Nathaneal Jackson has always cared for others, but it wasn’t until he joined the Army in 1969 as a medic that he earned his nickname, “Doc.” His army career brought him through two tours of Vietnam from 1969-71, and he continued as a medic through his service in the Army Reserve.

Army medic waving arms from special racing bike

“Doc” celebrates recovery

Following his military career, Jackson then worked as an emergency room nurse and a flight medic. “My calling was to save lives,” he said. “Often times that meant that I didn’t take the time to think about myself.”

While working as an emergency nurse, a seemingly routine call turned his world upside down. A newborn baby had passed away despite Jackson’s best efforts. While he didn’t know the child, it had a great impact on him.

“I hadn’t felt the effects of PTSD up until that time. I don’t know why this incident got to me. Shortly after, I broke down and lost it. I started feeling like I was having a heart attack,” he said.

Infant’s death led to PTSD

What Jackson had experienced, he later learned, was a panic attack. Before he could be cleared to return to work, he was ordered to see a mental health therapist. “I don’t need a psychologist,” he thought. “I made it through two tours in Vietnam. I don’t need therapy.”

Reluctantly, though, Jackson did end up talking to a psychologist. After discussing his traumatic experiences—both during and after his military service—he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. “I realized I had never mentally ‘left’ the fields of Vietnam,” he said. “I went straight from a medic to a nurse. I was a trauma junkie. I needed to feel like I was needed.”

Because of his PTSD, he was told he couldn’t return to the health care profession. “I love nursing, I love people,” he added. “I didn’t know what I would do without it. I went home and laid on the couch for months because I was so depressed.”

Family prostate cancer history

Jackson took the time to go back to school, worked in vocational rehab, and even spent years working as a horse trainer. He was still feeling the impact of PTSD but didn’t feel comfortable seeking help. He made one visit to a VA hospital in the 1980’s and left right away. “It felt too connected to the Army,” the former medic said. “I was done with that part of my life.”

In 2013, Jackson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a diagnosis that he assumed would be fatal. “My father died of prostate cancer. My brother, who was also a Vietnam Veteran, had prostate cancer and passed. After I was diagnosed, I knew I was on my way out.”

In addition to PTSD, Jackson felt like he had received his death sentence. Initially, he went to his “bunker” and isolated himself from society. Finally, he decided to go to VA for treatment.

Hope came from his urologist at Nashville VA Medical Center. “He told me, ‘We’ve come a long way since those days’,” Jackson remembered. “He said, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to you, Doc.’”

Found a reason to keep fighting

Jackson has received treatment for several tumors and hormone replacement therapy, but says, thus far, he has avoided needing chemotherapy. While VA was helping him in his battle against prostate cancer, he came across something that would give him reason to keep fighting.

“I was sitting in the waiting room at the hospital, and I saw a video for the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic. I thought it looked like so much fun. I had never gone surfing or kayaking.”

Veteran paddling in kayak

Oldest member of the team a source of youthful exuberance

Jackson talked to his provider about how to get involved in the winter of 2019. When the registration for the following year’s clinic opened, he registered immediately.

Due to the pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 in-person summer clinic was cancelled and held virtually. Finally, when the 2022 registration opened, Jackson jumped at the chance. “After everything that has happened with my health recently, I wasn’t going to miss another year.”

It’s a 2,100-mile journey from Cookeville, Tennessee, to San Diego. Over several days, Jackson made the drive with a singular goal of attending the clinic. While he was excited about the opportunity to participate in so many new activities, he had some reservations about how he would react to being around other former service members.

“For the longest time, I wanted to avoid anything with the military or Veterans,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk about where I served and what I did. But then I met these people—I can’t believe I made all these friends and got to do all these activities.”

“Brothers, sisters, get out of your house!”

Jackson was an inspiration to Team Neptune, his assigned team for the clinic. Despite being the oldest member of the team, he was a source of youthful exuberance. From the moment he arrived in a bright Hawaiian shirt to leading his team with a song while kayaking, he made a point to touch every Veteran on his team and their competition.

This experience was one that Jackson says will help him bring others out of their “bunker.”

“I would encourage every Veteran to look into this. Brothers and sisters, get out of your house! Look up these events and get involved.”

His time at the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic has given him a new way of helping his fellow Veterans: introducing them to adaptive sports and recreational therapy.

“I’m still their Doc. This is how I’m going to touch more Vets and save more lives,” he said.

The National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic is a rehabilitation sports and recreation program for Veterans with disabilities, and it takes place annually in San Diego, California. It’s hosted by VA San Diego Healthcare System, in collaboration with presenting sponsor, Wounded Warrior Project; founding sponsor, Veterans Canteen Service; and dozens of other community organizations and corporations.

By John Archiquette

Public affairs specialist, National Veterans Sports Programs

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Published on Aug. 28, 2022

Estimated reading time is 5.2 min.

Views to date: 837

5 Comments

  1. Roderick September 6, 2022 at 2:19 am - Reply

    How can I get involved in this program.

  2. Jan Slagle August 30, 2022 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Excellent article!! Thanks for sharing and God bless!

  3. Ron Nassar August 29, 2022 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Nathaniel Jackson is my closest neighbor and over the 9+ years that I have lived close to him my respect for the sacrifices that he has made for this country has grown immensely. I have watched him struggle with several potentially terminal health issues during this period. This country owes him and all of the other Vietnam veterans a huge debt of gratitude for the service that they rendered in the Vietnam War.

    • Nathanael Jackson September 1, 2022 at 9:14 am - Reply

      Ron and Linda, I know you two be very private people, for you to post this humbles me. It’s true, you have been a nurturing and caring neighbor when you didn’t have to and seen me through some pretty awful situations…for that, I truly thank you. We ain’t got no fence between our properties and yet, we beat the odds,…… We Be Good Neighbors!

  4. Tony August 28, 2022 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    I would very muck like to participate in one of these sports activities., like Golf or cycling. I do not know where and how to begin and have not tried either sport. I would require some instructions and perhaps equipment? If anyone can tel me who to contact in the San Diego, CA area I would certainly be grateful.
    Best wished to all the participants and future participants.
    Stay safe,

    Tony

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