Not Just a Statistic: Remembering Our Friend and Afghanistan Veteran Jacob George

Jacob George playing his banjo on a hay ride with children. (Photo: Jacob George)

Not Just a Statistic: Remembering Our Friend and Afghanistan Veteran Jacob George

This is just one of many article's remembering our friend, Afghanistan war veteran, healer, and activist Jacob George. Please also see "Remembering Jacob George" by Jacob's close friend and fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War (AVAW) Committee member Brock McIntosh, who traveled back to Afghanistan with Jacob as a civilian in 2011 and Democracy Now!'s piece "Soldier's Heart: Remembering Jacob George, Afghan War Vet Turned Peace Activist Who Took Own Life."

You can listen to Jacob's album "Soldier Heart" on Spotify.

I hadn't seen Jacob in over a year. In March of 2013, our friend Tomas Young had announced he planned to go off hospice care and wanted to let himself die. Tomas is an Iraq war veteran who was shot and paralyzed on his first day in Iraq. He was the first veteran I met who spoke out against the war. That had been eight years before. But now Tomas felt he was suffering too much to want to continue. In response to Tomas's decision, a number of us held an event to celebrate him at the Uptown Theatre in Kansas City. We shared music and videos. Jacob performed on stage, along with others.

Tomas changed his mind and decided to stay with us a while longer, in large part I believe, due to the outpouring of support from both his friends and those he hadn't met. Jacob was a part of that. As he was a part of the healing of so many people. I saw him again a few months later in Philadelphia performing his new album "Soldier's Heart," but that was the last time I would have a good long conversation with him.

I didn't know Jacob nearly as well as many others and yet I've still been walking around in a fog since I heard Jacob took his life.The energy and passion Jacob lived by made it difficutl not to feel connected to him within minutes of meeting him. Twenty two veterans killing themselves a day is an abstract statistic. Until it's not, and you've lost a friend.

Jacob had a way of making you feel he'd known you his whole life. He touched so many people in such a short time. Over the past weekend and in the next few weeks, memorials for Jacob have been or will be held in New York, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Fayetteville, The Bay, and elsewhere. I remember thinking "When I leave this world, there certainly won't be remembrances in cities across the country." Jacob was special. He was an amazing man whose loss is devastating to so many.

I first met Jacob at the Iraq Veterans Against the War convention in Austin, Texas in the summer of 2010. His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and for a quiet farm boy from Missouri, sometimes overwhelming. He told me about his upcoming trek across the country on his bike, "A Ride Till The End." Jacob decided he would ride his bike across the country until the end of the Afghanistan War, sharing his experiences with war, healing himself and helping others heal. There was a vulnerability in what he was doing. I remember saying "Til the end!? My god, you are going to be riding for years!" And he did.

Sometime that day I posted an update on Facebook about the convention. A few hours later, one of my closest friends from my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, Jerrad Hardin, called me up. "Where is the convention being held?"

"Austin" I replied.

"No, what's the address. I want to help. I'm coming out."

Jerrad had seen my Facebook status and that's all it took for him to hop in a car in Panama City, Florida and drive thirteen hours straight to Austin. He would meet Jacob a few hours after arriving. The next time I spoke with Jerrad he was going on a bike ride. Just like that! Jerrad rode with Jacob on A Ride Til the End (ARTTE) and was a close friend. From here, its best to let his words speak:

"I'm sitting in a coffee shop, like Jake and me had done many times before, scheming this little scripture for my friend. Having spent many hours together, and miles, on bicycles, in cars, camping, talking, cooking, singing, and goofing off, I certainly never expected I'd be writing this."

"If I could summarize Jacob's work, I'd say this; Jacob George rode his bicycle around the rural southern United States denouncing his service in Afghanistan. With the help and support of his Arkansas community, and sparked by his brother's decision to go AWOL, Jacob waged non-violence strapped with a banjo and a bicycle.

To put it another way, he strolled into small working communities, like the ones he saw being rampaged in Afghanistan, and to those who would listen he told his story of how he came to be a non-violent activist and organizer within GI resistance movement. These were, after all, his people. Being a southerner, a professed hillbilly, Jake felt it was those rural communities who needed to hear him the most. They needed to see what it looked like in person, and those quiet, mostly Christian communities were pleasantly surprised whenever Jacob rolled into town."

