Over the years, Earnest Jones used alcohol and drugs to cope with the horrors he saw as a U.S. Army mortuary affairs specialist in Afghanistan.
Jones got sober and sought therapy, but the horrors remained.
On Feb. 24, the Lancaster man died by suicide. He was 44.
Before his death, Jones talked about his service for an LNP|LancasterOnline series about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that ran Memorial Day 2021.
“My job was to take care of the soldiers and the civilians and prepare their bodies to be sent to Germany. We would go through their personal effects and write up what happened. … It was really horrible,” he said. “A friend of mine committed suicide. She wanted to go home, and, of course, you can’t go home. And she was married with kids. And she took an M16 and pulled the trigger in her mouth. And the job that I had, I had to see that and go through her personal effects. … That was just one of many horror stories.”
Andrew Eichelberger became friends with Jones while both went through Lancaster County’s veteran’s court program, an alternative sentencing program that gives veterans the opportunity to get their lives back on track.
What Jones saw and experienced in Afghanistan ultimately played a role in his death, said Eichelberger, 54, of Strasburg Township.
“He just couldn’t get it out of his mind,” he said.
Eichelberger organized a memorial service for Jones on July 15 largely attended by veterans court participants. He said Jones left behind a letter for his family and they told him what Jones wrote.
Despite therapy and treatment, Eichelberger said Jones “still felt that he would never be able to unsee or unfeel what he saw as a mortuary affairs specialist in the Middle East. That’s how impactful suicidal ideation can be with certain veterans.”
‘All veterans struggle’
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, in 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57% greater than for non-veteran adults.
To mark World Suicide Prevention Day on Sunday, the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is encouraging everyone to light a candle at 8 p.m. in its observance. It’s also trying to make people aware of help that’s available.
Eichelberger is open about his own struggles.
“If I can use my experience to show that it’s OK to talk about (PTSD and mental health). It’s the only way things are going to get better. And not just veterans,” he said.
Eichelberger said he is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has had suicidal thoughts related to his military service. He enlisted in the Army in September 1997 and served until October 2005. He saw combat as an armored crew member on M1 Abrams tanks.
Combat veterans, Eichelberger said, can have survivor’s guilt that can fuel suicidal thoughts. “It’s like, ‘Why am I here?’ And you begin to question your own worth, your own value. And oftentimes to forget what you witnessed and why you’re alive and someone else isn’t, you turn to alcohol or substances or other negative behaviors,” he said.
Eichelberger added, “Suicide can and does take place with all types of veterans, not just those who were deployed … all veterans struggle, but not all get help.”
Eichelberger said it’s important for veterans to know that help is available. And the civilian world needs to make accommodations for veterans, which he said can be difficult for non-veterans to recognize.
“It’s great to light candles, but we need to bring more awareness and people need to know where they can get help,” Eichelberger said.
Eichelberger said he was fired five times from jobs after leaving the Army.
“Some of it was deserving, but some of it was, ‘We don’t understand what’s going on with you,'” he said.
He said his self-loathing led to divorce and withdrawing from his three children and parents, though he said he’s been rebuilding those relationships.
“One of the things I think people need to know is, when I hit my rock-bottom about 18 months ago, for whatever reason, I sought help. And one of the differences was, my employer valued me for the first time in many, many, many years,” Eichelberger said. His employer, Lancaster Foundry Supply, “sat down with me and said, ‘What can I do to accommodate you and your PTSD and make you successful?”
Eichelberger got clean and sober and is in therapy.
“But someone actually said to me, ‘You’re a veteran. Thank you for what you did. What can we do to make you successful?'”
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