Jas Boothe stood tall over the crowd as I approached her, but one of the first things I noticed were her combat boots peeking out from her elegant formal wear. She told me it was her way of remembering her roots. She was in Chicago that night, her hometown, being honored by Girls in the Game; an organization that helps young women gain confidence and hope through sports, after-school programs, and summer camps. The organization currently serves both Chicago and Baltimore, and helps nearly 4,000 girls every year.
Truly, everything about Jas feels grounded, stable, secure. She was instantly warm and welcoming as she sat down with me in the center of the party to talk about why she was here tonight and how far she had come.
“I was born and raised in the projects of Chicago. We were a poor family, you know, grew up on welfare, public assistance, we had to stand in line to get boxes of food… I would say that all those things made me the person I am today. I have an appreciation for life, an appreciation for what I have,” she told me. “This is just overwhelming for me tonight because I was born and raised here, and this is the first time I’ve been recognized by my own city, so it’s very special.”
For Jas, sports were her way out of her neighborhood and into a better life.
“College was something that I knew my family couldn’t afford, so I developed a skill, that being basketball. Basketball allowed me to have a free education,” she said. Jas worked hard to graduate from college, in time for her Grandmother (who had encouraged her all her life to get a degree) to hear the news. But Jas was just getting started on her journey. Next stop: Motherhood.
Roots to Boots
“I ended up a single mother shortly after college. And I always wanted
my son to know that a single mother is just a title that you get. It doesn’t mean that, because you’re a single mother, X, Y, and Z is going to happen,” Jas told me. “When society thinks of a single mother, they think of hardship. They think that you’re not going to be able to do certain things because you need so much help. I showed him that you don’t need any of those things. I joined the military because I wanted to show him that I’m not a ‘single mother.’ I’m your mother. Here are the things I can still do.”
Jas eventually became a Major in the Army. In 2005, she learned that she would be heading to Iraq. But reality was about to deal her a harsh hand, all at once.
First, Hurricane Katrina decimated her home, destroying everything she owned. Then, just one month later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in her head, neck, and throat, halting her deployment.
Scrambling for help and resources during the looming threat of being discharged, she learned that there were currently no services in place to help female veterans with children and that traditional welfare and social services were her only option.
In that moment, Jas realized a serious need to care for her sisters in arms.
The Heart of A Warrior
Jas credits her 16 years in the Military as the experience needed to make it through that difficult portion of her life. “My childhood got me through certain difficulties, but without the military, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” she told me. “I was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer. It could’ve been stage 4, you know? It helped put that in perspective.”
Homeless, sick, and desperate, Jas underwent highly extensive treatment for her cancer at Brooke Army Medical Center. Thankfully, she was able to remain in the Reserves, and immediately began to hunt for work and a home after going into remission.
“Nobody was RSVPing to my pity party,” she said, bluntly, laughing a little. Jas was still fighting the mental and physical scars that had come from her situation, but it was her son that kept her from completely giving up.
“I owed him more,” she said. “I felt like a hypocrite… there I was, laying there like I was worthless. Every morning he would come and tell me ‘Mommy, it’s gonna be ok,’ and go off to school. And I’m like, ‘You know what, I’ve got to get up for him.’ Because if he goes through something similar, and he thinks its ok to just give up and lay here, and just feel sorry for himself… I didn’t want to raise a son like that, and I definitely didn’t want to raise a man like that. So I got up, for him.”
Today, he is also in the military.
“He’s now in the Air Force because he wanted to serve just like his mom served,” she told me.
Now, Jas has a home, a job, her health, and her family, including her husband (a fellow veteran) and another son. I asked her what specifically was developed in her by the Army that helped her through such a difficult time in her life, and come out on the other side. She showed me the inside of her left arm.
“I have a tattoo on my arm… it’s a part of the soldier’s creed that’s called the Warrior Ethos.”
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
Those four phrases developed the heart of a warrior, capable of taking on sickness, joblessness, homelessness, and hopelessness all at once and achieving victory. The same ethos became the basis for Final Salute, the non-profit organization that Jas started to assist female veterans and their families.
“These aren’t just random homeless veterans. These are my sisters in arms. Whether we served together or not, we all wore the same uniform,” Jas told me. “People think that wearing a uniform makes you exempt from the problems that other Americans face. Divorce doesn’t discriminate, PTSD doesn’t discriminate… once you take the uniform off, [all of that] stays with you.”
Jas was all too familiar with the mental struggle that veterans face, the feeling of worthlessness, the feeling that you can’t (or shouldn’t) ask for help, the expectation of strength. When I asked her when she truly realized that she had overcome the adversity in her life, she immediately went back to her first family that came to Final Salute for help. “We got our first mother and our first child, this person that doesn’t know me but believed in me and took a chance on me. And I was able to help them and give them hope.”
Helping other women to remember the strength that she had to find in herself is what fuels Jas to continue the mission at Final Salute. Girls in the Game honored her as a life champion, for her own victories and the continued support for other women.
Jas stood, tall and grounded in her combat boots as she accepted the award. Just over 20 years ago, she would have been among those girls. It was clear that as she spoke, she was addressing herself. Her message? Hope.
“I hope they see hope in me, and I hope they see that one day that they could be on that stage, as a leader, as a role model,” she told me. “The girls that are here tonight… that may not see a future, can now see a future in me.”