Army veteran uses his own experiences to help others
LIBERTY — At 16 years old, Jerome Givens learned he was about to be a father and was told he had to step up to take care of his obligations.
One of seven children, Givens now admits being wild, slightly uncontrollable and already thinking he was grown. Today, at 58, Givens knows he was mistaken.
Givens spent two years in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserve.
“I joined the Army Reserves, in part, to make my father proud,” he said.
At the time, he also remembered stories told to him by one of his older brothers, who also served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“My brother, Leonard, was the one who sat down with me and talked to me about the things I needed to know about being a man,” Givens said.
Leonard Givens died when Jerome was 10 years old.
Givens went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training and to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for Advanced Individual Training. He was trained to be a plumber and water purification specialist.
“I never got to use the skills,” Givens said. “After my training, I was transferred to an armored division.”
Givens said while he was at Fort Leonard Wood, he faced a lot of racism and antagonism by superiors. However, the then-17-year-old liked the fact that he was earning more than a lot of adults he knew both in Missouri and back home in Ohio.
“I just felt a lot of pressure,” he said.
Givens asked to be transferred from the reserve to active duty.
He was assigned to Fort McCullough, Alabama. He hoped the atmosphere would be better, but, according to him, the level of racism and antagonism was even greater than what he experienced in Missouri.
Givens was reassigned to work as a postal worker.
While traveling off the post, Givens described driving up to a man wearing a white robe — usually associated with the Ku Klux Klan — sitting in the middle of the road.
“He had a pot of chitterlings,” Givens said. “There was no one else on the road. I thought I was not going to get out of there alive.”
However, the two men just sat there and talked for about a half hour before he continued on his trip, Givens said.
“I was raised on the streets of Youngstown, so I saw and experienced a lot,” Givens said. “I’ve never experienced the level of racism I felt when I was in the military. It was a lot a pressure. I knew I would have to leave as soon as my enlistment ended because I thought I would eventually hurt someone.”
Givens said he now regrets he did not have more patience and maturity when he was in the military.
“There were so many things available for me to learn, if only I was open to them and had not been so rebellious,” Givens said. “I could have tried to make a career of it.”
Since leaving the military, Givens returned to the Mahoning Valley, where he’s had many ups and downs. He has battled drug and alcohol addictions, and has been arrested on domestic violence and weapons charges.
Over the last two years, Givens describes finally getting control of his addictions, remaining clean and sober while working with a specialist at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. He also received certification to become a peer counselor, so he can help others, especially veterans, by talking to them about his experiences.
“There are veterans, especially African-American veterans, who may not be willing to open up to people who have not had similar experiences with abuse and with the law,” Givens said.
He wants to use his G.I. Bill to get a house that can be used to help veterans that are having a tough time get back on their feet.
“There was a time when I was homeless and needed help,” he said.
As both a father and a counselor, Givens said he wants to provide the kind of help and understanding he does not feel was available to him growing up.