Jeffrey Sargent enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from high school in 1999. He ended up serving 12 years, including two tours of duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that time, he received a Bronze Star, but also lost several members of his unit, including his platoon leader.
He was a decade into his military career, when during a promotion ceremony to Sgt. First Class, he suffered his first panic attack. It was the initial sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“And that's pretty much where it all started for me, was anxiety, which led to panic attacks, which led to medication, which led to fear of just about everything,” Sargent said.
While his PTSD led to an honorable discharge in 2011, Sargent has worked at managing it through a holistic approach, equal parts support system:
“Having your family there, my wife, she never stopped, it’s been difficult but she never stopped, she never gave up,” he said.
It was also mixed with counseling, deep breathing and physical expression.
“Fitness was huge, it was my outlet, per se, rather than partaking in other things, when I needed an outlet, that's when I got it, was running, and working out, and working out hard," he said.
Sargent also focused on his education, which led him to enroll at the University of South Florida to pursue a bachelor's degree in health sciences.
“I think probably the biggest thing is setting a goal, and within setting a goal is education, to get me to that goal,” he said.
But Sargent doesn’t just go to class. He volunteers at USF’s Office of Veteran Success and at the VA Hospital as a peer recovery specialist. In that job, he tries to help his fellow vets deal with issues like substance abuse, as well as handle the sometimes challenging transition back into civilian life. (Please click on any of those links if you're a veteran who needs help.)
“Starting off, right out of the gate, is I've been there, and I've done that, and I did it for a long time," Sargent said. "So, being able to relate with someone, on that level, regardless of what the intent is, is going to be crucial.”
Daniel R. McNeill is the Office Manager of USF’s Office of Veteran Success. He says Sargent brings a great amount of empathy to the job.
“Just absolutely understanding what the other veterans are going through. It's very difficult for veterans to relate to civilians, or relate their stories to people who haven't experienced something at least similar," McNeill said. "And Jeff has a distinct ability to convert his own personal time in the service to kind of connect with other veterans.”
Because of his work as a student and a volunteer, Jeffrey Sargent has been named a 2016 Tillman Military Scholar.
He and 59 other military service veterans and military spouses from around the country will receive almost $2 million dollars in scholarships from the Pat Tillman Foundation this academic year.
He’s the 15th USF student veteran to receive the honor, named in memory of the professional football player turned U.S. Army Ranger, who was killed in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004.
Sargent said it’s an honor that he cherishes.
“It’s a fraternity of people that are trying to do good in their community, they’re trying to affect change, they’re excelling academically, they’ve excelled in the military, they’ve used their experiences from the military to better themselves in preparation for what they want to affect and what they want to change and what they want to accomplish after the military,” he said.
After graduation, Sargent indicates he would like to become an occupational therapist and open a practice with his wife, who is a physical therapist. He’d like to help other veterans and their families learn to cope, mainly using the holistic approach that’s served him so well.
“From community service to nutrition to fitness to just, you name it," he said. "It’s helped me a lot in my transition from the military to the civilian world.”
Because more than anything, he wants his fellow vets to know there are people who want to help, because they’ve been there.
“Having someone that’s been through it, that is a veteran, that can help, and kind of provide that hope for the veteran or the patient that needs it, I think that's the biggest thing, is, I've been there, I've done that, I'm a veteran too," Sargent said.