Criminology major Jeph Jones finds purpose in raising awareness of veteran suicide

by | Oct 30, 2016

The student veteran served two tours in Iraq and struggled to adapt after returning home, so he's using his experience to help others.
UMSL student Jeph Jones smiles while wearing a striped polo shirt.

Jeph Jones is studying criminology and criminal justice at UMSL and dreams of one day becoming a prosecutor, but he’s also devoted himself to raising awareness of veteran suicide. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jeph Jones sat amongst a lunchtime crowd of his fellow University of Missouri–St. Louis students earlier this month at The Nosh in the Millennium Student Center, but he willingly directed his mind back five years to a bridge spanning the Mississippi River at Alton, Illinois.

He choked up and needed to pause to collect himself. He could feel his heart beating faster, and he swallowed before continuing to speak.

Jones, who served two tours in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was telling the story of walking to that bridge late one afternoon, intent on jumping.

He also shared it recently in an emotional essay posted on the website for Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit organization working to curtail suicides by active duty soldiers and veterans, which are estimated to be occurring at a rate of 20 per day.

Speaking, as in his writing, Jones detailed how he almost became one of those statistics.

Raised in a military family, he joined the Army as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he went on to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq, where among other horrors he saw fellow soldiers killed.

He continued to be faced with the death of friends even after he was medically discharged and returned to civilian life.

He has seven dog tags tattooed on his arms – three on the left and four on the right – to commemorate them.

“My guardian Eagles,” he calls them, in reference to the Screaming Eagles based at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Among the losses were Conrad Alvarez and Kristian Menchaca, his best friends from basic training.

Jones had visited the VA for treatment and had been prescribed Wellbutrin and Zoloft. But he hadn’t received counseling and felt alone as he tried to re-acclimate to being home.

“I was just out in the world by myself,” he said. “Family and friends always said, ‘I’ll be there for you. I’m there for you. Call me if you need me.’ Well, yeah, they’re there if you need them, but that’s usually during the daytime or they don’t understand quite what I was going through.”

Jones’ way of dealing with the isolation was to drink.

“I never did drugs, but I just used to drink a lot,” he said that day outside The Nosh. “I used to go out to bars and meet random people and just say, ‘Hey, what y’all drinking?’ or ‘What y’all drinking?’ or ‘What y’all drinking?’ and just running tabs up.

“I felt like they didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. They couldn’t judge me with what I had going on in my personal life.”

His anguish only increased, and eventually it reached a point where it felt like more than he could endure.

One day in 2011, Jones made the decision to take his own life.

He didn’t own a gun, nor had he any knowledge of how to overdose on medication. Jumping off the bridge seemed like a better way, and because he couldn’t swim, there’d be no backing out.

Jones wrote a letter to his parents, telling them how much he loved and would miss them but also explaining that the pain he felt was more than he could bear.

He made up his bed, as pristinely as he’d been taught in basic training, left his wallet and cell phone in his room and set out the door.

The bridge was only a few blocks away, and Jones remembers having tears streaming down his face as he approached it, trying to time everything just right so that traffic would be light and there’d be no one to interfere with his plan.

That’s when the image of his mother crying suddenly passed through the forefront of his mind. She was next to his casket, and he could hear her asking, “Why didn’t I get help?”

He continued walking toward his destination, but he was already considering turning back.

“I just knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Jones said.

He moved away from the bridge with a new focus: making it back home before his mother found his letter. He had to hurry because, with it nearly 5:30 p.m., there wasn’t much time before she’d be walking through the door.

Jones made it in time, and it’d be a while before he told her about all that she missed.

But with a renewed desire to cope with everything he’d been feeling, Jones went about changing the direction of his life.

He went back to the VA and found a better doctor. He started sharing more with family and friends. He got involved at Alton VFW Post 1308, where he is now a member of the honor guard. He moved across the river to Missouri and enrolled at St. Charles Community College in January 2012.

During his time at SCC, Jones met other former soldiers and got involved in starting a veterans organization on campus, eventually serving as the organization’s president.

