“We just need to support the troops,” is what they tell me.
Well, this is coming from a troop. So listen carefully …
— Jacob George, “Support the Troops”
Given how tragically common veteran suicides are in this country, you have to know the whole story of Afghan war vet, peace activist and Danville native Jacob George to understand why the news that he’d taken his own life in Fayetteville on Sept. 17 hit the anti-war community like a punch to the ribs. Over the last month, the grief over his death has steadily seeped out via the Internet — dozens of eloquent testimonies about his kindness and caring, even as his own grasp on life silently deteriorated until it was gone.
Having emerged as a beloved figure in the anti-war movement in recent years through his protest music and near constant travel and activism — including riding his bicycle over 7,000 miles across America to speak to anybody who’d listen about peace and what the war was doing to soldiers — George seemed to be coming through his darkness. He was the one who talked other people off the ledge, doling out free bear hugs and helping vets through troubles only another vet can understand. He was the one who was supposed to make it.
Though some rushed in following the news of his death to try to reframe George’s suicide as a statement on America’s decision to re-entangle ourselves in Iraq and the Middle East, the portrait that emerges from the people who loved him is less that of an easy, two-dimensional martyr and more that of a flawed and vulnerable man who did his best to beat the ghosts that haunted him for as long as he could. If there’s a silver lining to his death, it’s that in the process of losing his own battle, he surely helped countless others get closer to winning theirs.
See him there: Jacob George, 12 years old, standing on a wooden picnic table, toes on the bare edge of the wood, back to the world, hands out, knees bent. See him: shirtless and tan, legs coiled springs under the hem of his denim shorts, a small boy who’ll never break 5-foot, 3-inches even as a man, tip of his tongue peeking out as he silently thinks: “Don’t die.”
Hot summertime in Danville, Arkansas. Behind him, his friends are standing around, pretending to be uninterested. Years later, his childhood friend Aaron Reddin will say Jay was the daredevil, impervious to even the idea that he could be harmed. He would do a backflip off anything, Reddin said. The other boys pretend they’ve grown tired of that trick. But in reality they never do. Fearlessness is a rare skill, even among boys whose bodies heal damn near quick as the immortals.
This was, of course, before the war broke some irreplaceable part of him, like snapping a dry twig over the knee. For now, there’s only gravity, and pushing out the thought of hitting the summer-dry dirt face first or — God forbid — ass first, a wound to dignity being much more terrible than a plain old wound for a boy that age. And so he swallows his fear and does it. Liftoff. Kick. Backflip. The woozy spinning. And then his feet thud back to Arkansas and momentary glory. And he doesn’t die.
The grandson of the once-powerful state Rep. Lloyd George of Danville, who served 28 years in the legislature and died in 2012, Jacob George spent his summer days as a child roaming the family’s property on Danville Mountain, where he lived as a boy, or visiting his grandfather’s picturesque farm. His younger sister, Jasmin George McBride, remembers him as wild and energetic; a free spirit who recharged in nature. “He wasn’t afraid to climb the tallest tree,” she said. “He would go and run the mountain to find peace — to find some relaxation and to calm himself.”
George’s mother, Robin Mulac, said that though her son was always musical, athletic and smart, his energetic temperament kept him from concentrating in the classroom. When his grades suffered to the point that he started seriously thinking about dropping out of school at 16, he and his parents made the decision to send him to the David Carrasco Job Corps Center in El Paso, Texas, a residential job training hub. George lived there for two years, graduating from the program with his high school diploma.
After Job Corps, George moved back to Greenwood, where his mother was living with Jacob’s stepfather. He got a job, but soon tired of it. He was hungry to make a difference in the world, and to get money for college. “He just started getting really frustrated, wanting to do something more,” Mulac said. “One day, he told me and his stepfather that he was tired of putting up with civilians. He was going to join the military.”
“He saw that as a way to do something,” McBride said. “To kind of get out and have some kind of a life.”
After considering the Navy, George settled on the U.S. Army, hoping to join the Special Forces. He signed up, and graduated from boot camp in early 2001. He was eventually assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a paratrooper and combat engineer. Then 9/11. Within weeks, George was on his way to Afghanistan. He’d eventually serve three tours there, rising to the rank of sergeant, spending most of his time in the provinces on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, walking mountains that might have reminded him of home had Yell County been somehow denuded down to the dust.
