‘Facing Stigma’ with Pasha Palanker

“My family immigrated to LA from Moldova when I was 15 years old. Even though we lived in a rough neighborhood and grew up on welfare, I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to grow up here rather than where we came from. By my current standards LA was a rough life, but back then I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be here in this country and have the opportunities it presents. Being an immigrant family, we often relied on government assistance. I always wanted to repay that debt so I signed up to serve in the military out of gratitude for what this country had given me. I eventually enlisted in the Army as a Russian Linguist in 2003 right after the Iraq War kicked off. I arrived in Hawaii for my first duty station, but I was itching to get over to Iraq and help in any way I could. I was in a non-deployable unit at the time so I volunteered for my first deployment and was attached to an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Device) team in 2004. We were tasked with going out in response to every IED (Improvised Explosive Device) intercept within our area of operation. Then in April 2005 I had my own experience with a suicide bomber. I was the gunner on top of our Humvee and he was within feet of us in a car. I can remember looking into his eyes he was so close, and to this day, I’m not sure why he didn’t detonate the bomb. I ended up stepping up over my protective barrier on the Humvee and engaging with him until his car blew up about 15 feet from our truck. We moved on the next day and continued going out on calls as if nothing had happened because after a certain point you become numb to the brutality of war. Later on during that same deployment, as we were two weeks out from going home, an IED blew up underneath my feet as we were sweeping an area for bombs. The blast sent me flying like 10–15 feet and as I’m laying there, I realize I’m still alive. I lost hearing in my left ear and often deal with vertigo from the TBI I suffered as a result, but I was awarded a purple heart and a valor device for my time in Iraq.

When you survive something like that you’re on a high because you feel lucky and grateful to even walk away. However, that started to wear off by the time I was transferred to a unit in DC in 2007. I started becoming really irritable and stressed out all the time, but I didn’t think anything of it because of the environment we were in. Now that I look back though, I realize those were the first signs of my diagnosis of PTSD. The worst thing about PTSD is that people picture it as you waking up at night sweating from a bad dream or sleeping in your backyard in a tent, but in reality PTSD is simply just feeling this pressure that’s constantly there and feeling isolated or misunderstood by people who can’t possibly understand what you’re going through. I feel like that’s how PTSD starts and then you compound it by doing things like drinking or drugs which exacerbate those feelings. I was functional at the time and progressing in my career, but I slowly started feeling myself spiraling out of control. In 2015 I was tasked with deploying to Iraq again. I ended up making my way to Fallujah, and while I was there, a rocket was shot in and landed really close to me. I was knocked down and suffered another TBI that impacted the hearing in my right ear which ultimately led to me going home early. As hard as it was for me to keep it together before that deployment, it became impossible once I got back. Everything became unzipped and unstuffed inside of me. I was having major anxiety and anger issues at home to the point that it was affecting my kids. My wakeup call was when I saw my anger issues in my kids by the way they were mimicking me in their actions toward one another. It took ten years from that first deployment to get to the point where I almost lost myself and my family to realize that I needed help.

Therapy was one of the most helpful things in getting better. Talking through those experiences helps to release you from that burden and takes the load off your shoulders. The more I talk about these issues, the less they stay inside of me. The hardest part about internalizing these issues is that they will eat you from within if you don’t talk about them. I also got a chance to go through the NICOE (National Intrepid Center of Excellence) program at Walter Reed. It’s a four week in-house stay specifically designed for individuals suffering from PTSD & TBI issues. While I was there I learned about the concept of bandwidth in respect to how our brains operate. Those of us who are dealing with TBI’s and PTSD operate at half the bandwidth of a normal brain throughout the day, but I learned there are a lot of things you can do to refill it. The way you add to your bandwidth is to make sure you sleep well, exercise, eat well, and incorporate some alone time for reflection. Exercise has always been the one thing that’s kept me going, so I started building up those other habits and incorporating them into my life. These four things are my pillars and they allow me to function better on a daily basis. I want to help other veterans as well, which is why we opened a gym called “The Compound” where we help veterans incorporate these same pillars into their own lives. The Compound is a martial arts school that focuses on Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai. The bonds that are formed in martial arts are similar to the bonds we had in the service, and I think that’s what makes it so appealing and attractive to veterans. It gives veterans who no longer have that brotherhood a chance to find it again and offers an opportunity to be around other veterans on a consistent basis who understand you.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war