Meet Jesse J. (Tegh S.)
Story Written by Ashley Orzel
“I suffered so much and I wanted help so badly. I needed help. I earned it. I worked hard. I risked my life to be able to have a healthy life.”
Parachute Infantry Regiment, National Guard
In 2010, Tegh returned from Afghanistan and began outprocessing from Active Duty before transitioning to the California National Guard. Within months of returning from Afghanistan, Tegh married his long-time best friend, Rusveer. However, the man who left for basic training was not the man who came home. He was withdrawn, isolated, and sad.
He couldn’t tell his wife how he felt. Other veterans had it so much worse, he thought. He was alive, his body in one piece, and he had his family. So why couldn’t he leave the house?
The problems started with transition
I felt like the Army didn’t want to let me go. I left under very intense circumstances. We had much higher ranking non-commissioned officers who would try talking us out of separating from the service and pounded the message into us that we were going to struggle. It was made clear to me that I was nothing without the Army, and that my only success existed in service. It didn’t put me in the right headspace.
Separating from the Army was very overwhelming for me. I had this whole other life that I felt I couldn’t talk about to anybody. My sense of loneliness was crushing. The trauma of my experience in my deployment… I felt like I had to guard it with my life. I couldn’t tell anyone. It was an impossible burden to carry. I came back with nothing to say to anyone about anything. I just really shut down.
My personality changed
I met my wife before I enlisted. I used to be so thoughtful and goofy. I was this other person that really came to life. My wife saw the process of me going from this young, energetic, enthusiastic guy to being someone who was shut-in, didn’t want anything to do with anyone, and was more sad and isolated. I felt like there was a huge mismatch between the community that I was surrounded by and the person I wanted to be inside my head. And I didn’t have that sense of being able to fit in anywhere. I didn’t belong anywhere.
I thought I could handle it
As much as I could acknowledge that I was having challenges in my day-to-day life, I kept trying to attribute it to everyday stressors. I kept thinking, maybe work is stressful or maybe it’s schoolwork, maybe it’s the move, or maybe it’s my in-laws… I’ll just try to exercise more or meditation or things like that. I turned wholeheartedly toward religion; becoming an initiated Sikh and even changing my name to Tegh Singh. It helped tremendously, but it didn’t address everything. Even when I resolved each stressor, my problems never went away. I tried everything, and nothing worked as well as I needed. I wasn’t really getting to the core issues of the problems I was having and they kept getting worse.
At that time, I did not want to admit that I had any sort of combat-related trauma because I felt if I was going to get any compensation for that, I didn’t deserve it because my symptoms weren’t severe enough. I always had this notion in me that any benefits or assistance you get as a veteran should be saved for the people who have the most severe time adjusting. That was my attitude and that was a huge mistake. It was my understanding that those benefits were for veterans who lost their limbs or people who lost their family, or for the family of people who didn’t come back. But between my wife and I, I didn’t come back. That person she met who used to go out and have fun and was the life of the party… that guy is gone. He disappeared a long time ago. Someone else came back. Now we have to figure out how we are going to make it going forward.
“Being able to vocalize what had been in my heart for many years lifted a huge weight and it made the process of getting additional help that much easier.”
There was a breaking point
When my daughter was nine months old, we moved to Calgary. We hoped we’d finally found a city to settle down in, but it was hitting a very hard reset on everything that we had worked for throughout our lives. The stress level was going through the roof. We had no support from friends or family. It was hard to find/keep stable employment. We struggled to earn enough money for basic necessities. Social and financial tensions led to a cycle of arguing and silence at home. With the added symptoms from my trauma, it just made everything so much worse. Every part of my life was breaking down. That’s when my wife drew a line in the sand and said, “I can’t keep doing this and you can’t keep doing this. You’ve been through too much and you’ve worked too hard to let this be your life now. Get help. You deserve it.” She was absolutely right.
It was demoralizing for me to have all these things going wrong in my life but not knowing how to “fix” it. I would speak to various professionals who would tell me, “Just relax, you’ll be fine” or, “Give it more time.” Some time would pass, I would tell myself I was fine, and then I would realize I’m in the same place. I’m not OK. Finally, I got to a breaking point where I didn’t want to take no for an answer anymore.
That’s around the time we started going to the Veterans Association Food Bank. My wife thought it would be a good idea for me to meet other veterans. I met two people there who were alumni from the Veterans Transition Program. They both had such positive feedback about the entire program. I knew that this needed to happen. I was all-in at that point. I felt like I had tried everything for so many years and whatever I was doing on my own just wasn’t working. Of course, I still had reservations about going, thinking other Veterans deserved a spot in the program more than I did, but I went anyway.
I finally got the help I needed
When I arrived on the first day at the Veterans Transition Program, it was a small cohort and I was the youngest guy. I was totally blown away by hearing about the other veterans’ experiences in service. It was an extreme comfort to me to have that validation that I wasn’t alone. We all had different experiences at different times, but we all had the same response to it. That’s when it all clicked for me: I’m not alone. Through that whole program, it felt good to be able to support other people the way I wish someone had supported me.
I had so many first-time realizations; it was exhausting. For the first time, I was accepting that I did not have to do this on my own – that I cannot do this on my own – and that getting help is OK. For so many years, I felt like I was doing more of a service not saying anything to anyone because I didn’t want to be a burden to my wife or to the people around me. Going to VTP and being able to share a lot of these stories and opening up to the other veterans – being able to vocalize what had been in my heart for many years – lifted a huge weight and it made the process of getting additional help that much easier.
My wife and I finally got to have that talk about the critical events that caused my trauma. I would have never been able to open up to her about it, get help on my own, continue to go on or talk to anyone else outside of the program about what my experience was like if it wasn’t for the progress that I had made in VTP.
Right after the program, COVID happened and we were in the first lockdown. After the first few months, my wife said to me: “I am so grateful that we did VTP because I’m scared to imagine what it would be like for us if that ‘other you’ was stuck in the house with us.” It was a humbling moment for both of us, but we both agreed. I don’t think our marriage would have lasted.
What I learned about trauma
It’s really important to acknowledge that family and spouses have to work through a lot of this stuff too. It’s not only the vets who struggle with a lot of issues. It’s also the people who are left behind and left to pick up all the pieces when that veteran comes back and they’re not the same person.
If there’s anyone who feels like they’re doing alright, compared to others, I want to tell them: you deserve this help. I suffered so much and I wanted help so badly. I needed help. I earned it. I worked hard. I risked my life to be able to have a healthy life.
Even if your experience isn’t one of trauma, it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from the time and opportunity to process your experience and redirect your energy moving forward because the military lifestyle is so different as compared to civilian life. That period of transition needs a lot of special consideration. Having external supports to make that happen can make a world of difference. Being able to talk about it, being able to say: Now what do I do? How do I redefine myself once I let go of this idea of being a soldier? What are my values going forward? How do I want to live my life?
You can have a happy life with whatever time you have left. You just have to make yourself accessible. The help is out there and you deserve that help.
Postscript: On November 11, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tegh rode his bicycle past Calgary’s military monuments to raise money for the Veterans Transition Network and Calgary’s Field of Crosses. He wanted to help those soldiers who came home and honour those who didn’t. His solo ride sponsored by Bike Calgary attracted a great deal of media attention. He spoke to reporters and posted his day’s achievements to social media. On that cold hard pandemic Remembrance Day, Tegh was a symbol of strength and resilience. VTN is grateful for his continued advocacy on behalf of veterans’ mental health and his encouragement to other veterans to seek the help they need. Thank you, Tegh.