Given how much impact the war had on him, it’s strange that this is where most of what’s known about Jacob George’s war ends. Other than a few stories he told in his music or to the protest groups he visited, the years he spent in Afghanistan are mostly a black hole in his timeline, never shared even with his sister or mother. He just didn’t like to talk about it. When he’d call home while he was in the service, Mulac and McBride said, he was always more interested in hearing about home than he was in talking about what he was doing. Later, during his bike rides across the country, when interviewers would ask him for war stories, he’d sometimes dodge the issue by telling them it was all classified.
One of the only stories he did share — which he shared habitually in interviews and in his songs — was about him running, camo clad, rifle in hand, out of the full belly of a dual-rotor Chinook helicopter onto a dusty farm in the Afghan mountains, seeing the terrified eyes of the people who lived there, and suddenly being clouted in the midst of the swirling grit and noise by a single thought: How frightened he would have been as a boy had soldiers swooped in and invaded his grandfather’s farm.
The other is a strange little bit of coincidence that happened to George in 2002, as related in his song “Jimmy Freeman.” This is the future, where everyone lives forever online, so it’s actually possible to read George’s own version of the story if you look for it:
“In the summer of 2002,” George wrote in the description of a YouTube clip of him singing the song, “I ran off a helicopter near a hill on the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) border. As I approached the top of the hill, I saw a guy that looked really familiar. I had body armor on, so he couldn’t see my nameplate. He had his blouse off, so I couldn’t see his name. We stared at each other for a while trying to figure it out, then we went back to our dailies. Later on I saw him again, with his top on and it said ‘Freeman’. I yelled out, ‘Jimmy!’ Jimmy Freeman was a childhood friend who ran around with me all over Danville Mountain in Arkansas. After not seeing one another for several years, he turned around and recognized me immediately. … He was getting ready to return to the U.S. and I had just arrived. Both of us had been bouncing around different bases on the Af-Pak border. He was only going to be up there for three or four more days and my stay was about a week, so it felt very special to briefly cross paths at such an unlikely place.”
One of the bright spots McBride remembers was visiting him at Fort Bragg with her husband in 2003. Always musically inclined, George had recently taken up the banjo. “He thought it would be funny,” McBride said. “He was playing a lot of punk rock music, and he thought it would be funny to add a banjo. He ended up becoming an amazing banjo player.”
Unless you’re a vet or involved in veteran’s health, you’ve probably never heard the term “moral injury” until now. An article published by the journal of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD in 2012 defines moral injury as recurring guilt or shame caused by “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” It’s still a very new concept: the idea that a soldier can be mentally harmed not just by killing the enemy or seeing horrible things, but simply by being a cog in the machinery of war.
That sense of being morally wounded undoubtedly adds to the sky-high number of veteran suicides in this country every year. To call the suicide rate among U.S. veterans anything less than an epidemic would be to downplay the problem. According to figures released in 2013 by the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2010 around 22 U.S. veterans a day took their own lives. There was an increase in the suicide rate of young male vets, many of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan, of 44 percent between 2009 and 2011. On average, according to a VA study released earlier this year, two veterans age 30 or below kill themselves every day somewhere in this country. That’s today, tomorrow, next Thursday, Thanksgiving and your birthday. That’s seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Jacob George would come to use the term “moral injury” often about his own condition once he returned home from Afghanistan in 2004. When he got back, his mother said, there was a definite change. “It’s hard to describe it,” she said. “Maybe a little bit darker. He didn’t like to talk about things that happened over there a lot. We didn’t push it. We didn’t ask.”
George eventually moved to Fayetteville and took classes — including classes he loved in poetry and anthropology — at the University of Arkansas. His childhood friend Stephen Coger remembers that when George came back home, he very much supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coger, a peace activist who started an anti-war group on campus, found that the philosophical split constrained what they could talk about.
“He had muscles from his earlobes to his elbows. He was just all muscle and trauma and just kind of made you nervous to be around,” Coger said. “We were buddies, but we didn’t talk about stuff that was really important to us because we wanted to stay friends, so we just played music together.”