Jacob used his bike and banjo as tools to heal. His was passionate about his and other's healing, and it touched everyone he met. He was open and vulnerable, honest and compassionate, and he connected with you.

"Jake eventually took his ride into the Northeastern states and on down. After returning to Afghanistan as a civilian for a month long stay to further his non-violent activism and give back to the country he felt he had taken so much from, the ARTTE bicycle collective rolled in to anchors of the East Coast. In Manhattan (change to New York?), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC, they told the story of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers."

"We parted ways shortly after that run, and Jake went on a speaking tour by way of cars and planes. We had plans to meet up and play more music together. I visited him in Fayetteville. He came to meet me in Kansas City and we drove down I-70 until it became a parking lot. He took a break from music for awhile, after releasing "Soldier's Heart", and last I heard he was sitting in on bass with some bands at a folk festival."

"I'm heading down to Fayetteville to share in his energy that he left in all the people he encountered. Jake's "energy" is something people have mentioned over and over since his passing. To those who knew him, no matter how brief, Jake gave the special attention and affection usually reserved for life-long friends. Like a true healer, he kept his heart wide open to receive anyone who crossed his path."

Amanda Geraci, a professional therapist, anti-war activist, close friend, and healer herself, shared this:

"Jacob and I connected with each other the minute we met in 2010. We are both healers, though he told me I was more of a mother figure to many of our mutual friends, and we had many conversations about how people work and affect each other. We were both always trying to figure out why people behaved the way they did; said the things they said - he was obsessed with trying to understand all the perspectives of people around him.

We talked about the trauma of war and how it tears at people, physically, emotionally, and for Jacob psychologically and spiritually as well. Jacob often talked of Moral Injury, and how his heart had been affected by the trauma in his life both before and after his military career. He, like all veterans, was a human before he was in the armed forces. He had stories about the Arkansas mountains that raised him, the family and friends who he learned compassion and empathy from while growing up, and the scars, traumas, loves, losses, secrets, and celebrations, most of us all have in our lives.

Jacob's moral injury was not limited to the military. He wanted everyone to see the intensity of life, the brutality and beauty of healing, and the awesomeness of sharing stories. He told the most detailed, energy inducing, fabulous stories. He made me confront some of my demons, and allowed me to help him confront some of his. We shared stories about Arkansas medicine women, his primary identity as a "hillbilly farmer from Arkansas", elders from various cultural and religious persuasions, and the importance of keeping one's body as clear and free of mind altering and body altering substances as possible.

Jacob wanted to experience every minute of every aspect of his life to the fullest. He seemed to feel there had been so many times in his life pre- and post- military where pain, avoidance, and oppression prevailed so he wanted to live beyond that and have a stronger, healthier, more honest, beautiful life than the one that oppression and militarism had guided him through up until he began speaking out about his experiences. Last year when preparing for the beginning of his 2nd music tour, "Solider's Heart" he wrote in his storybook, "a wise medicine woman from Arkansas once told me that grief is pain trying to leave the body. If you don't allow yourself to grieve, it gets stuck... I won't lie, some of this stuff is heavy. But telling my story is part of my healing process. And its not just veterans who need to heal: all of us need to heal from war and the roster of ailments produced by a nation at war. This is grieving for me. Feel free to grieve as well". So much of his grief was healed by telling stories, riding around the country connecting with every type of person he could, spending time with his amazing nieces, and reconnecting with the mountains, land, and family who love and supported him.

We will never know exactly why Jacob made this final, tragic, heart-wrenching decision; but we do know his large, open, empathic heart, was too great for the weight of his body to carry. His heart, his empathy, and his soul were too big for this plane of existence. As everyone has already agreed, Jacob affected the lives of everyone he encountered. He is already sorely missed and will live on in the thousands of people who share his spirit, passion, energy, and desire to create a more peaceful, empathic, understanding world. "

When Jacob started A Ride Til the End, he couldn't have known how long he would need to ride. Today, Afghanistan and the United States signed the Bilateral Security Agreement. Jacob's war will go on. In some ways, he is still riding through the music he played at all the hills and towns he stopped in, teaching us with chords. He lives on through his music. And while we are all now grieving, we can turn to our memories of Jacob and his music to make us smile like he always did.

Thanks to Brock McIntosh, Jerrad Hardin, and Amanda Geraci for contributing to this article.

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