If Jimmy Heeter had lost the game of solo Russian roulette he played during his darkest moments last year, he’d have been just like his older brother: A self-inflicted post-war casualty.
A veteran of the Iraq war, Heeter said that among nightmares, epilepsy, other symptoms of his brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, he is thankful his suicidal game of gunplay was unsuccessful.
For the moment, at least.
“I wish you could take an aspirin and a glass of water to get over war,” he said Monday at Jacksonville’s Five Star Veterans Center, where he has been a resident for nearly a year. “But unfortunately, it’s not that easy.”
Heeter, 42, is a former U.S. Army specialist who says he was traumatized by witnessing comrades being mangled by improvised explosive devices during 2005 and 2006 attacks of his Baghdad-based unit.
“I have lived with it every day since. It’s a nightmare — a bunch of nightmares — that never go away,” he said.
Heeter had difficulty adjusting to civilian life from Day 1 after leaving the Army in 2009.
While in the military, Heeter said, he became addicted to the prescription narcotics he was taking for his PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Once he left the Army, he began stealing to fuel that addiction. Last year, he was arrested and charged with dealing in stolen property and fraudulent credit card use.
“Getting arrested ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me — a relief, because I had tried and tried to get help on my own, and couldn’t find any,” Heeter said. “Five Star saved my life. I know that for a fact.”
Through the Duval County Veterans Treatment Court diversion program, Heeter pledged to remain sober and to participate in drug testing, counseling and other programs available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He also moved into Five Star, a nonprofit transitional housing program located in a former nursing home on Acme Street in Arlington. He pitches in by performing buildings and grounds maintenance.
“I’m being given a chance to have a clean criminal record, to remain sober, and to have a new chance at life — a chance my brother never had,” he said.
Sean Heeter, 28, committed suicide in 1998. He was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Desert Storm.
“I know in my heart,” Heeter said, “that my brother would be alive today if he had something available to him like Five Star.”
The center provides free room, board and social services to displaced and homeless veterans, helps them find jobs and complete school, and links them to resources that enable them to live independently.
Since the center opened in March 2012, 76 people have completed the program; the organization’s budget allows for 20-25 participants at a time.
From fresh coats of paint to attractive landscaping in its front and rear courtyards, Five Star has undergone a makeover since obtaining a new name in the wake of the Allied Veterans of the World gambling scandal. Fifty-seven people tied to the organization, which was separate from the center, were arrested in March 2013 in a $300 million money laundering investigation.
Donors, volunteers, board members and the center’s small staff have rallied to assure that Five Star’s mission is accomplished, said center CEO Len Loving, a retired Marine colonel.
“Basically, we’re here to provide veterans in need a safe and secure environment so that they can try to mend the deficiencies in their life,” he said.
Iraq war veteran Patron Watson, 39, says he is enjoying Five Star’s hot meals, cable television, computer lab, gym and friendly environment. He has been diagnosed with a brain injury and PTSD. Watson is a former Army specialist and current National Guard member who was sleeping in his truck two weeks ago.
Watson says it’s his aim for his stay at Five Star to be as abbreviated as possible.
“Basically, it provides me with a peaceful place to be while I try to get a job and take care of other issues,” he said.
Watson and Heeter say they don’t plan to participate in Veterans Day activities today. The annual observance is bittersweet for them.
“I just wish the average veteran knew the real reason they can ride around free on Veterans Day,” Heeter said. “I’m not saying I’m special — that I’m better than anyone else. But it’s people like me and my brother that go over to Iraq and Afghanistan and the other theaters of war that protect the freedoms we all have.
“People die for those freedoms and people just don’t realize that enough. It’s frustrating.”
Still, Heeter says each new day seems to be bringing him some solace.
“I used to lay in bed with a gun stuck to my head,” he said. “Now I don’t.”