Jacob George described himself as a "hillbilly storyteller." He told the most beautiful tales as he softly strummed his banjo, tapped his bare foot on the ground, and let his long hair brush his smiling face. He was the last person most of us thought would become one of the 22 veterans each day who commit suicide.
Maybe the thought that it would never be him is part of why the veterans community who knew Jacob is grieving so hard right now. But the reality is that deep down, Jacob carried the wounds of war that so many of us bear after experiencing combat. On September 17, 2014, Jacob, just 32 years old, took his own life. It was not an act of cowardice or selfishness on his part, but a failing on ours. We failed Jacob as a community of veterans and a country as a whole.
Jacob was not an imposing figure from a physical standpoint, but his energy captured the attention of a room, whether he was performing from the stage or he'd just stepped in the door. His presence was electric, and it was hard not to smile when he smiled and sing along when he would transition from a soft whisper to a bellowing boom. Whether he had a microphone, a megaphone or just the night's air, every event he was at turned into a show and a Jacob George show always turned into a sing-a-long.
Jacob told me that he joined the army in 2001 to defend our freedoms and thought that was what he would be doing in Afghanistan. His first tour in Afghanistan began in 2001, just a month after September 11. Having grown up a poor farmer in Arkansas, he saw his reflection in the faces of poor farmers in Afghanistan. He saw the will to live free, the struggle of constant hard work, and felt the pain our occupation was causing the people.
When he finished his third tour in Afghanistan and was discharged from the army, his opposition to the war became very personal. He set out to change the world the only way he knew how: to tell people his stories and to listen to theirs. It was how he did it that made him so special to so many people.
A bike tour was the first introduction Jacob made to the antiwar community. He called it "A Ride Till the End," as he set out with other veterans and friends to ride across the country and tell his stories to anyone who would listen until the war ended. That is where his antiwar activism started but not where it ended.
From the seat of his bike with his banjo across his back he went to Chicago where he joined nearly 50 other veterans and threw his medals back at NATO in protest of its wars in 2012. This act -- he explained in his song "Warrior" -- was part of a "right of passage into warriorhood," which he learned by sharing time and energy with many native and indigenous healers and elders. Singing about the difference between a soldier and a warrior, he road to D.C. and New York, to San Francisco and Denver, to Texas and back again to Arkansas. He understood that as a warrior he would always have issues with following orders, but never in following his conscience, loving and fighting for what he believed in.
Returning to Afghanistan may have been the hardest thing Jacob did as an activist, because he expected to find a public dead set against American occupation and Americans, but what he found was a complicated political landscape and a beautiful people with whom he fell in love. Jacob frequently talked so fondly of his return trip to Afghanistan and the youth he met there while working with Afghan Peace Volunteers. He wore a blue scarf for them -- a symbol of peace, solidarity, and his experiences there -- and many times kept it with him even when not wearing it.
He carried all his experiences in his heart and had empathy for all living beings. Ultimately, it was those experiences that were too heavy for even his tales. Jacob talked often of moral injury, and the complicated relationship he had with his deployments, his trauma and a world of people who did not understand what these wars are doing to soldiers and the people who will still live there long after the war ends.
Jacob was as much a product of his three tours in the Afghanistan War as he was the mountains of Arkansas. In addition to his antiwar and humanitarian work, he adored talking about his love for the mountains; the farms of Arkansas that raised him; and the support and love from his mother Robin, sister Jasmin and brother Jordan. His experiences in life before enlistment ultimately created the empathy and compassion he had for those he could not resolve to call "enemy," as his training demanded. So much of his stories were based on seeing himself and those he grew up with in the faces of the Afghan farmers he met -- both during his tours and on his voluntary trip back to Afghanistan as a civilian.
His practice trying to explain war to anyone who would listen left Jacob feeling conflicted and wounded -- emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. He identified most with the Solider's Heart -- the term for what was PTSD during the Civil War. He talked publicly about his experiences as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and how protest and alternate forms of healing, did more to treat his soldiers heart then any treatment the VA could offer him. IVAW is a very different organization then it was when Jacob first found us and we partially have him to thank for that.
He challenged our views on "the good war" and held a mirror of song for us to reflect how and why we fought the war. We are better people today because Jacob graced us with his being and he will always be one of us. He will always be carried in our hearts. He will live on in his songs. He will always be part of our family and the loss of that one hillbilly story teller from Arkansas is a loss to the world.
The Music of Jacob George can be downloaded from iTunes and anyone wishing can make a donation to help his family through the Jacob George Celebration of Life Fund.
Photo credit: Ironside Photography.
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