The Holidays Present Additional Challenges for Veterans
Injured combat veteran offers crucial advice to fellow sufferers of trauma and all of us during the holidays and pandemic.
For U.S. military veterans fighting post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat related injuries, the holidays can be a difficult time, especially in an environment already complicated by the global pandemic. In particular, for U.S. Army MSG Pavel “Pasha” Palanker, a 17-year combat veteran, Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for Valor recipient, the times have proven to be quite challenging.
“I had been progressing and doing pretty well until the isolation from being at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” MSG Palanker noted. “And when that happened, all of my self-care routines that I relied on a lot of the time and having the house to myself during part of the day while my wife and kids were out and at school, that was gone.”
The master sergeant spoke last month at a joint event hosted by the AFCEA Gold Vault and Dayton Wright Chapters, organized in part by AFCEA’s Mid-West Regional Vice President (RVP) David Hart, vice president, Business Development and Strategic Partnerships, Segue Technologies. MSG Palanker talked about the ups and downs of living with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries, to help to raise awareness about mental health issues and provide assistance to those who are struggling alone and in silence.
MSG Palanker enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 2003 as a way to give back to the country that had given his family a second chance after they had immigrated. “I know what it's like to live somewhere else, to grow up somewhere else,” MSG Palanker shared. “I would still pinch myself every morning for at least six months, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming that I was in this country. So, from this gratitude, that is why I decided to join the Army.”
In multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, MSG Palanker survived several enemy improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. In one attack, the Army soldier went face-to-face with the suicide bomber and during the explosion was thrown 15 feet in the air and landed near the 10-foot by 10-foot crater left by the bomb. He then went through surreal thought process of figuring out if he was dead or alive while lying on the roadside. The explosions left him with multiple traumatic brain injuries, burns, permanent loss of hearing in one ear and severe PTSD.
At the time, MSG Palanker did not know about traumatic brain injuries, and after seemingly recovering from the IED explosion, he went about his life and redeployed, only to face another attack and other difficult combat situations. He feels the Army prepared him well for combat but did not provide enough education about the injuries. Left untreated, the traumatic brain injuries led to severe PTSD, which he has struggled with for more than a decade. MSG Palanker also lost friends during combat and even more to suicide.
The overall impact to his physical and mental health has been immense, and has affected his own family, as he and his wife raise four boys.
“Most of us who volunteer for a life of service we do it for the right reasons, but we don't realize that the traumatic experiences we're going to have during our service how they will impact our lives long after we hang up our uniform,” he said.
The master sergeant offered key advice to anyone facing stress—not just those facing PTSD. “I would urge you to use my story and just take a look at your life and see how you're handling stressful moments,” he said. “It's much easier to grab a glass of wine versus putting on a pair of running shoes and going for a run. But the same activities, repeated day after day, they add up.”
He suggested that during the holidays and the pandemic, “everything comes down to energy management.”
“The more energetic we feel, the better we're able to handle stress and handle it on daily basis,” the Army soldier advised. “It is like when you wake up in the morning and we feel pretty good, but it's when we get home from work at night that is when we're more likely to make these bad decisions when it comes to handling stress.”
For someone with PTSD, they are starting the day with less of an advantage. “If you are somebody like me that has had multiple head injuries, or maybe you are living with trauma, by the time that you wake up in the morning, your glass of water is already half empty,” MSG Palanker stated. “But one of the most important things that I have learned is that there is a way to add some water back into that glass and you can fill it throughout the day.”
For stress management, the most important aspect is to protect one’s sleep. “If you sleep well, when you wake up in the morning and you're energized and you make better decisions,” he emphasized.
Next in importance comes nutritional management and making sure to eat a healthy diet. “The more natural things you eat, the less energy it takes for your body to process them,” MSG Palanker stated. “That is just as simple as I can make it.”
After that follows exercise. “Exercise is probably what saved my life,” the Army soldier stated. “So, sleep, nutrition and exercise. We all focus on them because we want to look good during the beach season, but really, these are the things that keep us going from a mental health perspective.”
Given the solace he found in running, MSG Palanker is considering training for an ultramarathon, with possible distances of 50 to 100 miles. As a former Army parachutist, he also participates in Team Fastrax (TFX) Professional Skydiving Team, a professional parachute demonstration team, which is a core part of the Blue Skies For Good Guys and Gals Warrior Foundation (BS3G).
RVP Hart, who is a master parachutist and a former Army Ranger, is a co-founder along with his brother John Hart, of BS3G. The nonprofit, 501c3 organization supports combat-injured and Purple Heart veterans, and Gold Star families, who have had a loved one killed while serving in the military.
In addition, the foundation hosts an annual premier event—the Team Fastrax Warrior Weekend to Remember (TFX WWTR)—for more than 50 combat injured veterans and fallen hero Gold Star families. The four-day happening, which includes activities such as cart racing, skydiving, hot air ballooning, sportsmen club shooting, plane and helicopter rides and night bow fishing, is meant to help the participants bond and heal, said Hart.
The Blue Skies community has also gotten a craft brewery, Grainworks Brewing Company in West Chester, Ohio, to create a specific brew for the foundation, called Blue Skies Hero Brew, which celebrates the foundation’s Gold Star families and veterans with photos and information on the special Grainworks Hero Brew cans.
In addition, the two soldiers urged others to reach out to a veteran and offer acceptance and help during the holidays and throughout the pandemic. “I'm hoping that those of you who live with veterans or work with veterans can learn a little bit about what we go through,” MSG Palanker noted. “And if you're a veteran yourself, maybe there's something you can learn about your life that you didn't understand or realize that was happening to you, because that was my life. For over a decade, I didn't realize how my life is falling apart. That is the main reason why I started share my story and my struggles, hoping just to raise awareness and keep people from hitting the rock bottom like I did.”
Veterans that need help with traumatic injuries can consult https://getheadstrong.org. In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.
For more information about MSG Palanker, visit www.pashapalanker.com.