In March 2018, Chris Dempsey, JAG lawyer and Army combat veteran, found himself sleeping in the woods next to his church in Keystone, Florida.
“Laying on the ground in those woods, I prayed that God would just take me,” Chris said. “I had not eaten in several days; I was mourning the loss of everything that shaped and defined who I thought I was.”
He lost his successful career in the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., his marriage of nearly 20 years, his relationship with his three children, his home, his love of running, his self-worth and his hope for the future.
“I was an empty shell of a man,” he said. “Lost, scared, angry, confused, alone. All this was unfathomable to me; I could not wrap my mind around what was happening to me.”
What was happening to him was a mental-health crisis brought on by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, which he developed following a deployment to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Left untreated like his, PTSD can have heartbreaking, devastating, life-threatening effects on a person’s life.
“In February 2017, I bought a gun and starting telling my entire family and network of friends goodbye — until someone called the VA crisis line and the police came and got me,” he said. “But that was only the first of five guns I bought that year and only the beginning of a tightening cycle of crisis upon crisis.”
“Ultimately, I found myself sleeping in the woods behind grocery stores; or in crawl spaces under abandoned rural houses to stay warm; on rocks or the ground; crawling around at night, on hands and knees, drinking out of the river, with shaking cupped hands in the moonlight, like a wild animal.”
Chris knew something was wrong and that he needed to get help.
Through a network of North Florida veterans organizations and charities, he said he found a way forward. A friend from his church knew Trey Fagen, who leads a rural veterans charity called Operation Barnabas. He connect Chris to 5 Star Veterans Center, a veterans services organization and United Way of Northeast Florida partner.
“There, I found a place to call home,” Chris said. “I found three meals a day.”
5 Star Veterans reached out to the Red Cross and the Jaguars Foundation, also United Way partners, who were able to assist Chris with financial grants to get back on his feet. 5 Star also paid his bar dues, which were delinquent. His license to practice law would have been suspended without their support.
Most importantly, Chris found treatment for his PTSD through the VA and other veterans services organizations. It was a multitude of services — also including K9s for Warriors, Wounded Warriors, Semper Fi Fund, Fresh Ministries, his church and more — all united that helped him repair his life.
“Slowly, steadily, I found myself back on my feet,” Chris said.
He found his love for running again. He found work at Abel Bean Law, P.A., a law firm in Downtown Jacksonville. He found an apartment he loves in San Marco near the water. His finances stabilized. He met his partner, Jessica.
Chris also recently founded Mission Phoenix, a charity that provides legal assistance and other services to veterans as a way to pay it forward.
“Because of the many helping hands in our local community that reached out and touched me, I am now poised to show not just what PTSD can do destroy your life, but the enormous potential in every veteran with PTSD – properly resourced and cared for – to overcome their combat trauma and accomplish great things in this world,” he said.
But he assures you it’s was that collection of resources — not just one — that made the difference. That’s why Chris was happy to hear about and contribute to the development of United Way of Northeast Florida’s Mission United initiative, now nearing launch and implementation.
“Yes, there are resources, organizations, governmental entities like the VA,” Chris said. “But that is not enough. There is no way the VA can do its job without the help of [veterans services organizations] and charities that assist veterans in our community.”
While they all serve the cause of helping veterans, he said, they serve in their specialties, and sometimes veterans don’t even know the services exists. That’s where United Way steps in.
“To centralize, stovepipe and better manage the resources available to vets in our community: housing support, employment services, education, legal assistance, health, financial stability, mentorship,” he said, “United Way is filling an absolutely vital gap in outreach to struggling vets.”
Mission United is designed to coordinate existing services and provide additional resources to make it easier for veterans, active duty service members and their families to get the help they need when they need it.
Chris’ story is just one example of the hundreds of thousands of lives changed by United Way of Northeast Florida, its partners and initiatives like Mission United every year. Invest in United Way of Northeast Florida so everyone can reach their full potential.
Visit unitedwaynefl.org/give to change a life like Chris’ now. If you are interested in learning more about supporting Mission United specifically, please contact Linda Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are scores of other vets silently suffering, trapped in their pain and the depths of despair, just like I was last March,” Chris said. “There are too many out there, just like me, but who are not receiving treatment and the resources it took to get me to the place I am today.”