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A Veteran Shares His Thoughts And Experiences With PTSD, Stress Of Combat And Coming Home with Thai Starkovich
We’ve got quite a bit going on. Before we jump into some of the content, if you want to support our show, you believe in our show and you want to help us get the message out there, the easiest way to get involved and to help bring more to the table is to jump over to iTunes and leave a five-star review. That’s the easiest, cheapest free way to support the podcast and help us grow. Here’s a five-star review in the spirit of our whole project. This five-star review is by JT Money (Who That). What they said was, “This is a show of a couple of loving people put on this planet to inspire and de-stigmatize, tackle topics related to mental and physical health, as well as being a human in a world that doesn’t always favor sobriety. Mental sobriety, awareness to diet, exercise and living habits, as well as self-love and consciousness are a few of the topics I’ve enjoyed being led through with Sean and Taylor. This show has the making of something that will continue to become more and more successful as they continue to let their love light shine.”
I love JT. He said so many profound things in there. Let’s talk about a couple of them. Let’s talk about the mental health side because I believe the reason why I started this whole thing at the beginning or my journey back was that I got frustrated back in my rehab in San Diego. I was fortunate enough to have the insurance and the resources to continue with my rehab where I was surrounded in San Diego by a lot of people in the Marines and the Navy who were discharged early. The rehab was discontinued because of their lack of resources and funds. My heart was broken to watch these guys who fought for our country and protected my daughters and my family go home early. I always swore to myself that the veterans out there, I was going to do everything I can to give them their life which they’re destined to live. Talking about that, we always mentioned a state shift. These guys who come back from being in the war and being a civilian, how do they change their state of mind?
How we came into getting into this shift in state or shift in perspective is we tell a lot of very challenging, sometimes emotional stories, and sometimes it can be very heavy. What we did was we called up our good friend, Mark Nelson. He’s a psychic medium. We called him and he does lots of conversations with people and lots of emotionally intense conversations. We asked him, “How do you deal with it?” What he brought up for him was that after something emotionally intense, he’d go read a book. To him, that’s his way to create a state change. It could be going outside, going for a walk or whatever it is for you, whatever calls to you to get your mind off of one topic and onto another or an engrossed in something else. It’s powerful to shift where you’re at.
We have some tough interviews. Myself being through the traumatic injuries I’ve been through and all the stuff I’ve seen and witnessed, there will be times that I’ll say, “Taylor, I need to get out of this.” I’ll phone a friend, one of my best friends. I called up Mark and he gave me a couple of points. It’s to go for a walk, get outside and get grounded. The interview we’re about to introduce to you is a veteran, a good friend of mine who’s joining our community as the veteran advocate and possibly hosting and producing his own show soon. After we dug into it, it was hard for Thai and me. Taylor’s looking and going, “How am I going to handle Sean now?” Thai is not only a war hero and somebody who protected our country, but this guy was in the service for fourteen years and deployed for three years, so three combat tours.
I wanted people to understand why we’re doing this show at all and why we’re telling some more of a challenging story from Thai’s experience in the war. We want to start to help people understand what PTSD and these mental traumas are all about. Awareness and understanding are these first steps towards creating a shift in creating change. The more people that understand how these states of the mind are created, the more resources and tools we’re ultimately going to have available for our veterans to take action and to heal after they’ve experienced these traumas because they’re taking care of protecting our country.
My commitment to everybody out there is something else I’ll make a mention. You don’t need to go to war to have PTSD. It can be the loss of a loved one. You can have a hard deck or you have cancer. You can get fired from a job and that traumatic event will send a ripple effect in your life. It’s how you get through it. We’re talking about the shift in the state.
This is probably the most extreme version of that. If you look at how we deal with something extreme, then that’s translatable to anyone who’s dealing with trauma in their life. That’s how I’ve always learned. I always look at what’s the extreme of this and how can I then tone that back and learn from it? Thai’s been working with our team and we’ve been in communication with him. Honestly, I’ve been working one-on-one with sharing with him and ultimately the veteran community, my resources from the healing that I used to do and the consultations that I used to do in my former careers.
Taylor, you started your eleven-step tips and trays of your knowledge. Even getting Thai on this because he’s been detoxing and cleaning out his body. Listening to him, he sounds clear. He sounds like he’s got more endurance. The guy’s been through so much that his commitment to helping out his brothers and sisters who are in trouble at the moment. Taylor, I’ve got to thank you and thank Thai because this isn’t our version of a show, but it goes into what Thai experienced in combat.
What’s been so nice about talking to Thai, working with Thai and being able to share my resources with him is if I can help him heal, I know he’s going to help so many people. He’s been my guinea pig as I’ve built out this top, I think it’s ten or eleven tips. I’m going to figure out an exact number, but I built this into a whole campaign to share people these foundational elements of creating the conditions to allow your body to heal itself. Thai’s been such an awesome guinea pig on this adventure. If you want to see what I’ve been having Thai do and you want to create this foundation for health and your own life, you can jump over to our website at www.AdventuresInHealth.tv. Sign up right on the homepage. There are free resources and it’s stuff that you could take on immediately and have in a dramatic shift in your health and your well-being.