George eventually got a job with parking enforcement on the UA campus. His job, Coger said, was to go out and lock a heavy steel boot on cars with too many unpaid tickets, something George — who preferred bicycles over cars even then — did with a certain glee. George eventually built a custom trailer for his bicycle to carry the boot in, chugging it up and down the hills around campus.
After a few years of going to school and writing tickets, Coger said, George had an epiphany. “He was getting yelled at one day by his boss,” Coger said. “I hope you’ll excuse the language, but he thought to himself, ‘I’m gonna punch this guy in the fucking throat.’ But then he said that his next thought was, ‘What if I don’t?’ ” It was, George told Coger, the first time he’d considered a nonviolent response to a tense situation since he’d come home from Afghanistan.
Soon after, George asked Coger to introduce him to the president of the Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology in Fayetteville. It was during that meeting, Coger said, that George brought up what would eventually become the focal point of the next three years of his life.
The road to Afghanistan
What Jacob George proposed to Stephen Coger and Gladys Tiffany of the Omni Center at that meeting might have sounded like pie-in-the-sky dreaming, if not for the fact that Coger knew how dedicated George could be when he set his mind to a goal. George told them he wanted to get on his bike and ride all over America, playing music and working for peace, until the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan ended. A Ride Till the End, he came to call it.
“Honestly I was afraid,” Coger said, “because I knew that he would do it, and I knew that I wouldn’t see him much if he did. I didn’t understand, and I don’t think I could understand, the depth of Jacob’s suffering and trauma. He needed that to heal it. All I could see was a long ass bike ride.”
Once it became clear that he was serious, a group of Fayetteville artists, poets and musicians got together and cut an album called “Peace from the Hills,” that could be sold on the road to help George pay expenses. The album features songs and spoken word poetry, including two poems by George, “Terror,” and “I Know You Don’t Mean It.” In the poems, Jacob’s voice is hesitant and subdued, the Arkansas shitkicker twang that would later creep into his songs mostly absent.
In May 2010, George, his younger brother, Jordan (who was then AWOL from the Arkansas National Guard, at Jacob’s urging), and a friend set out from Fayetteville on their bicycles. Over the next three years, Jacob George would travel thousands of miles, coming back home to Greenwood or Fayetteville to sit out the winter before hitting the road again. Either alone or with others, he zigzagged all over, crashing on couches, talking to any media outlet that would listen (he called himself a “hillbilly” and “a farmer from Arkansas” in interviews, though friends say he’d never planted more than a row of beans in his life). He made his way to the Gulf Coast during the BP oil spill, to the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, and was one of the few civilians let into the courtroom for the tail end of Bradley Manning’s court-martial for aiding the enemy by giving classified information to Wikileaks.
After George and Air Force vet Brock McIntosh founded the Afghanistan Veterans Against the War Committee of the protest group Iraq Veterans Against the War, they were invited to travel back to Afghanistan as civilians, a trip which took them to Kabul and the Panjshir Valley in the winter of 2010. During the trip, McIntosh said, they discussed the first time you fly into Kabul as a soldier, the plane diving straight down to Bagram Airfield to avoid enemy fire, the mountains dark and terrifying obstacles in the distance, everything about the experience telling you “be afraid.”
“Flying back as civilians was completely different,” McIntosh said. “The first thing we noticed were how beautiful the mountains were the second time around.”
George was in Afghanistan for a month. They visited museums and refugee camps while in the country, McIntosh said, and both were struck by the kindness of the Afghan people. He could see that the experience brought George peace.
“I know that it was a very moving experience for him,” McIntosh said. “He constantly referred to it as a healing experience. I think it did make a big difference for him.”
A soldier’s heart
Jacob George is still alive online, video after video, shot on cell phones and Flip cams and big news cameras. If you had the time, you could track his travels point by point, and his grief, and his healing.
In one video, George sat down for a short-subject documentary before marching with thousands of other vets to the gates of the NATO summit held in Chicago in May 2012, where he hurled the medals he’d received from the U.S. Army over the gate. Sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan, looking road sore in a gray sleeveless T-shirt and a yellow bandana, he told the filmmakers he’d had to re-evaluate his experiences from Afghanistan.
“When I looked in the mirror, I started to see a terrorist,” he said, “because the things I’d participated in over there surely brought the farmers terror when we landed in their fields, crushing their crops. I remember running off a helicopter and looking into a man’s eyes and terror was what was looking back at me. It was as if a devil had just stumbled into his life. … Judging my actions and accepting that is really one of the things that liberated my soul.”
