- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2020

When Shannon Jackson and his friends co-founded District Warriors, a nonprofit hockey organization dedicated to veterans who have disabilities, they wanted the group to be a safe place for former service members in need, president Damien Windt said.

A spinoff from the Capital Beltway Warriors, District Warriors quickly drew about 50 members. Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down gatherings, they would practice weekly and play against the Philadelphia Flyers Warriors program and even a team fielded by the Embassy of Canada.

But this week, the Warriors are mourning the loss of one of their own after Jackson died by suicide last weekend. He was 43.

Jackson’s loved ones remember him as kind and passionate about hockey, service and mental health. Mr. Windt and District Warriors co-founder David Goodman said Jackson was like a “sounding board for anyone,” someone who always invited friends to reach out to him if they were struggling with any issues.

“There’s an emptiness without him,” Mr. Windt added.

In addition to serving as the District Warriors’ vice president, Jackson was head coach of the Chesapeake Lightning, a co-op high school ice hockey team in Southern Maryland, and the assistant coach of the Metro Elite U-18 team. His son Jett, 16, plays for both.

He and his wife Heather Jackson both hailed from West Virginia, where they met in college. They had two children, Jett and 13-year-old daughter Jalen, and most recently lived in St. Thomas, Maryland.

Jackson served in the military for 23 years, most recently at Andrews Air Force Base as an air reserve technician. His deployments took the family around the country; Mrs. Jackson said his favorite was at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where he worked on structural maintenance for the weather reconnaissance aircraft known as “Hurricane Hunters.”

In 2013 a VA study showed that 22 U.S. veterans died by suicide every day. Last year, about 17 veterans died of suicide daily, according to data from the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

“My biggest thing is I would want people to know that they’re not alone,” Mrs. Jackson said. “For everybody in the world, know that you should feel comfortable asking somebody if they’re OK and not pushing that to the side.

“It’s definitely a hard thing to do. But simply by somebody asking, ‘Are you OK?’ It can make the difference to somebody,” she said.

Mr. Windt said the majority of District Warriors’ members have some form of PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, and for many, life is like “a daily battle.” Playing hockey served as a joyous outlet, and even that part wasn’t a requirement to join — the important thing was for veterans and reservists who may have similar issues to get out of the house, hang out and support one another, Mr. Goodman said.

“At the end of the day it’s one mission, one goal: Save veterans’ lives,” Mr. Windt said.

Mr. Goodman said Jackson’s friends knew he was coping with mental health issues.

“I just don’t think anybody knew it was that bad that he would take his life,” Mr. Goodman said. “I don’t think anybody ever sees that coming.”

“I just wish — and I hope he knows — but I wish he could see the literal thousands of people he touched,” Mr. Windt said.

Jackson and the Warriors planned to attend USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Festival in Pittsburgh, but the pandemic forced its cancellation. Mr. Goodman and Mr. Windt agreed that had the team gotten to take that trip — it’s “rough to say,” Mr. Windt admits — Jackson still would be alive.

“Because we would have known (something was wrong), and we would have been able to be a sounding board,” Mr. Windt said. “We would have been able to go to the VA. That’s what it is. We all get together and we all hang out and we play hockey and it’s an outlet, and you’re with your brothers and your sisters, and you’re good for the next six months. Or you’re good for the next four months. You’re good for the next month, you know?”

Mr. Windt understands the necessity for a “lockdown” of society during the pandemic and supports it. But because of the distance and loneliness that social distancing and canceled events can create, he hopes the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will do more outreach to the country’s disabled veterans during this time.

When the pandemic is over, Mr. Windt plans to hold a memorial for Jackson and says some hockey players Jackson knew from teams in Denmark and Russia want to fly in to attend it. For now, District Warriors is raising money for Jackson’s family by selling memorial stickers, shirts and hooded sweatshirts online.

Some shirts bear an image of Jackson from behind, wearing his Warriors jersey. Others, appropriately, show an illustration of two hockey players in an old-school scrap with the phrase, “Never Stop Fighting.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free and confidential support at 1-800-273-8255.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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