It’s the easy button. You put your email in and you’re going to get Taylor sending you some interesting stuff, but stuff that works. It’s stuff that’s worked for Thai and for me. It could work for you too, so why not? You have nothing to lose.
It’s the best of the best from everything I’ve tried over the years.
All your years of experience of doing all this.
Without further ado, we’re going to go hear from Thai not because it’s easy to read to necessarily, but because creating this understanding and awareness is essential if we’re ever going to heal not as individuals but collectively. The 22 veterans a day who are committing suicide, if we want to bring that number down, the first step is understanding why that’s happening in the first place. With Thai, and I’m so grateful to be able to share his story and listen to it. We’re getting to the root of why these issues are happening and how we can start to heal and recover from them.
Thai Starkovich, he’s an army sniper who ran a pretty big team of snipers and he was in combat. This is his real-life story. Check it out. Here’s Thai Starkovich.
Thai, how are you doing?
I’m doing great. How are you doing?
This touches my heart on so many levels, Taylor and Thai.
We’re going to go into with Thai since he’s a veteran, a little bit about understanding PTSD on anything else that the veterans are dealing with, either out on deployment or when they get back home. Thai, I know there’s PTSD which is the commonly known one, but what else is there that you all are dealing with? We’ll get into telling stories about how that comes to manifest.
Talking about things you’re dealing with as a veteran, coming back, it’s difficult to reconcile spending a year or however long you’ve spent on deployment fighting, having to be in a fight or flight mode. Anxiety is your savior. It is your medicine. It’s what keeps you alive. Coming back home and reconciling the differences between how you’ve lived for your year of deployment versus having to come back and downshift and deal with family, friends, civilian life and life in general.
You weren’t there for just a year. You were there how many years?
I had three combat deployments, totaling 36 months. That’s three years.
Did you serve for fourteen years?Anxiety is your savior. It is your medicine. It is what keeps you alive and then coming back home and reconciling the differences between how you've lived for your year of deployment versus having to come back and downshift and deal with family,… Click To Tweet
What you’re describing is being in a chronic state of stress like extreme stress when you’re on deployment at times. I know you said it’s sometimes boring and you’re sitting around waiting. When you get into these chronic states of heightened awareness, it wires the nervous system to be programmed and it’s your body’s intelligence that’s causing this because it’s trying to keep you safe. In that environment, keeping you safe means making sure you’re alert, aware and essentially on edge all the time. Would you say that’s accurate?
That’s 100% accurate. When you’re over there, you don’t even realize it a month or even a few weeks in what state, the heightened awareness level, the hyper-vigilance that you’re going through. It becomes the norm. You’re there for so long that that becomes normal. That’s how you live. You realize really quick that when you come back home, that is not a natural state of being. It’s not a healthy state of being. That’s where the problem is coming.
Where were you in the army? Let’s talk about that. Take us back.
All three of my combat deployments were the 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Brigade Rakkasans. I did two deployments in Iraq and one deployment in Afghanistan.
Were you a special ops guy?
No, I was not special operations. I was part of a regular army military unit. It’s a reconnaissance unit, reconnaissance platoon and my snipers were attached to the recon platoon. It’s hard to describe the task organizations. They’re separate, but together.
What does that mean by your snipers?
I’ve got a three-man sniper team underneath me. We had a total of ten of us that were snipers. I was in charge of training and deploying them in combat.
Just so people can understand what it is you guys are dealing with, do you have any stories you’re open to sharing? It’s to immerse people in the experience and help him understand why you have to be in a hyper state of awareness and why this can jack up the system.
The story that comes to mind is Shubayshen in Iraq in 2007. We had been on the ground maybe three weeks from the United States. We got to Iraq. We were still getting used to our area of operation. Shubayshen was a little small district outside of Yusufiyah, Iraq and it was about a two-and-a-half-kilometer road that was insurgent-held. They were dug in. No US forces or Iraqi forces wanted to go there. We got the word that we’re going to go in there and conduct operations to clear it and hold it and then build up the community. This was late October that we got the word for this. I told my interpreter where we’re going to go and we had an Iraqi interpreter. They embed with us. They go everywhere with us. They’re clearing rooms, all that. He was a great interpreter. He would get hands-on with these people.
He told me, “I’m not going to Shubayshen.” I was like, “We’re going. This is what we’re doing.” A couple of days later, he finally came around to it. On October 31st, 2007, we were doing the dry run. We call it like a rock drill where we get everybody who’s going to be all the key leadership for who’s going to be in that operation. You stand around this huge map that you build on the ground and we’re going through the operation step-by-step. From that point, we launched. When I say launch, we deployed. We drove down the eastern side of the road leading into Shubayshen. Prior to that, they did aerial reconnaissance with photographs and found there was something like 22 IEDs that they can see. Most of those were hoaxes, but you never know. They’re out there, you have to deal with it.
What’s an IED?
It’s an Improvised Explosive Device. Essentially, they use any container with the fragment and homemade explosives or whatever they have their hands on and they bury it in the ground, or they put it on the side of the road. Sometimes they’ll use a 155-millimeter Howitzer rounds, which are artillery rounds. You can imagine how much shrapnel and explosive they pack into that thing.
