Agent Jackson’s bond with his brothers and sister in arms has grown to include their families.

“I have been in contact with many of the family members of our fallen which has helped me greatly with my healing process and I hope it helped them with some of their healing process,” he said.

“It has been nice talking about our fallen and it feels like I now have an extended family.”

A special reunion

Special Agent Jackson’s physical healing is such that he is hopeful he will return to full duty soon.

His injuries included shrapnel (later determined to be ball bearings) in a leg and lung, a partially collapsed lung, an open shoulder wound and a mild traumatic brain injury.

In April the Jackson family visited Arlington National Cemetery where Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, one of the six casualties in the Dec. 21, 2015, attack is buried. She was Special Agent Jonathan Jackson’s commander in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo/Jeanette jackson)

In April the Jackson family visited Arlington National Cemetery where Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, one of the six casualties in the Dec. 21, 2015, attack is buried. She was Special Agent Jonathan Jackson’s commander in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo/Jeanette jackson)

Over the last five months he has had occupational therapy to regain mobility in his shoulder, physical therapy to strengthen his leg and concussion therapy.

“The emotional part still is going to be a while,” he said.

“I have received lots of help from many different people which are too many to list them all. Some of those people that I would like to mention are my wife Jeanette, Kevin Chick, Al Deusa, my pastors Tim and Cheryl Evens, and the families of the fallen,” he said.

“What has helped me the most is talking to co-workers, talking to family … going to see the rest of team that weren’t on the patrol that day.”

That reunion happened in Germany in late April when Special Agent Jackson traveled to meet the team returning from Afghanistan.

“Talking to those guys helped fill the gaps” of that day.

While Special Agent Jackson previously had worked with Maj. Vorderbruggen before he was deployed last fall, most of his teammates on this deployment were new to him. With more than 15 years in the Air Force and two in the Marines Corps Reserve, the New York native is no stranger to deployments.

“It was my sixth time over there,” he said.

That combat experience, though, perhaps didn’t prepare him for emotions that suddenly surface to remind him of the journey ahead.

“Like at the medal ceremony,” he said, “Every time somebody talks about it, it strikes a nerve.”

Voice of experience

World War II veteran Al Deusa knows those nerves likely will be struck again. Awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Medal and Presidential Citation for his service, including participation in D-Day, he also understands the survivor’s guilt that comes with war decorations.

Mr. Deusa, of Dover, was among the friends Special Agent Jackson invited to the medal ceremony.

“I talked to him right away, when he first came back,” Mr. Deusa said. “You think that because you are alive, you don’t deserve (the medals).”

World War II veteran Al Deusa of Dover has shared his own experiences with Special Agent Jonathan Jackson. (Submitted photo/Cheryl Evans)

World War II veteran Al Deusa of Dover has shared his own experiences with Special Agent Jonathan Jackson. (Submitted photo/Cheryl Evans)

But it’s not just lingering survivor’s guilt, Special Agent Jackson will face, warned the nearly 91-year-old Mr. Deusa.

“It will haunt him off and on all his life. Small things will trigger memories,” he said.

“It’s like a closet in my mind that I lock all that inside. Sometimes a smell or a sound opens the door. And you have to grab hold of it and put it back in there.”

Memorial Day can be hard, Mr. Deusa said. It, along with Veterans Day, brings extra attention, war movies are shown on television and battle scenes resurrect memories.

“This brings to mind all those guys,” he said.

“You see a lot of dead (men), but when it’s your friend lying their dying, that stays there.”

Special Agent Jackson now sees today’s commemoration of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for country in a new light.

“Past Memorial Days had meaning but not the meaning it has now,” he said. “Memorial Day for me will never be like it was prior to 21 Dec. 15.”

It’s also a call to action.

“Memorial Day is a day to honor our dead by celebrating their lives and keeping their memories alive and well. I know my friends are still with their families, their friends and myself,” Special Agent Jackson said.

“One of the fallen member’s wife said it best when she told me ‘We now have six angels looking down at us and protecting us.’ ”

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