CINCINNATI — Most children, say seven or eight years old, are likely not thinking about a career in the military, but that wasn’t the case for Jennifer Wells. She said it was a moment that hit her out of left field.
“The song ‘God Bless the USA’ came on,” she recalled. “And for some reason I just started crying and I just knew. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve always felt that calling, that tug.”
She wanted to join the Army during high school, but her parents convinced her to try out life for a couple years. In the end, post-high school life and college just wasn’t her thing and that tug towards the service became the beating drum for her life’s path forward.
“I signed the paperwork in October 2005 and left December 29th,” Wells said.
She started basic training and then schooling for her work within biological, chemical, radiation detection and training. One of her roles was to ensure soldiers within her unit were educated on the techniques to protect themselves and to wear the protective gear in the proper manner.
Wells was deployed to Iraq and worked with a maintenance unit stationed at LSA Anaconda. She said she traveled to many other areas to deliver supplies. During her down time, she volunteered at the base hospital continuing that desire to serve.
Another part of her job was perimeter security for the base. She spent hours in a watch tower more than forty feet in the air keeping an eye out for anyone approaching the base. One night about 10 months into her deployment she was on guard with another soldier. It was three in the morning and the other soldier left the tower to go use the bathroom and left the floor hatch open.
“I’m automatically on more of an alert because my battle buddy is exiting the tower to use the restroom and I thought I heard something took a step and fell through the hatch door,” she explained.
Wells fell 42 feet to the concrete pad below careening into steel bars on the way down.
“I shattered my right arm and I broke my back L2 through L4 I sustained a minor TBI,” she said.
The surgeon who operated on Wells said she was extremely lucky to have even survived the fall.
The accident ended her deployment and she came back to the states to continue her recovery. Due to her injuries she changed jobs, or reclassified, to more of a Human Resources position. Eventually, she would leave the Army behind, but not the desire to still serve her fellow service members.
“When I was in the Army we protect and serve and support and help and when I got out it was hard for me to, like I felt like that was in my bones and I still wanted to do that,” she said.
Wells worked her way through a variety of service-based organizations that focus on helping veterans. She started with the non-profit Tri-State Veterans Community Alliance and then landed on the doorstep of Easterseals of Greater Cincinnati.
“Going to TVCA and then Easterseals is when I really got to do a lot of hands-on stuff seeing veterans be able to be successful and knowing that even just helping them get a car battery, or whatever, help them get work and get a home,” Wells said. “Seeing that made me feel like I was still completing my mission. It makes you feel like you have that purpose.”
Through those first couple of roles, she gained a better understanding on how to serve veterans in our community who may have fallen through the cracks. This time, Wells had the ability to lend veterans a hand in front of a judge.
“I started as a peer mentor coordinator for Veteran Treatment Court here in Hamilton County August of last year,” she said.
Wells' role is to recruit peer mentors and match them up with veterans who are going through veteran court program. The program addresses veterans who are challenged with addiction, homelessness, mental health issues tied to service and then find themselves charged with crimes as a result. The desire by the counties that run these special court programs is to get veterans the help they need to get back on the right path and keep them out of prison.
With the help of the VA, local police departments and other organizations, the veterans go through extensive treatment programs depending on their specific issues and are held accountable with regular appearances in the courtroom to update the team and the judge.
For Jennifer Wells it’s a role where she can continue that desire to serve.
“You have probation and the VA side or the therapy and all of that but the peer mentor side is to really be there for support through the process,” she said.
The mentors are usually fellow veterans who can sometimes better understand what the veteran has experienced in service and in their post–service life.
“It’s a lot easier to talk to other veterans usually if you know they’re a veteran it’s an instant connection,” Wells said. “That’s why they’re crucial to the program – it’s one of those aspects that’s outside of the main framework."
Often times it’s just to have someone for the veterans to talk to while they’re going through the program, Wells said. The mentors often guide the veterans they’re assigned to down the best path – whether they’re pointing them toward resources for housing issues or for their new job, they act as a battle buddy.
“It’s exciting to see veterans outside of the court get excited about helping and learning about the court,” Wells said. “They just want to help and give back and help veterans going through the program regain confidence.”