Just to ballpark, how much damage can a Howitzer round do?
If it’s underneath your vehicle, you’re done. It will destroy that vehicle and kill everybody inside.
You guys are going into an area where scouting has said there are 22 of these possibly and maybe more. I assume that’s why your interpreter was hesitant about going into that environment.
Our interpreters are from the community or at least the surrounding area. They have the inside scoop sometimes. They hear the chatter amongst the community about what’s going on in there. He knew that that place was so bad and enemy-held that he was worried about his own life, his mortality at that point. This was a seasoned interpreter who’s been on many raids and many missions with US Army Infantry Personnel. That’s a little insight into how deeply held and dangerous this area was.Life doesn't go as planned. Instead of looking at these little hang-ups, you got to look at it as it is and what’s beyond it. Click To Tweet
How did you guys first start working into this mission?
The plan was that they have these vehicles and they’re used for detecting explosives, IEDs. They interrogate sites. Those means they dig it up to explore if they think there’s something there and they go really slow. I’m talking inching along the road to clear the road. The plan was for these vehicles, they call them route clearance patrols, they go through and they were going to clear the road so that we had access. While they were doing that, we were going to go side by side, online with them looking for command wires. Command wires are the wires that they attached to the improvised explosive devices themselves. They can run kilometers to whatever house, building, hideout spot that somebody is observing from and they initiate the IED, the explosion from there.
We were walking parallel to the road, almost in front of these vehicles to find command wire so that we could mitigate the threat as best as possible. We’re going online and foot by foot looking for caches, looking for command wires, looking for anything the enemy exposed out there. We’re going to sweep this area, the road, and if we got in a fight, we’d clear houses, buildings, what have you. After it was cleared, we’re going to hold that area, especially that road by putting up towers for the Iraqi security forces. We’d continue to build up the area, as far as security and local infrastructure.
Thai, so we can all get a deep understanding of what’s going on here if you say you find an IED, how would you safely disarm that as a team? In my head, I think I don’t want to go anywhere near that to try and disarm it. What’s the process for safely working through this?
If you find something like an IED or a cache of explosives or anything like that, you halt. You call up the explosive ordinance disposal, EOD, and you pull security. You wait for that then you back off. You get some distance between yourself. Usually, it’s terrain feature, so you have some cover. EOD comes in. It’s a slow, methodical, painstaking process for them to actually go in, disarm it, clear and move that stuff out of there. They were blowing that stuff on site because we want it to go quickly, but you can only go so fast. What they did is if we found something, we pull security and let them know where it was at. We give them the geographical grid location to where it’s at, a description of the site, back off, let them do their stuff and then they’re like, “It’s clear.” They were usually blowing these things up in place because they didn’t have time to do the whole packaging of it and move it out. We were on the move. That’s the gist of how they were handling the IEDs on their phone.
You were getting into this deployment in the story, so get us into what you experienced on this mission.
Early on, there were little canals or little drop offs on the side of the road. This was a part of Iraq that was a lot lusher than what you would imagine than the sands and everything like that. There were canals, a lot of vegetation. We were walking along, and I moved some grass aside next to the road and I was staring at three 155-millimeter Howitzer rounds right on me. This Iraqi dude grabbed me then pulled me back. If they were command wired, even if they were set it up to blow, if somebody was watching being the enemy, they could have blown it on me and killed me. You have to deal with that in the moment and then also deal with getting safety, telling my guys where to go. You have a lot going on, so you don’t process the fact that you could almost have died in that moment. You’re operating.
You stepped on a bomb almost. I can’t even imagine.
That’s happened a few times.
You have your snipers here with you. Let’s talk about it. Get us into the action because I’m sure it’s about to get hairy.
At that point, we had a sniper team. I was not a sniper section leader or a sniper at that time. I was an infantry squad leader. We got the best terrain possible to overwatch our movement and the industry guys on the ground, we were on the ground and we were walking online. We were ready to get shot at, ready to get to for an IED to blow up in our face. That’s what you were dealing with. Nothing had happened up to that point that was exciting or overly dangerous. We weren’t being shot at, so to speak, at that phase of the operation.
You’re constantly under an unseen threat and that’s almost scarier than a seen threat because there’s the unknown going on. Is there ever a moment, while you guys were on this mission where you feel like, “I can lay down and rest,” or is it 24/7, you were wired?
You’re pretty much wired 24/7. It was a three-day operation, so we knew we had to pace ourselves and there was going to be hopefully some sleep and rest. Up to the point, the first night, we were going to stop because it was too dangerous to continue at night, especially when you’re clearing roads for IEDs. We got to a house. It was an Iraqi house right on the road that leads through Shubayshen, east and west. Our battalion command, they squat and held that area right next to where we were about 50 meters away from us. We occupied the house. I got security up on the roof. We made sure the house was clear and we were getting ready to bed down. We were going to have some of our guys sleep and then pull security and rotate that. The logistics patrol was with the battalion command because they had to control all of the building portions of this operation. Lieutenant Tracy Alger had pulled her Humvee with her .50 caliber machine gunner sitting up top in the turret and her driver.