In another video, speaking to a Unitarian Church group in Dallas in April 2013, George said that he’d tried everything from traditional psychotherapy to sweat lodges to try and fix himself after coming home from Afghanistan, but throwing back his medals had been the only thing that worked.
“The act of throwing released something inside of me,” he told the group. “I don’t know what it is. I’m still trying to figure it out. But it played a role in healing my soul. It was a very transformative event. … I started to see that my anti-war work, in a way, was me trying to heal my soul. Anti-war work, in particular, is a symptom of moral injury.”
Given how it all turned out, it’s hard to know what to think when watching all those videos. Everything except the music, of course. Music doesn’t rely on how it all turned out.
At every stop, George talked to vets about their pain, played his banjo, and sang songs that would eventually become “Soldier’s Heart,” an album of nine bluegrass-infused protest songs he wrote and cut with Fayetteville producer Kelly Mulhollan in 2012.
Given how constrained George had been on “Peace from the Hills,” Mulhollan said he didn’t expect much when George called him during one of his breaks from the road, asking him to record a few songs he’d written. By the time he was done that day, however, Mulhollan was convinced he’d witnessed the creation of an important work.
“I didn’t have any plans to produce it,” Mulhollan said. “But I watched him knock out the most profound piece of art I’ve ever been in the presence of. That became ‘Soldier’s Heart.’ He had gone through some sort of epiphany. He found his voice. He found a way to express his anguish. It’s an album of crying out, in real time. It’s intense.”
Mulhollan said that he believes the album could help everyone, not just vets. “Right from the start, I saw that Jacob had a profound understanding of how everything is connected — the environment to peace and justice, how it all ties together. The big picture,” Mulhollan said. You could hear all that in his songs, he said. But you could also hear that he was haunted by demons.
“They Call Me Hero”
by Jacob George
They call me son, they call me hero.
But to me, I’m neither.
I’m not what you think.
I’m scared of me.
I’m not that boy that left.
I’ve danced with death.
They call me son, they call me hero
But to me, I’m neither.
They call me precious
And worship my sacrifice
They gave me medals
To validate their lies
Their colorful clanging on my chest.
Calms ’em like a lullaby.
They call me son, they call me hero
But to me, I’m neither
They call me son, they call me hero.
But to me, I’m neither.
The celebration of violent deeds
puts my heart at unease
Parades and flags can’t change what I done
There’s no honor in what I’ve become.
They call me son, they call me hero.
But to me, I’m neither.
They call me son, they call me hero.
But to me, I’m neither.
By the autumn of 2013, George’s friends and family say, he was tired and ready for a break from the road, activism, and bearing the country’s grief from the war.
“When he went on that ‘Soldier’s Heart’ tour,” Stephen Coger said, “everybody would come up to him after the shows and just unload all of their trauma onto him. When he came back from that, we had a visit at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville last December. He was like, ‘I’m through playing that music for a while. I’m through listening to other peoples’ problems unless they’re family.’ “
“Over this past year,” said Jasmin McBride, “it’s almost like he felt like he’d done what he needed to do as far as the political and the anti-war stuff. He still had the same beliefs, and the same feelings, but he was kind of ready to settle down and maybe have a family — to move past his protesting days. He was into his music, and he had a girlfriend. He just kind of wanted to be back into normal things.”
Brock McIntosh, who’d kept in touch fairly regularly with George since their trip to Afghanistan, said George told him he’d decided to take a step back from activism and concentrate on himself. “He disabled his Facebook, and it was kind of hard to get in touch with him after that,” McIntosh said. The last time McIntosh heard from him was when George called, distraught, to talk to him about how badly the media was depicting Bowe Bergdahl, the American POW who was released by Afghan insurgents in May 2014.
George came to Greenwood to stay with his mother for the summer. Robin Mulac and others said that his symptoms had noticeably advanced by then, making him frequently anxious, and nervous around crowds.
