by Sylvia C. Dodge
LYNDON — As a young man just out of his teens, John Hojek served the country as a Marine Corps infantryman in the Iraq war. He now will be serving veterans in need as a psychologist.
Mr. Hojek graduated a few weeks ago with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from the prestigious University of Chicago School of Social Work. He has learned to give veterans help dealing with the traumas experienced in war that often remain as demons long after they become civilians. He knows from first-had experience the troubles many veterans have reintegrating after military service into so-called normal life. In his work and studies, Mr. Hojek said, he has learned to offer veterans ways to find “purpose, support, and resilience.”
Mr. Hojek was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Veterans Summit, held on Flag Day Monday at Northern Vermont University in Lyndon. Mr. Hojek told his dramatic personal story to veterans and their families, which included some of Vermont’s Gold Star families (families that have had a member die while serving during a time of military conflict).
After the September 11, 2001, attack, Mr. Hojek formed his first life’s purpose — to defend his country against foreign attackers. He was a freshman in high school at the time.
Right out of high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as an infantryman. In Iraq he lost three friends in a single battle. He helped carry their lifeless bodies off the field. The Marine Corps trains troops for many things, “but you’re never prepared to watch friends die,” he said. “You can’t be prepared for that.”
When he spoke of the “angel birthdays” of his buddies there was a catch in his throat, and some in the audience who had lost loved ones, too, were visibly sobbing.
“There is a ripple effect when service members die,” Mr. Hojek said. “It’s a sacrifice you can’t put into words.”
When he returned to the United States after his enlistment was up and tried to reintegrate into “normal” life, Mr. Hojek became a fireman. He joined a motorcycle club, and in 2012 he left Illinois, his home state, and enrolled at Lyndon State College (LSC). He played hockey and rugby, he studied — he was seeking a purpose.
A history assignment about World War II was a trigger for him.
“I couldn’t get the buddies I’d lost out of my head,” he said, and he found himself in the office of Tom Anderson — a former Marine and also the organizer of the Veterans Summit.
Mr. Hojek did something that he knows is very hard for many veterans to do — he asked for help.
Within hours he was on his way to the Vermont Veterans’ Hospital in White River Junction. “That day changed the course of my life,” he said. “I am extremely grateful for the VA, which continues to inspire me.”
But even with the help of the VA, Mr. Hojek told the assembled veterans and their families that in 2016 he tried to take his life. It’s a hard road, and he shared his full story because it’s not unique. Many who serve in the military lose their lives in combat, but many others take their lives once they come home, a reality that Mr. Hojek hopes will change — a reality that the various groups that assembled at last week’s Veterans Summit hope to change too.
Mr. Hojek explained that military service is built on support networks. There is air support — and there is even buddy support when a soldier needs to go to the bathroom. “But I know that proud warriors have trouble asking for support” in the civilian world, he said.
Mr. Hojek summed up, “You are not alone. Find your purpose. Find support. Continue to be resilient.”
Although there was no announced theme for the Veterans Summit, the overall message to veterans and their families is to connect with services, to ask for help, and not to suffer alone.
The “Summit Address” at the event was from Dr. Laura Gibson, the associate chief of behavioral health services at the Veterans Hospital in White River Junction. Her current focus for the VA is ensuring that timely, relevant, and high-quality behavioral services are offered at the hospital and at its affiliated community based out-patient clinics.
A representative from Senator Bernie Sanders’ office also spoke briefly, and told the veterans and their families to never hesitate to reach out to the Senator with issues and needs. As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Sanders hopes to push infrastructure funding through Congress to upgrade the nation’s veterans’ facilities.
Breakout sessions at the Veterans Summit included information about a wide range of regional services for veterans.
There was a weird symmetry to the last two Veterans Summits and the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the event was held in Burlington, and it occurred on the first day of a reported case of the virus in the state. This year’s event was held on the day that Governor Phil Scott announced that 80 percent of eligible Vermonters have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, allowing the lifting of the state’s pandemic state of emergency.
Perhaps due to the pandemic, as well as threatening weather, the attendance at last week’s summit was much smaller than it has been in the past.
The event was held on Flag Day, and June 14 also marks the two hundred forty-sixth birthday of the U. S. Army. At present, the Vermont National Guard is overseas serving a deployment.
Since 2001, more than 3 million troops have cycled out of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015 the nation had approximately 1.7 million registered Gold Star families. In Vermont, there are 43 Gold Star families.