They were parked on this nondescript dirt part of the side of the road. As we were setting up security and getting ready to bed down, there was this huge explosion. With the explosion, it was almost like the debris hit the house faster than we heard the explosion. We heard this massive amount of whatever hit the house. I immediately thought we were getting hit by RPGs or something. We ran up to the roof to make sure my guys were okay. I heard a whole bunch of screaming. Her driver had parked her Humvee on top of a deep buried IED. I was not sure how big the IED was or how deep it was, but we ran over there because we saw the Humvee and the screaming. We took a patrol over there and we saw this crater with a Humvee on fire. We got closer and I went towards the passenger door because the driver was out. The driver had gotten out of the vehicle, injured but alive.
The gunner was thrown from the vehicle. I think he broke both legs on the exit. It’s as okay as you can be as alive. They both survived. They couldn’t find Tracy Alger. I led a team up to the Humvee that was on fire. We were trying to see if she was still in there, knocked out, whatever. I got pulled. I got yanked back because there was the .50 caliber ammunition that was in the boxes in the back of the trunk and inside the crew, the cab of the vehicle for the gunner, they were cooking off. You can imagine how dangerous that scenario is.
Do I hear this right? It’s because of the Humvees on fire and it’s setting off these .50 cal rounds.
Right. There was so much heat from the fire. That .50 caliber round has a lot of gun powder in the single round. They were hitting that flashpoint and cooking off. There were essentially .50 caliber rounds flying all over the place.
You watched her die. The two guys are now injured. What else is incoming?If you were hurting mentally or physically, find the energy and the wherewithal within yourself to get help. Click To Tweet
There’s nothing at that point. We did not get attacked. In Iraq, they usually would blow you up or set off an IED and they wouldn’t attack with a maneuver element usually. Afghanistan is a totally different story. They almost always attacked with IEDs or a multi-phase attack. We didn’t know where Lieutenant Alger was at this point. We didn’t know if she had got ejected or if she was laying. It was very lush around there. There was a lot of brush. We waited for the .50 cal to stop doing its thing. It was done cooking off. We went in there and she was in the passenger seat burned. You can imagine the scorch on her face and her face was looking towards me. It took a few seconds to recognize that this was a human being in the passenger seat because everything around her was burnt to a crisp, the same that she was burned to a crisp.
You can only tell because there was some of that the exposed muscles, skin, whatever on her face. When I saw that, I instantly knew that was her and she was dead. That’s what we were dealing with. We had to secure the area until the morning and wait for mortuary affairs or whoever to come out and secure the body and leave. One of our majors, I think he was our battalion executive officer. I might be mistaken. He was blind. I don’t think he’s blind to this point, but he got us so much debris in his face that I was holding his hand and reassuring him because he was pissed. He was like, “Let’s go get those MF.” He was so mad and frustrated. That’s the scenario that we were dealing with. We were dealing with multiple casualties. The dead female lieutenant, which is more impactful on the psyche than males because we all go into it thinking this could happen to us. When you joined the infantry, you expect that. You don’t expect a female to be killed, especially the logistics patrol-type scenario. We had to hold that area and deal with that all night.
First of all, thank you for sharing that story, Thai, because I know it’s probably not the easiest story to share. I think you sharing that story brings awareness to what not only you dealt with, but also so many of our veterans are dealing with over there. If everyone could understand the depth and severity of what you guys are going through to help us to figure out this is what’s going on for real, how can we start to bring these guys back home safely? I wanted to point out too how impactful this can be on the psyche. At the end of the day, you’re about to kick your boots up and go to bed, and then all the sudden you’re sprung back into this extremely high state of stress. I imagine that starts to wire your brain from then on like, “I can’t close my eyes and go to bed because there’s this looming thought in the back of my mind.” Sometimes it’s even subconscious that I could wake up to an explosion at any moment.
I heard the story and I got quiet because I had to breathe because I feel play-by-play and the anxiety of what you were going through, Thai. Our stress is different. Our stories are different, but it puts my story into perspective. I get it and I understand you better because people hear my story all the time and it’s like, “You had a stroke. You’re paralyzed,” but you watched your friend get burned to a crisp. I can’t even imagine. Walk me through what happens next. You said you weren’t a sniper at that time. Take us rapidly through the course of your career. What was your reason for wanting now to move forward or move up in the rankings after this?
You have loyalty to your team as a leader. I wanted to stay with that unit as long as I humanly could because there, you gain a level of trust with these guys. I think it was the people around me. I wanted to make sure that they were good. I knew my ability in combat. I knew the ability of these guys and what they could take and what they’re able to do. When you get to that level of camaraderie, you don’t want to leave that. You don’t want to depart from that in any way. You know these guys to the point where you know how they’re going to act when they’re hungry. You know which guys need more sleep than the other guys. You know under night vision goggles, 150 meters away, who is who based on their nuances in walking and their head movements and where their position in the patrol, whatever. You become very intimate with these people. You trust them and that is your trust system. There’s no other trust system around you. That’s all you know. That’s why I stayed and kept going through deployments. It was because I genuinely cared about these wonderful men and, in some instances, women. You want to be there for them. You’ll put your life on the line, no questions asked in that situation.
Thai, you’re married at the time. Shelly’s there right in your life and she stayed inside. Did you have kids then?
When I was in Afghanistan, in the middle of that deployment, Cooper was born. I was fortunate enough to be home. I had a son with my previous wife. I definitely had a family, not to mention my step-kids who are my kids. I take ownership. That was something that weighs on your mind, but you can allow yourself to get distracted by that or you can use your family as a reason why you need to come home. I had a reason to come home. I felt fortunate because I had a reason to be there, to do my job with my brotherhood and I had a reason to come home and survive this whole thing.
You gave us this very intense story out in the field. What was it like after that deployment was over? What was it like for you to come back home after that?
I never had reoccurring nightmares before. After Tracy was killed, what I saw looking into the vehicle from the driver’s side door, looking through the Humvee into the passenger seat to see her burnt body, I re-lived that nightmare over and over again. At one point, her head had turned, looked at me with a burnt face with clear eyeballs. I was dealing with that during the deployment. After the deployment, you come home. Probably the first month or at least for the first few weeks, you are so happy to have survived this. You’re so happy to be home. You’re so happy to walk into a store. You’re happy to drink a beer and get fast food. Everything is fresh, new. You feel like you have a new lease on life. That doesn’t last long because you built this ideal place for you to come home to, then you’ve got to deal with life. It’s like, “This isn’t what I imagined it was going to be.” I thought I was going to be 100% happy and you slip into depression.
I went into probably about a three-month-long deep depression about a month and a half after I came home from combat. To the point where I’d be driving into work, I’d get in early so I could sit in my driver’s seat and collect myself for fifteen, twenty minutes, a half hour before I dealt with going and doing physical fitness. Even while running, you’re so tired, so depressed. In the middle of the winter, I was looking at a curb on the side of the road that we were running on and I wanted to throw up in the fetal position in the gutter. That’s where I want to be right now. That’s the lowest point. On top of that, you have to be a leader. You have to live this high-octane life. You’re going back into a training cycle to get ready for the next deployment. There’s no break.
There’s no time off, even from your brain. I’m familiar with the military. You want to become a sniper. How does that happen? Why and what’s that journey now?
My first foray into sniping was actually in 1999. I got stationed in Germany. I was with an infantry platoon and company and the snipers had tryouts. I went to tryouts and made it. That was my first experience of being a sniper. It was in Germany. When I came to 101st, I started out as an infantry squad leader. My buddy, who was running the snipers, was leaving. He was going to be a ranger instructor and he was like, “Do you want to take over the snipers?” I said, “Absolutely.” That was in 2009. I took over the sniper section and that was about a year before we deployed to Afghanistan. That’s where I wanted to be. I love the small unit. You’ve got guys who volunteered at least three different times within the military to get to that point, so you know that they’re legit. It’s a more comfortable operating where you have a higher caliber of person who makes it into a sniper team. That’s what I wanted to do. That was what I loved. In Afghanistan, I was a sniper for that entire deployment.
In terms of what you were describing, you came back and for a month, everything was great. In about after a month, you fell into this deep depression. I was helping people understand, in your own words, what was causing that?
I don’t know. That’s something that I still don’t know. I think it has to do with the hyper-vigilance while you’re deployed. You can’t downshift. You can’t take off that hat and put on your daddy hat. I don’t know how to describe it.
Thai, I can help you with this because I’ve experienced it. I go through it. I went through it. You helped me to come over it. Taylor, if you haven’t been through it, it’s paralyzing. You go through these highs and lows so quick that the highest could be highs and the lows, you feel like nothing. You’re lethargic, you feel swollen, your whole body changes over into this blackness and everything is wrong. For me, the lights, the sounds, any small thing would set me off and I didn’t want to be around. I’ve experienced that quite a bit in my journey of having a stroke. I’m sure it’s similar to what you’ve been through what’s you’re realizing.
It’s also envisioning. You’re in this horrible environment for such a long period of time dealing with the worst of the worst that humanity can throw at you. You start making your at-home life seem so much better and ideal. It’s almost a disappointment when you do come back after a while and you get re-integrated with society, your family and everything like that. You’re dealing with not only the stresses of family, of medicating yourself with alcohol that the military, which has its own inherent stress, but you’re also still processing what you went through. It throws you into a state of confusion. There’s a lot of despair going on mentally.
Would you say that an accurate way of thinking about this would be almost like you’re away? You’re in a war zone in this hyper-stressed state and you’re thinking about, “I can’t wait to get back home,” because it will be such a reprieve and a break. You build it up in your mind and almost like it’s on a pedestal of, “Everything’s going to be okay when I get home.” When everything’s not okay after that first month, you have this story in your head like, “I’m supposed to be at ease and enjoy my life again, but I’m not feeling that.” There’s this disconnect between what you believed or built up the story in your mind and what you actually experienced.You got to be open-minded and just receive what you need. Click To Tweet
Yes, absolutely. That’s 100% accurate.
I would say it’s like everyone decides, “I need to get away. I need to get to Hawaii. I need to go on a cruise.” Let me tell you, just because you escape for a week or two doesn’t mean you don’t take your baggage with you. If you don’t have the proper tools to want to work through it, to meditate, to breathe, what Thai has learned and has done, it goes with you. The first thing doctors are looking to do is change your brain chemistry. By doing that, they’re putting you on anti-anxiety pills. They’re giving you Effexor, Xanax, Prozac. That’s a numbing Band-Aid but it’s not the end-all be-all for anything. If you agree or disagree, Thai, but that’s how I felt it.
I definitely agree. While I was in the military, I was never prescribed any anti-anxiety or depression medication during that time. You come home and you deal with it however best you can. They train you up for going overseas, blowing things up, shooting people up, numbing you to that and they don’t give you the proper tools. You don’t have the proper tools to deal with it afterward. In the military, especially in combat arms like infantry, special forces, what have you, the gunslingers, it’s such a suck-it-up mentality. Everybody’s playing injured, everybody is hurt in some way or another, but you don’t make it public even amongst yourselves because you don’t want to be that guy. You’re internalizing all of this stuff.
To compound that, if you’re willing to, you try to tell your family and friends what it’s like over there. Everybody has that. “What was it like?” The eventual question is, “Did you kill anybody?” That’s hard to deal with in the first place. You can explain all of this stuff, your experiences until you’re blue in the face. If you weren’t there, you don’t get it in those exact same scenarios. That’s why you pull yourself away from society, people around you, people who love you and genuinely want to see you get better. You pull away from them and end up wanting to be with your buddies, getting drunk and reliving these stories. It has its own cathartic release in that, but you’re not getting the true help that you need, the mental brain dump, and getting it all out there because you feel like this over and over that nobody truly understands. That sucks and it hurts.
It hurts badly. I feel you and I feel it.
This is the perfect segue. We’ll speak from your experience. I know after you finished with your time serving in the military, you come home for good essentially. We took through people and understanding how this mental and emotional state gets created by these experiences that you and so many others are going through. You got back and tried everything to help, in essence, find your sanity again. If you can walk us through what is Thai’s secret sauce of a veteran coming back from a war zone, how do you begin the process of healing?
I would say walk back into society and civilian life because you’re trained to be a mercenary. You’re trying everything to be a badass. No emotions, no feeling, non-human almost. You’re coming home and you have a beautiful wife and kids. You’re probably thinking about, “What am I going to do for work next? How do I begin to heal my brain so I can be a father, a husband, I can be the male to bring an income?” How do you build your so-called kingdom again?
My last deployment with the Army was Afghanistan. I came back home and was separated from the military in April 2011. What helped me was I got a job doing personal security detail for State Department over in Iraq. It was a natural segue for my skill set and where I was mindset-wise, still fresh from knowing and learning how to deal and process with danger, with pulling the trigger and all of that. I had a nice segue of a job. That did help a lot because I wasn’t stocking shelves. I was still doing my job, but it was easier to do that. That helps. That was an easy segue from the military. As far as healing, my wife, she is a saint. She has dealt with the worst of the worst in me, which is close to being the worst of the worst of a human and what they are capable of doing, being mean and everything.
She would go to work and she was like, “Read this book.” The book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it in one sitting while she was at work. It’s a fast read, but the story is profound. A lot of people say, “This book changed my life,” or this TV show or this movie. I never bought into that. I was like, “What is changing your lives?” I read that book and I can honestly say it changed my life. It changed my perspective. It gave me that paradigm shift of realizing, “Life doesn’t go as planned and you need to know that instead of looking at these little hang-ups as a negative thing, you’ve got to look at it as that is what it is. What’s next beyond that?” That book did help me out. There are a lot of books. There’s Eckhart Tolle and A New Earth. That’s another one. That was huge.
What I’m picking up on is you start putting new information into the system. Your wife, bless her for getting you on this track. Was reading a big transformative process for you?
It was. It helped me put my mindset where it needed to be so that I could heal. I was not in a place where I was even ready to accept healing because I didn’t trust the healing process as it was with the VA, whatever else was out there. It definitely did that. Mindfulness, that’s an overused term, but it helped because I was examining why you’re feeling this way. I was looking at it from different angles instead of, “I feel sorry for myself because I’m feeling this way. Let me perpetuate this.” It was removing yourself from that mindset, which is that ego so to speak, and become the observer behind those thoughts, which is a more intelligent place to be. You can process that disconnected from your current mindset and that helps move forward. You can attain that, I would imagine, through meditation, reading these books and using them as tools to move forward.
How about support groups, Thai? You always hear about the VA having support groups all over, other veterans who’ve been through similar cases like yourself. Were you able to find anyone out there or a support group, a community, a brotherhood to help you with all this trauma you were going through?
No, I did not. I didn’t seek it either. I was busy with life. I was fighting wars on all kinds of fronts. I was still fighting the mental war of combat. I was fighting the war of trying to keep my house, what I’m going to do for money, fighting the war of kids and dealing with that. I was busy.
You mean to tell me that with the army, once you come back home, there’s no money? There are no stipends? You’re done serving. I don’t know how it works. I’m asking you a dumb question. You go off to war several times, you come back home, you save as much as you can, and I get that you have bills but are they still helping you out? Are they still sending you stuff, money?
No. If you go do a VA claim, you could get a VA claim if you have the time to do that. I’d imagine after a certain amount of time you could find the help you do, but you’ve heard the horrors of VA. I imagine most of these guys give up with the process because the process itself is so triggering or it’s so bureaucratic. There are VAs out there and I’m sure there are some great programs that the VA have. With their budget, they don’t advertise it. It’s not out there. You don’t know it. Also, these guys are going through the process of dealing with so much stuff that they don’t want anything else on their plate. They probably are turned off by the process. I know I was. That’s why I hadn’t gone in for a VA claim.
I’m pissed off now. You protected our country. You protected my daughters. You go out there, you’re getting shot at. You’re watching your friends getting blown to pieces and you’re not getting any form of financial support and they expect you to get back out there? What are you supposed to do? Go work for Walmart or Costco? I don’t understand.
Sean, this is why 22 veterans are killing themselves every day.
They don’t have a playbook to get back to. In your words, since you’ve been through this experience and you know how to get back better than anyone, what are your top five or so tips to any veteran or any person trying to reintegrate? What would you do or recommend first to people?Everybody is hurt in some way or another. Click To Tweet
I would recommend if you were hurting mentally or physically to actually find the energy, find the wherewithal within yourself to get help. You start at home. You can go drive to your local VA and walk in, get some help. That’s immediate because that’s like triage. If you’re talking about somebody who’s injured, you’re injured. Your soul is injured, your mindset, your psyche, everything is injured. You’ve got to be taken care of or else you might start talking about killing yourself, hurting yourself or becoming an alcoholic. I would recommend getting help through the system. Read books that are related to what you’re going through that help with healing.
Some of them are a radical departure from where you’re at as a human and you’re reading some stuff that seems like esoteric, but there’s value in that. You’ve got to be open-minded and then receive what you need. Lean on family, friends. Talk it through. If you’re having a hard time, call somebody who’s been there with you during all of this and talk it through, “How are you doing Joe? What are you doing to help? How do you reconcile your combat experiences with where you’re at right now and what was your path to healing?” Put yourself out there. It’s hard.
It is so hard, Thai. I can relate. I get it. You go from being immortal in my eyes at 39 or being immortal whenever you joined the military and coming back and being mortal now. It’s like you have a complete paradigm shift in your brain and your activity. People don’t understand that the physical pain can be anything, but as soon as it gets to about an eight or a nine, it messes with you mentally. You’re trained not to deal with pain. In your training, “I got shot. It’s a flesh wound. Let me brush it off and get back in.” How do you do that way? Your wife wants something, your kids want something, you’re trying to make your payments on your house, your car. Let’s talk about our meeting, Thai. You and I, the universe brought us together. I don’t know how or what, but let’s talk about that because that’s going to bring up why we’re working together and everything else.
I was working with Team McAfee, which is the company that John McAfee started for marketing and promotion for cryptocurrency companies and blockchain companies. We went on the Blockchain World Cruise, which was launched out of Spain, Barcelona. Where did we go? It was Monte Carlo.
Yeah, you were there.
I wanted to engage with John, who you were protecting in a sense. He had a team of guys around him and we started talking. We went for dinner with your wife. I got to tell the community here that I was going through a real hard time because I hadn’t flown in probably seven, eight years. If I had, it’s probably been once. Here I am producing again, trying to get back in it. We’ve flown all over the world from all over the States to all over Europe and Japan and back again. The stress for me was way too much. I connected with you because I feel like I connect better with a veteran because you guys understand my traumatic pain than most others do because no one can relate to what I’ve seen or been through. We went for sushi and you started telling me about the books you were reading. My girlfriend at the time was there as well. Your wife literally had the biggest impact on me in probably ten years of my life. The way she worked with you and she made me believe in myself again and so did you.
We connected and here you are, this teddy bear of a guy, but a guy you never want to meet in a bar because you’re going to end it before it even starts. Also, you’re educated. You’re smart. We stayed in contact. We went out back of John McAfee’s house to do the interview with John, which was a complete debacle. It is what it is because you’re dealing with a guy who’s eccentric or however you want to explain it and you were still part of his team. We were launching the Adventures in Health podcast. You and I stayed in touch and we did an interview with you a while back. You joined up with us and I said, “Do you want to help us out? Here’s what we’re doing.” You said yes. The more we started talking, the more I realized that the veterans need a guy like you on point to help them to re-engage.
Especially this project, Sean and Taylor. I believe in this show and I wanted to help because this is where the real help is going to come from. These guys are going to be at home. They don’t want to get in their car and go to the VA. They don’t want to go, in most cases, to the bar and associate with people. What you guys are doing is putting this information out there. I felt that this was a mission that I wanted to get on because I’m tired of seeing 22 of my buddies kill themselves every day. That’s unsatisfactory as far as I’m concerned. If we can get this information out to anybody who’s dealing with trauma, specifically veterans because that’s where my focus is, the better. These interviews, they’re helpful to the person who’s recluse at home and only has these conversations to lean on. That’s hugely important. That’s my motivation to be here with you and do some work, get that daily suicide number down significantly. Let’s end it. That’s my motivation.
Thank you for saying that. Thank you for joining us on this adventure. More than anything, people having this, if they’re reclusive and having it to read is awesome. More than that, it’s having someone who understands what they’re going through and who can connect with them on a deep level. We’ve had so many amazing interviews, but no one is going to connect with a veteran like another veteran can. That goes with any experience that people are going through. People want to hear from a voice that understands them.
I can’t speak to a veteran as powerfully as you can because they’re going to be like, “You don’t understand what I’ve been through.” I’m like, “You’re absolutely right. I don’t.” That’s what this is about. This is about sharing a voice so that people can feel connected. Even though if they don’t ever meet you, they feel connected with you and they feel like, “If he was able to share his story and he was able to get back, I want to one do the same. I also want to read The Alchemist or reach out for help.” It starts to create that snowball effect where one person can share their story and impact an entire community and we can bring that suicide number down.
Something else to my peeps out there. As you all know, I was having a hard time. Unfortunately or fortunately, not a lot of people can understand my experience, my highs and my lows, my craziness that goes on in my brain with my healing. Thai, you’re the one guy who caused me to show up. Thank you for that because I was having a tough week. You understand what it’s like to go on the pain meds, to come off the pain meds or the antidepressant pills. Thank you for that because you don’t realize this, but you’re part of my community, my support group every day now. I had an obligation. I’m accountable to you, to Taylor, Rios, Nick and everybody else who’s part of this team. Mark as well. I have to show up. When you’re accountable for something, it causes you to show up. I think a large part of the people in stroke and the veterans who wanted to commit suicide and accountable, they don’t have people around them to say, “If you do something, you’re going to affect me.”
What is the ultimate move so to speak of, “I’m not connected to anybody anymore. Nobody understands?” The suicide, that shows. That’s a long pass to that. It’s not me. They come home and like, “I survived the war. I’m going to walk myself.” No, there’s a long period of disconnectedness or what have you that leads to that. There’s nothing in the system easily available for these guys to get back on that path to be even accountable for themselves. They’re not in the mindset to do that. You need a community. You’ve got to have a community, as painful as it is. Don’t give up on the first group of people that you meet with. Find another group. Go to the VFW. You find one person who has been there.
Find us or find you right now. That’s what this is all about. That’s why I’m so excited because you are coming on board. You’re now our sniper who’s going to be able to talk to other snipers and other people whether they’re Marines, MARSOC, SEALs, Delta, Air Force, Coast Guard. Anybody who’s served overseas, who’s been through the combat, you’re the guy. I’ve got friends’ parents who are veterans in the Vietnam War and they’re still going through it. My grandfather, at the age of 70, couldn’t watch Band of Brothers with me because he stormed Normandy. He was there on the beach. I didn’t know what he was going through, but he was like, “Sean, I can’t do this anymore.” You are that guy now and you’re taking ownership of it. I’m proud of you and thank you for serving here with us. You’re my hero.
It’s my pleasure and an honor, sir.
I’ve got one more question. This is a question we ask everyone. I don’t know if we asked it the last time we had you on, but the question is what’s your inspiration?
My inspiration right now is anybody who is going through the trauma of any sort and fighting the fight to get better. Sean, I told you, you’re a huge inspiration. You’re my current inspiration because, despite everything that you’ve gone through, you’re here and leading this. You are driving this train for everybody else out there that needs healing. You’re going through it yourself daily and yet you still get up, you put your boots on and you chug forward not yourself but other people. That is inspiring beyond belief. I thank you, guys. I thank you, Sean, for doing this. It’s much needed.
Thank you, Thai. Anyone out there who’s reading this and knows a veteran or has a loved one who’s going through something similar to what Thai has gone through, share this with them. Having that third-party voice and validation can shift someone’s paradigm, shift someone’s perspective and create this avalanche of positivity and healing as an after effect.
We’re going to be building a whole thing on Thai as well on the website, so you can find his bio. He’s going to start a whole collage of videos of what he’s doing daily or bi-weekly or monthly on how he’s putting himself back in action. His actions are now his family, his wife, his kids and now us. He’s obligated to us now because we’re going to make a change here. He’s all about going out there, “I can, I shall, I will.” This is Thai Starkovich and what a phenomenal person to have on board with us.
Thanks, guys. I appreciate that.
Thank you, Thai.
- Adventures in Health on iTunes
- Mark Nelson – Past episode
- Thai Starkovich
- The Alchemist
- A New Earth
- Team McAfee
- Blockchain World Cruise
About Thai Starkovich
Thai Starkovich is a 14 year Army sniper veteran who is creating a movement by speaking out about the physical and emotional experiences he and his brothers and sisters in the Armed Forces have encountered both in combat and in re-integrating back at home. Thai has joined our team, Adventures in Health, to spread his message and help build stronger communities to help our veterans.