“I could tell he was really struggling,” she said. “I encouraged him to go for his counseling, and he was going up to the VA in Fayetteville once a week. But sometimes that’s not enough.” On the night of Greenwood’s Fourth of July celebration, George’s niece encouraged him to come, Mulac said, but the crowds were too much for him. “He was only able to stay about 15 minutes and then he had to go back home,” she said. “Too many people, too much noise. He just couldn’t do it. It was too overwhelming for him. … Several times this summer, he tried to get out and do things and he just couldn’t.” It eventually got so bad that even when it was a family gathering, he’d have to retreat.
“I saw the accelerated darkness,” Mulac said. “I saw that he just couldn’t be around people at all.”
Still, none of the people we talked with said they had any inkling that it had gotten so bad for Jacob George that he was considering taking his own life. Every time they talked with him, he was speaking of a more hopeful future. He was living on 80 percent disability from the VA by then for his PTSD and other problems, and planned to try to be declared 100 percent disabled. In late summer, he’d gotten a small apartment in Fayetteville, surrounded by trees. A few days before he died, he’d sent an email to his girlfriend, Mulac said, telling her he loved her, and was looking forward to trying for a buck in the upcoming deer season, promising to make her a set of moccasins from the hide. The Sunday before he died, he’d called Mulac, chatting amiably about how he’d gone on a bike ride and had breakfast with friends.
“He was so excited, talking about the things he was going to do in the future,” Mulac said. “The timing was a shock, because nobody saw it. Nobody.”
Songs left unsung
Jacob George was found dead in his apartment in Fayetteville late on the evening of Sept. 17. He was 32 years old. His girlfriend became concerned when she hadn’t heard from him in a few days, Robin Mulac said. After going to his apartment and peering through the window, Jacob’s girlfriend called his brother, Jordan, who went in and found the body. The family declined to say how he took his life, though his mother said they believe he’d been dead for a few days by the time his body was discovered.
The outpouring of grief from the anti-war community on social media as the word spread was immediate. Though his family said George didn’t leave a note, a few websites and blogs tried to connect his suicide to President Obama’s Sept. 10 announcement that the U.S. would expand the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Jasmin McBride said the family reached out to a few of those websites. Headlines were cut, ledes rolled back to the truth: That while there are plenty of theories, from the 9/11 anniversary to the strain of reportedly talking another vet out of suicide a few days before his own death, nobody really knows what pushed Jacob over. Though there have been dozens of online tributes to her brother by the people who were touched by him, McBride said stories like that — which she called an attempt at using her brother — made her angry. She said she doesn’t want Jacob to be turned into a martyr for someone else’s gain.
“That’s exactly what we don’t want his death to be,” she said. “If it does help other veterans see that maybe they need to get some help, then that’s a good thing. But to us, he was our family. He was somebody we loved. He wasn’t just an anti-war activist to be exploited for that. … It’s been hard to read all those articles. The articles focus on just the veteran and the peace activist. He was so much more than that.”
Small memorial gatherings have been held in major cities all over America, and a memorial service arranged in Fayetteville on Oct. 5 drew more than 200 people, with others — including some of the Afghan peace activists George had talked with during his civilian return to the country with Brock McIntosh — Skyping in to talk about his good works. Jimmy Freeman was even there, McIntosh said, telling his side of the famous story: a small group of soldiers filling a wire and canvas blast barrier on a windy mountaintop, shoveling in rocks with their bare hands. Then the sound of a big bird coming, and a Chinook appearing over the horizon with a beautiful Bobcat tractor slung underneath, like a gift from Valhalla. And when the helicopter landed, here comes good ol’ Jay George out of the back, impossibly, on a mountaintop a million miles from the green bosom of Danville. It’s the stuff of a stirring song.
Robin Mulac is not stopping. After Jacob’s death, she learned from the VA that all the family would be given is $300 to help pay for his cremation. “That’s unacceptable in this country,” she said. “One of my goals is to pick up where he left off and see if I can get that changed.” The VA now says she may be able to get full death benefits.
Walking among the people at the memorial, Mulac said she was struck by how much good he’d done, but also puzzled by why it wasn’t enough to overcome the darkness inside him. Why couldn’t he see what he was worth to all those people?
“Part of the eulogy I gave at the memorial was, ‘My heart breaks not only for the loss of my son, but for the songs left unsung, and the lives left untouched, and the stories left untold,’ ” she said. “How many more people could he have helped? Why couldn’t he feel his worth in the lives of those he’d already helped and changed?”