Marine veteran finds healing through throwing
By NATE GOTLIEB | The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. | Published: February 14, 2015
MANKATO, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Physically, Joshua Jablon appeared unhurt. But mentally, he was deteriorating.
It was October 2009 and Jablon, a former Marine and Mankato West graduate, had just returned to Okinawa, Japan, after a tour of duty in Iraq. Jablon had been in three roadside bomb explosions while serving, which caused shrapnel to enter his left leg and lower back.
More significantly — and unknown to him — Jablon had sustained a traumatic brain injury. He suffered constant headaches and ringing in his ears as well as random lapses in memory, during which he would forget where he was entirely.
Jablon turned to drinking and fighting to cope with the injuries. It got to the point where he couldn’t do his mechanic job anymore, he said, because he was drunk half the time.
“When we first got back, (drinking) was something that we all did, and then we felt okay,” Jablon said. “You drank to feel okay. You didn’t drink because it was fun, you just drank because you felt okay when you were drunk.”
Eventually, a sergeant forced Jablon into treatment for his brain injury. While recovering he rediscovered the sport to which he credits so much of his turnaround: track and field.
“It gave me something to strive for,” said Jablon, now a freshman thrower at Bethany Lutheran College. “I could actually put a meaning to my hard work. I could see my hard work in how hard I threw it, and I could see my hard work when I didn’t fall over when I did certain things.”
“It kept me going when there was times when I just wanted to sit at home and let life pass me by.”
Jablon, a native of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, moved to Mankato when he was in sixth grade. He played football and baseball at West High School before discovering track and field as a junior.
Jablon enrolled in the Marine Corps during his senior year, following his grandfather into military service. He was initially stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and was deployed to Iraq in February 2009.
While driving a truck as part of a supply convoy in July 2009, Jablon drove over a roadside bomb. He said he remembers a big flash and then nothing before waking up about 10 to 15 minutes later and receiving aide outside the truck.
Despite the injuries, Jablon returned to work a couple of days later.
“You don’t really think about the long-term effects of what you’re doing when you’re over there,” he said. “You just kind of go day by day.”
When Jablon returned to Okinawa in October 2009, the post-traumatic stress started popping up “pretty fiercely.”
He tried to play it off like nothing was wrong, thinking he could deal with it on his own, until the sergeant intervened.
The base in Okinawa didn’t have the doctors he needed, so he was sent to Hawaii in June 2010.
Jablon was placed in a wounded warrior unit when he arrived in Hawaii.
Even that was a battle.
“I didn’t want to be in a wounded warrior unit. I didn’t want to admit that I was wounded,” he said. “I fought it for a long time but finally just realized that it’s better to accept it and get the help you need than to fight it and end up wasting peoples’ time.”
Jablon spent days between doctor’s appointments, as well as appointments with speech pathologists, hearing specialists and occupational and physical therapists. There were times he was happy to be in treatment, but it also had its frustrating moments.
“I couldn’t seem to balance for more than 10 seconds,” he said. “I couldn’t seem to walk a straight line. I needed hearing aides. I couldn’t speak certain words — stuff like that.”
After four months of inpatient therapy in Hawaii in 2010, Jablon was itching to get off the island. A sergeant told him about the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service members and veterans.
Jablon volunteered, mainly just to get off the island. He attended training camp for the games in January 2011 in Eugene, Oregon. The three-day camp was his first track and field experience since 2007.
“It was really rough at the first go, because, I mean, I couldn’t even walk in a straight line let alone have any sort of balance in any sort of competition,” Jablon said.
Still, Jablon was hooked. He loved the bonding over sport therapy and the opportunity to see the results of his hard work.
He saw strong results in competition, too. He won silver medals in his first two Warrior Games and a gold in the games this past September.
After returning to Mankato in November 2012, Jablon started drinking again.
The first year home was the roughest, said his mom, Juli Eigenheer.
“He comes home and there’s nobody,” she said. “His whole routine he did was gone. I told him I can listen, but I can’t relate and understand what he went through. There was nobody here. “
Jablon spent the year remodeling a car, which had been a project between him a friend who died in Iraq.
After missing the 2012 Warrior Games, Jablon attended the trials for the 2013 games that March.
He changed once he rediscovered track and field, Eigenheer said.
“He was more energetic, he was more positive, happy, not having to use the Yellow Ribbon (suicide prevention) hotline — things like that,” she said.
Jablon volunteered to coach shot putters and discus throwers at West that spring. He spent the rest of 2013 focusing on staying sober and picking up appointments.
While volunteer coaching in spring 2014, he heard that Bethany had a track program. He went to the college looking for a packet of information and ended up getting an entire tour. Jablon turned in his application to the school two days later and was accepted around Memorial Day.
He spent the summer lifting weights and competing in a couple of USA Track & Field open events before beginning classes in September. He worked with Bethany track and field captain Luke Hahn in the fall to learn an event called “weight throw,” which Jablon had never done.
Weight throwing is an event unique to college indoor track and field. Similar to the hammer throw, it consists of athletes tossing a 35-pound ball as far as they can. Hahn said Jablon was very persistent in learning the throw, doing a lot of research on his own.
“It was a learning process for both of us,” Hahn said. “Even though I was doing it for two years already, he would help me out with my form, too, based on what he saw.”
Jablon broke Hahn’s school record in the weight throw in the first meet of the indoor season. He since set the school mark for indoor shot put and could break more records in the spring, head coach Dave Ring said.
“He’s probably the best thrower we’ve ever brought in,” Ring said.
Jablon is one of the rare college athletes who relishes the team’s 6 a.m. practices, Bethany throwing coach Brian Kvebak said. His daily schedule consists of a mix of practice, class, hitting the weight room and watching video of throwing.
“When he talks track and field you see a glow in his eyes,” Eigenheer said. “He’s in his element in that circle, and he’s trying to improve each and every day.”
In the classroom, Jablon had a successful first semester taking general classes. He’s planning on majoring in business management, though he said his career goals change daily.
Angie Johnson, Jablon’s composition teacher fall semester, said Jablon has a kind of maturity that’s rare even among adults. She recommended one book to him, and before she knew it, they were sharing books outside of class.
“He’s really open and honest about all his experiences that I found myself learning from him,” she said.
In the gym, Jablon has become a leader on the track and field team. Already Ring has asked him to think about potentially becoming a player-coach in the future.
“It’s just the whole entire sport that he loves,” Eigenheer said. “It gives him something to strive for each and every day.”
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