By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
When Jimmy Novak struggled with suicidal thoughts during his deployment in Iraq with the U.S. Army, he never told anyone. Though he had a plan for taking his own life – and even did dry runs in preparation – he was too scared to seek help.
Novak, who retired from the Army in January, is currently walking across the United States to bring attention to the problem of veteran suicides and mental health, PTSD and getting help.
“I don’t have any real answer to the problem, but I can get out there and take the time, meet people, share my story,” Novak said Monday from a stop in Senoia. “If I can inspire people to seek help early instead of doing what I did, which ignored the problem until it became unmanageable, then I think there is real goodness and benefit in that.”
He began his journey of 3,000 miles from his home in Washington State on March 22, and hopes to arrive in Orlando on Aug. 22, his 43rd birthday. He arrived in Coweta on Monday and left Senoia Tuesday morning. He’s trying to average about 22 miles a day.
Some statistics estimate that 22 veterans end their lives every day. The number changes based on the year and the organization crunching the data.
“The real point is that veterans have twice the propensity to die by suicide compared to a non-veteran,” Novak said.
When depression and suicidal thoughts haunted Novak, “I was a support guy in an infantry unit, a chemical operations specialist,” he said. “I didn’t really feel like my experience of combat justified the reaction I was having. I wasn’t on the front lines kicking down doors,” he said. “I was like – what right do I have to be feeling this way?
“I don’t want to be perceived by my peers as being weak,” he said. He was worried about the stigma associated with mental health issues, and was worried about his security clearance and how seeking help for his problem might affect future promotions and assignments.
“The Army’s official line has always been that seeking help is a sign of strength, and not a sign of weakness,” Novak said, and that seeking help makes you a better soldier.
But at the time, “I wasn’t in a place where I could hear that and trust that it was true,” Novak said. At night, he was having nightmares and working on plans. But during the day, “I kept putting on my work face and going about my job.” And that’s not the way to handle things, he said.
The thoughts had come on gradually, and gradually they went away. His deployment ended and being back home helped some. “The pain is always there but you don’t always notice it. Some days are better than others,” he said.
Things got bad again several years later when Novak was doing Army recruiting work. “I was trying to drink myself to death,” he said. “I would wonder – if I had another glass of this would I wake up in the morning?” he said.
He kept his concerns to himself, though his wife would at times tell him he was drinking too much. “I was like, I’m fine, leave me alone,” Novak said. “I think that’s a pretty common experience for people that are self-medicating.”
He got moved out of recruiting, but things got worse. “I would be doing something routine at a meeting, and I would catch myself weeping,” Novak said. “I would have to be like – put on my tough guy face,” he said. Or he would be sitting in traffic and tears would begin flowing uncontrollably.
He finally decided to seek help with a counselor. Talking about his issues proved therapeutic.
“Your mind is a like an echo chamber. You have these thoughts and let them run around and they get louder and louder,” he said. “But talking and putting it out there and hearing what you’re thinking out loud – it makes it kind of manageable,” he said.
Sometimes the thoughts still pop into his head, but now he talks about the issues all the time.
Part of the reason for his journey was as a transition from Army life to civilian life.
“I feel like every day when I’m out here on the road I’m basically being reborn,” Novak said. “I feel like every step is a little leap of faith and every step is the first step of the journey.”
Though he’s walked most of the trip, he’s had to ride in a car a few times – like the time a mountain pass was covered in snow. He carries his supplies and belongings in a jogging stroller.
Originally, his plan was to “stealth camp” like he was homeless, Novak said. But he ended up staying with hosts or in hotels and finds he rests better that way. Many nights his hotels are paid for by the American Legion, or by local sponsors.
State Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan and State Rep. Josh Bonner of Peachtree City, both veterans themselves, came in contact with Novak and sponsored his nights in Coweta.
“Jimmy’s walk across America to highlight veteran suicide and PTSD is truly inspiring,” Bonner said. “He is a humble soldier, doing something remarkable in order to bring attention to issues affecting so many of our veterans.”
Novak uses Google maps to plan his route and sometimes, it can get a little wonky. “It will direct you onto private property, to closed roads,” Novak said. It even sent him down the Oregon Trail.
In planning his route, there were a few places Novak wanted to be sure to visit, and as a fan of “The Walking Dead,” Senoia was one of them.
“It was on the list right along with Old Faithful at Yellowstone,” he said.