Jennifer Crane, today, is able to find peace. (Photo: Damiano Beltrami/Vimeo)
Jennifer Crane’s resume should truly read, “been to hell and back.”
Enlisting in the army at 17, Crane’s first day of basic training happened to be on September 11, 2001. After deployment to Afghanistan — and suffering through a severe period of depression and dehydration — Crane returned to her hometown of Downingtown, PA in 2003 to a life she didn’t recognize. She battled nightmares, confusion and PTSD. Ultimately drugs beckoned and she distanced herself from family, friends, and began living out of her car.
Fast forward 11 years, and Jennifer’s life has drastically changed — for the better. She’s a mom to two kids, works as a nurse, spends much of her time helping other veterans, and even met the First Lady just last month.
But her journey was a rough one …
How did you spend Memorial Day?
I spent it with my family at the park. We just enjoyed the sun and good company. I try not to focus too much on the sadness I feel, but instead honor my brothers and sisters who have gone before me by living life to the fullest every moment I can.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the Army?
Oh yeah. My grandfather was in the navy and I always wanted to be like my Pop-Pop when I grew up. He’s my hero — he still is at 83. He helped raise me when my parents divorced. So when a recruiter came into my school in the middle of my senior year, I took one look at her and decided that was that. I joined the army in 2000, against my parent’s wishes.
You joined during a peaceful time and then a whole lot changed.
Yeah, then all hell broke loose. September 11th happened and they quickly got us through basic training [at Fort Jackson, South Carolina]. In 2003, I was sent to Afghanistan where I worked in base operations. The engineering team, security team, all of our generals, commanders and our JAG (Judge Advocate General) corps ran out of the same building, so when we were attacked, they would [target] my building. As the administrative team, you don’t really expect that going in — but you soon realize there’s no such thing as a front line defense.. On top of that, I worked as a liaison between the US Army and the local nationals, so I spent a lot of time outside. Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world, and there were only two roads while I was there. So when the road ends you have to travel through minefields to get to where you’re going — that was a daily occurrence.
You soon experienced pretty severe depression, right?
One of my best friends was killed three weeks into our deployment. I was part of his funeral detail. I saw horrible things. We’d watch trucks pull up in front of my building with bodies hanging out of the back. …I got really depressed, lost a lot of weight. I spent all my extra time at the gym, not eating, not being in contact with my family, really isolating from everyone outside of my job. You kind of shut down to be able to do your job because if you feel emotions you’re liable to get yourself killed or somebody else killed.
You were honorably discharged, how did that happen?
I had the unfortunate pleasure of being put in the intensive care unit near the end of my deployment. I was so dehydrated that I passed out. So they hooked me up to a bunch of machines and gave me an IV and put me in this big tent. I was set up next to Afghan children missing limbs and my commander — he was diagnosed as acutely psychotic. On my flight out, I was put on the back of a C-130; my commander was on that flight with me as well, three feet in front of me. I watched them pump him full of sedatives multiple times as he screamed. Then the screaming stopped and he went into cardiac arrest and died. We emergency landed in Turkey where they pronounced him dead, and I flew from Turkey to Germany with my boots on his coffin. That was the end of my deployment.
So then you come home and…
I proceed to destroy my life. Dec 24, 2003 was when I was discharged and by January  I got a job at a bar, started using cocaine, lost my boyfriend, friends, family. I was 21.
It’s really crazy to think about how much you experienced before you were even 21.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I had PTSD and why it doesn’t go away and learned that your brain is still developing up to 25. So the traumatic events that happened at 20 actually altered the physical attributes of my brain. I’ve seen a CAT scan of my brain and it looks vastly different from someone who doesn’t have PTSD. It always will.
You eventually checked into the Veterans Affairs substance abuse program?
I was on drugs and couldn’t go home — my mom wasn’t ok with that. I tried to hide it from everybody but everybody knew. Eventually I checked myself in to the VA substance abuse unit and about six weeks into the program, the doctors pulled me into a room with all the doctors and therapists and said, “Jen we believe the program is hurting you more than helping you and you’re a distraction to the other patients.” It was awful. So I went right to my dealer, started smoking crack and thought I’d find a way to kill myself. I’d use any drug that I could. And then I started living out of my car.
Can you talk about what that was like?
It was awful and lonely. I spent most of my time in silence, listening to the cars passing by and being terrified someone would recognize me or come ask what I was doing — that only happened once. You feel isolated and when the sun rises every morning you question life and if there is a God. It’s a life altering experience.
And then you got arrested in August 2006 for crack possession?
That was the end, I was done. I’d been JAG corps in the military. I was the person who arrested people and got them in trouble [laughs]. I was not ok with being on the other side. But that was it, — that was what I needed. I actually left and got back into the army.
You went back in?
Yup, for another year. I worked as a recruiter in Westchester, PA, and during that reenlistment process was when I found out I had a warrant for my arrest. The cops who had arrested me that night in August never pressed charges, but two months later [they did]. So in my business suit I went down to Coatesville police station and turned myself in and they did my mug shot, fingerprints, put me in handcuffs and shackles. There’s nothing more humbling than that.
Did you explain what had happened to you?
The judge looked at me and said, “You don’t belong here.” I said, “I know, I don’t.” He put me in the drug court program and actually met the therapist I’m still with today. She introduced me to Give an Hour. They provide free mental healthcare to vets.
So since then you’ve been married, divorced and are raising two children?
And I went to nursing school to become a nurse. I bought a house. Life is good.
I joined an organization where I travel the country and give lectures on PTSD and being a war vet. I joined The Mission Continues where I donate my time to my local VA. I even got to meet the First Lady. Never in my life had I had an experience like that. She asked me how I was, how the kids were and she told me how proud she was of me and wrapped her arms around me. It was very surreal.
Do you still suffer from PTSD?
I do. I’ve been unmedicated for two years which is huge for me. I didn’t think that day would ever come. There are still certain things: thunder storms and lightening, driving down the highway and [and hearing a] car backfire, [that can cause me to] have a panic attack. But I have enough tools today that I can talk myself out of those things and remind myself that I am home and I’m safe.
How do you feel about the army now — would you go back in?
If I could go back into the military I would do it in a heartbeat. There aren’t many vets that would tell you different.
What is it about that job that you love so much?
The camaraderie. The family. These are people that would lay down their lives for you. You don’t find that out here in the civilian world. That doesn’t happen. When you go to war with people, you won’t have that again. The civilian world will never be able to understand.
I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, that I was supposed to do this, to deploy and go through this.
What do you hope people remember now that Memorial Day has passed?
I hope they remember that there is no greater sacrifice. Memorial Day is not Veterans Day. I am lucky to be living and Memorial Day is for honoring my battle buddies who have their lives so we can be free.