Jeff Fulton knows he's lucky to be alive today.
The 33-year-old Simpsonville resident served two tours with the United States Army in Afghanistan, and has stared death in the face more times than he can count. His service overseas haunted him for nearly a decade, and for a long time, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism commandeered his life.
"I did have a problem — a big problem," Fulton said. "And if I would have kept going down that route, we wouldn’t be talking today. There is no doubt in my mind I probably would have ended up in a ditch somewhere."
The past 12 years have been tumultuous and, in times, painful for him, but he's finally crossing something he's fought for off his list — getting his bachelor's degree from Clemson University.
In 2005, during his first tour as a staff sergeant, Fulton began taking online classes through Clemson as a way to get started with his bachelor's degree. Half a world away, Fulton would set aside time when he wasn't leading route-clearing or mine-detecting missions to use a computer on base for a half hour or so and get some of his assignments done.
"I’ve always dreamed of going to Clemson and I knew that if I started taking classes while I was overseas I would have a better chance of getting in," Fulton said.
Clemson has always been on Fulton's mind — he's a die-hard Tigers fan — but after he got home from that first tour and the effects of his service began to sink in, it became harder to focus on school.
"The reason why I think my bachelor's took so long is there was probably three semesters where I shouldn’t have been enrolled at school at all," Fulton said. "The PTSD was really bad, I was trying to drown my experiences through alcohol every single day and I really started going down a really dark path."
In 2010, Fulton was deployed to Afghanistan for a second tour. He and the 15 other soldiers he was responsible for took on fire just about every day, and it began to weigh on him.
"I can tell somebody, yeah, I got shot at, a sniper almost took me out, then I almost got picked off as I was doing a resupply — but that sounds like a movie. It doesn’t sound real," Fulton said. "It was reality and it was one of those things where I was like I’m just going to try and mask this with alcohol. And that’s what happened."
After he came home in 2011, he cut everyone off. He didn't make an effort to see his family, didn't make an effort to do well in his classes, didn't make an effort to do much of anything, he said, except find his way to the bottom of a bottle.
About four years ago, he met his future wife, Gina, who really helped motivate him to get his priorities straight. She was pursuing her master's, and encouraged him to figure out what he needed to do to wrap up his Clemson degree.
"He was drinking a ton and just not making good life decisions when I met him," Gina Fulton said. "Once he told me he only had just a few classes left, I really tried to motivate him to go back and finish it."
Jeff Fulton, who now works at Windstream as a project coordination team manager, credits his wife for encouraging him to not only finish his schooling, but also to seek help. He received counseling and therapy through the VA, and slowly managed to confront the demons that lurked around every corner.
"I saw things you can’t unsee, I've been in places you can’t undo, but at the same time I now know that being an advocate for soldiers with PTSD has been my driver to help me get through some of my PTSD," Jeff Fulton said. "I'm a completely different person today than I was four years ago."
He had a couple dozen credits left to finish his degree in management, and buckled down for the last several years to get it done. His GPA had suffered after he spent several semesters struggling with PTSD, and he knew he needed, at the very least, a 2.0 to graduate.
He finished his last course this month, and will walk the stage in August — thanks to a 2.01 GPA.
"The day that he finished — it was very surreal for him. He didn’t believe it," Gina Fulton said. "I knew that he could do it, he just needed to set his mind to it."
Finishing his degree lifts a tremendous burden, she said, but the transformation that happened throughout the 12-year journey of serving, earning his degree and seeking treatment has changed him for the better.
The two of them would not have married, or seen the birth of their now 6-week-old son, Jacob, if he hadn't continued to persevere despite the obstacles stacked against him, she said.
"If he hadn’t gotten help, I don't know that he would be the person that he is today," Gina Fulton said. "When I see him interact with our son, nothing warms my heart more than that. I'm just grateful my son has somebody so strong and hard-working to look up to — and hopefully my son will grow up to be just like him."
Follow Georgie Silvarole on Twitter @gsilvarole.