Jones began college with a goal of becoming a probation officer, but by the time he transferred to UMSL in the fall of 2015 his focus had shifted toward another role of the criminal justice system: prosecutor.

He would like to attend law school after earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice and sociology, and he’s currently on track to graduate in December 2017.

“I know it’s hard,” he said. “I know I’ve got competition. But with the way my ambition is and the way I want to do this, I’m going to keep driving.”

He’s found UMSL to be a good launch point.

“I feel comfortable here,” Jones said. “I feel like it’s a safe environment for me to learn what I need to learn.”

He expressed particular affinity for courses he’s taken from professors Terrance Taylor, Kyle Thomas, David Klinger and Adam Boessen in the realm of criminology and criminal justice.

Jones, who bears an acknowledged resemblance to Mike Tyson, has also made himself known at the UMSL Veterans Center in Clark Hall for his lighthearted nature.

“Jeph comes in before and after class and just to check in and say hi,” said Rebecca McMenamin, the manager of Veterans and Military Services at UMSL. “One thing, Jeph’s always got a smile on his face. He’s such a positive person. For everything that he’s gone through, the amount of drive and positivity that I see from him is contagious.”

School and a security job that has him working 2 to 10 p.m. each weekday are not the only things that consume Jones’ time.

He’s devoted himself to raising awareness of veteran suicide and has been filming himself since the summer doing 20 pushups each day and posting the footage on social media. He’s also trying to raise funds for the cause by selling T-shirts online. On the front, the shirts read, “It ain’t easy being Jeezy, but somebody gotta do it” – a reference to his nickname. The back reads: “20 is too many #veteransuicideawareness.”

“In our world, it almost seems trivial doing pushups and putting them on a video, but it’s not because it’s connecting people to each other,” said Jim Craig, an associate teaching professor and chair of the Department of Military and Veteran Studies. “I think we think it’s trivial because it’s not going to be consistent. It’s just a flash in the pan, but for him, it is all about consistency and constantly reminding people and being available to people. That’s what makes this initiative a little bit different.”

Jones has a dream of creating a veteran suicide awareness charity run that starts locally and spreads across the country.

Perhaps most important, he’s shared his story.

“Suicide is inherently a very private and controversial and very stigmatizing thing, especially for veterans,” McMenamin said. “In our society, veterans are often seen as the ticking time bomb or the hero. There’s not very much in between in the way veterans are depicted in our culture. I was surprised how open he was because most of the time, you don’t here about a veteran struggling until something catastrophic happens like suicide, but I’m so thankful that Jeph has been so open.”

Jeph Jones will be a featured speaker at the UMSL Veterans Day celebration on Nov. 11.

Jones will be a featured speaker at the UMSL Veterans Day commemoration on Nov. 11.

Jones is scheduled to speak again during a Veterans Day commemoration on Nov. 11 at UMSL. The school has held such an event each of the past five years, but never before has a student been called upon to speak.

“As we discussed it with the student vets this year, we kind of came to the conclusion, ‘Why don’t we let a student – this student veteran, specifically, who has a great story to tell – tell the story?'” Craig said. “Veterans Day itself is not Memorial Day. It’s not about honoring the dead. It’s about honoring the living, and he’s a survivor. So he’s going to tell his story to whoever shows, and maybe there’s someone in that crowd that it speaks to that turns around and asks for a little bit of help or accepts that they’re not the only one going through this. If you can touch one person, you win.”

Jones is certain sharing his experiences has already made a profound impact on one veteran: himself. He’s been touched by the reaction it has received from family members, friends and even some total strangers on social media.

“I can’t speak for all suicide victims or people that contemplate it, but I know the boots that I wore are not normal boots that normal people have,” Jones said. “We can’t take away those images of those bodies. We can’t take away all the stuff that was there. It was horrible to adjust to.

“I feel relieved. I feel like I’ve got a weight off my back telling that story and getting it out.”

The UMSL Experience

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik