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An Army’s Journey: Integrating Skills And Acquiring Life Lessons with Lamarr Payne And Thai Starkovich
We’re going to share a cool story that we’ve got, which relates to Thai Starkovich. He’s diving deep into one of his stories from being deployed over in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I forget which one he was talking about, how PTSD and these wartime stresses start to get wired into the psyche in the process of coming home and dealing with that. If you haven’t checked that out, please go check it out. Thai has been helping us on the Adventures in Health team. We’ve been integrating him into our health and healing world, sending him products and helping to share the love.
One of the products we sent him was called The Gift. It’s one that we all use in-house. It’s this comprehensive essential mineral supplement that gives your body this foundation of nutrients, minerals, everything you need to clean yourselves and create energy in the body. We sent it to him and he tried it for about a week and he said, “Before I was trying this, I was having indigestion. I was having these low-grade headaches.” He said within three or four days, he stopped having indigestion problems and his headaches were completely gone, which was incredible to hear someone having that experience.
If you haven’t checked this out yet, it’s one of these products. It’s the only supplement I ever recommend. I’m not a supplement guy. This is so foundational to who we are as human beings and what our body needs to thrive. It’s one of the eleven tips that I put together. If you haven’t checked those out yet, you can go right over to our website. There’ll be a little popup form where you can put your email in and you’ll get these eleven tips. I did a little video for each to explain my philosophy behind it and why this is important in terms of creating a foundation for health. I tried to make everything on there very inexpensive and accessible.
Your tips are free. People have the option to put their email in, get you in front of them and offer all this up.
Most of it, besides The Gift, The Gift is probably the one thing that you’d have to invest in. Other than that, it’s things you can take action on now. For me, it’s ultimately valuable for our healing journey to take advantage of the things that are available for us for free. From that foundation, we build on it and we go do whatever we need to do to heal. Having that foundation to me is essential.
The gentleman who’s coming on, he’s remarkable. He was Thai’s second-in-command. What people don’t know is Thai Starkovich and Lamarr probably have hundreds of days of combat under their belt. Which people don’t realize if you’re in a gun fight for over 100 days, imagine where your nervous system is going to be. Imagine if you’re going to slow down or stop or just breathe because you’re always finding an IED or you’re being shot at or you’re protecting somebody. These guys had the unit of units. They were part of a sniper team. It’s a nine-man team. Thai was in charge and Lamarr was the number two guy. When Thai retired, Lamarr stepped in and ran the whole team himself. Not only are these guys the survivors of the world or Black Hawk Downs, if you’ve seen them but these guys’ podcasts are so important because it shed some light and truth to people in the United States who don’t know what’s going on. These guys protected our loved ones, our wives or spouses, our daughters and our sons. These guys are our heroes. Avengers, it’s cool. I love Tony Stark, but Thai Starkovich and Lamarr Payne are my heroes.
One of the things that I’ll point out is Lamarr talked about how important it was to have someone to come home to that understood what he had been through. For Lamarr, that guy was Thai Starkovich. He says that having one of your brothers who understands what you’ve been through, what you’ve experienced, you can relate to and sit and have a beer with, that’s so impactful because so many of these guys, they’re coming home alone and feeling isolated. They had no direction and no one to connect with or relate to because if someone doesn’t understand what you’ve been through, they can’t possibly connect with you on that deep level. Through sharing their stories, especially Lamarr and Thai, it’s helping us to get a bigger picture of what does it take to bring our boys home safely, soundly and how can we start to create a world where we’re supporting these guys for everything that they’ve done for us.
Community is a place for them to feel being able to be open, speak to each other and communicate on that level. These guys, their dark secrets are really dark. I love them. I honor them. I salute them. I’m grateful for Thai and Lamarr and everyone else who served out there.
Readers, if you know a veteran or you love our veterans, which you should, please share Thai’s episode, share this with someone who might need to hear it. If you haven’t had the chance yet, go over to iTunes, subscribe to the podcast. If you want to go the extra mile and help spread the love, drop a five-star review. Write us a sentence or two, let us know what you’re loving and how we can keep spreading the mission and broadening the community because we can’t do this without your support. Thank you guys out there who have supported us so far. If you haven’t shared it, please help us out. We’re going to keep building this community and keep sharing. Let’s go and met Lamarr.
Welcome, Lamarr. How are you doing?
I’m good. How about you?
I’m doing excellent. We have Thai Starkovich. We’ve got Sean Entin. We’ve got everybody here because Lamarr is an ex-vet. How many years were you in the service, Lamarr?
I’m still in the National Guard.
How many years has it been so far?My criteria for a good day was I didn’t get shot at, I didn’t get blown up, I’m home with my family. Click To Tweet
I joined in 2006.
Thank you for your service.
Thanks for your support.
Will you let people know how you first got into the service and a little bit of background on who you are?
I grew up in Rochester, New York. I’m the youngest of four. I have two older sisters and a twin brother. Going through high school, I always knew in the back of my mind, joining the military was something that I wanted to do. I had said it since I was six, seven years old, that this is what I was going to do. Every high school senior, I get a call from the recruiter. I was talking to my brother and I said, “I’m going to talk to this guy tomorrow.” He said, “Okay.” At that time, it was 2006. We’re in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to be honest with you, as naive as it sounds, those two things never even factored into my decision because they were so far removed from upstate New York. I was like, “If I go, I go. If I don’t, I’ll do my three years. If I like it, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll get out.” It’s definitely something that I wanted to do and I couldn’t picture my life not doing it. It was definitely something that when I did do it, I understood the full grasp of what I was getting into.
In hindsight, if you could tell your eighteen-year-old self or your graduating from high school self, give them some advice, would you tell them to do it again?
I would. I don’t know what music you listen to, even Thai, he might know this, but I’m a big Kid Cudi fan. There’s a song and in one of the songs he says, “The people I’ve met and the places I’ve been all make me the man I so proudly am.” That’s what I go by now and for a long time, whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, but it made me who I am now. I’m a father of three. I have four-year-old twins and a five-year-old that keeps me busy. Going through all of that is what brought me here and to be here for them the way I am now. I don’t regret anything.
I definitely resonate with that. Your life is the way it was. You wouldn’t be who you are now if it had gone any other way and just so everyone knows, you and Thai used to serve together, correct?
Yeah. I was in the Scout Platoon pretty early on. I got stationed with the 101st Airborne and I was in one of the regular basic infantry line platoons for a couple of months. They held try outs to go to the Scout Platoon. I got selected to go to the Scout Platoon. I’ve gone to Iraq for fifteen months with the Scout Platoon. I was deployed for fifteen months and came back. When we came back one day, some red head with a mustache showed up and they’re like, “This is the new sniper section leader.” They had told me that I was going to be a sniper team leader. I hadn’t been a sniper school or anything. While I was in Iraq, one of the guys, the sniper team leaders, would always ask me to go out with him, “Do you want to carry our machine gun for us? Do you want to carry a radio for us?” Whatever the case may be. I honestly loved going out, so I would always volunteer to go out with them. Little by little, he started teaching me about the sniper rifle. That’s how Stark and I met.
What do you have to know specifically to be a sniper?It's not about your circumstances right now. It's about what they can become and where you came from. Click To Tweet
We’re not a Johnny Rambo or anything. I’ll never forget Thai telling me this, “99.9% of your job is going to be boring. Your number one job is to observe and collect battlefield data. Outside of that, engage targets and targets of opportunity as they come available.” The reason that under Thai, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like we weren’t ever ready to take the shot, but he glorified and focused more on the craft of being a sniper, the hindsight, the work that had to go into it. In that way, it was a lot easier to swallow. It’s the ultimate game of hide and seeks.
You, Thai and your whole group pushed each other to get better. Even within that environment of being in a war zone, being overseas and all the stress of that environment. You were always pushing each other. How did that process to start?
Thai and I caught a lot of slack because we weren’t our stereotypical, “I say jump, you say how high,” type leaders. I’ll never forget in the field, in training I’m going through a scenario and Thai would get everybody together whether they were the brand new private in the squad or myself. He would say, “This is the mission. How do you want to attack it?” From that point, everybody would give their input. Granted, he had the overall say of how we were going to do it, but everybody’s input was valued. When I took over the sniper section that was important for me to keep that going because it was a lot more fluid. You’re not always going to have the best ideas. We were a lot closer than the other squads with their guys. It bled over into our personal lives.
I remember being in Afghanistan and Thai, I’m not a reader but he got sent The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. He read the book. Afterwards he’s like, “You have to read this.” I read the book. I’ve read it at least ten, fifteen times since then. In my brother’s wedding, I quoted that book in my best man speech. I’ve got a copy of it sitting on my nightstand. It’s one of those things that I’ll always hold on to because whenever I suck in or not feeling so hot with things that are going on in life, I can look at that book and realize, “Life is more a marathon.” It’s not about your circumstances right now. It’s about what they can become and where you came from. That book alone was tremendous growth for me. That pushed me to the point where I said, “I’m going to go and I’m going to try out for Special Forces.” I came back and I did it. It’s funny how all this stuff unfolds. I would venture to say, if Thai never gave me that book, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go and try out for Special Forces. I wouldn’t have met my wife at the time. I wouldn’t have had the kids that I have now. Somebody like him, I’ll always look at it and say like, “This guy has had a tremendous impact on my life that nobody can touch.”
I’ve read that book once. I remember the gist of it. For me, it was always this story of it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. It’s about the adventure. What’s your take having read it ten to fifteen times?
Every time I’ve read that book, I’ve come away with something different. The first time I read it, it pushed me to go the Special Forces route. I remember reading it when I came back from Afghanistan after I had my first daughter. I didn’t recognize it as depression or PTSD or anxiety at that point. I read the book again. I knew I always wanted a family. Reading that book again helped me refocus all of my energy into my kids. There’s a line in the book, it’s my favorite quote. I have a plaque of it hanging in my house. One of my buddies bought it for me. It’s the quote and it says, “When you want something, all of the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” Especially with what we did, where we were so close to being on the bad end of a bullet a lot of times. It was easy to hold onto that concept and say, “I’m in the right place. Things are going to work out,” and have that faith that everything’s going to be okay.
Especially being in a life or death situation, being able to cultivate that mindset and at least in my words, it’s faith. People use the word blind faith. I think all faith is blind. You have to be willing to almost suspend your belief system and have that faith.
With our section being so close, it wasn’t blind faith. It was, “I have faith in Thai. I have faith in our guys.” Reading that book at the time definitely opened my eyes to, “This is bigger than what we have going on right here right now.” That is correlated to every aspect of life for me. When I was down with depression and not doing so hot, that book is something that helped pull me through because it’s not what you’re going through right now. It’s the end destination.
It gives you a big picture perspective, an overview. It’s looking at your life from a bird’s eye view instead of where you’re at right now. Thai, how many people did you give this book to?
I’d say half of the sniper section and recon platoon read that thing when I was over there.One of the things that you have to put your weight on as a human and as a soldier is your understanding and trust of the people around you. Click To Tweet
How many people is that?
It’s probably a dozen people that read that book.
It hasn’t stopped there. At my brother’s wedding, I used that quote in my best man’s speech. I have a good friend here in Virginia Beach. He was going through a rough patch and I gave him the book. I can’t put into words how much that book has helped me along the process. With the military, there’s a big problem of when I came back from Iraq, within 24 hours, I sit down with a psychiatrist and they say, “How’s it going? How are you doing? Did you see this?” I knew well-enough to know because my twin brother had deployed before me. He was like, “If the Army asks you, you didn’t see nothing. You didn’t do anything. You had a great tour. You’re happy to be home.” They do our guys a big disservice by not checking back with them. Thai’s the one that brought this up the first time. I was like, “He’s right.” When I came off the plane from Iraq, I was 21 years old. I bought a brand-new Dodge Charger. I had a bunch of money in the bank. “How are you doing?” “I’m on top of the world.” It’s about six, seven months after that things started to settle in and you settle into everyday life where you’re like, “This sucks.” There’s nothing that can prepare you for that. At that point, especially when we were going, you’re not getting any type of follow up treatment, any type of follow-up, “How are you doing? No, you’re getting ready to go on the next deployment.”
You’re in that training cycle. You’re training up like, “Thank you for serving that last appointment. Now the training cycle begins.” It’s relentless.
You almost don’t have time to process what’s going on and what you’re dealing with. It’s tough. When I came back, I remember being home about six months and being like, “This sucks.” I was ready to go back. I was more comfortable there than I was in the States.
Lamar, it seems to me that your fight or flight is always on. How do you calm the nervous system? I used to work out with the Navy SEALs in San Diego, on the West Coast SEALs and they had trouble turning it off. I didn’t understand it until I had my injury. I can only feel what you’re going through. What tactics did you do to calm down that nervous system?
For me, everything changed when I had my first daughter. I didn’t recognize it as a panic attack. I would just say, “I’m uncomfortable.” I didn’t recognize it as what it was until my wife at the time continually trying to push me. It started from a good place, but it just started like, “We can’t go to the grocery store without you being freaked out or being super vigilant that you’ve got to do something.” It got to the point where I was like, “I don’t want my kids to be affected by this. I definitely still have had my moments, but it’s almost the opposite whereas before, you’re over there. You’re hyper vigilant about everything. You’re super cautious about everything. To the other side of it, you’re numb to everything because you’ve seen life on such a bigger scale that somebody cussing you out at work doesn’t mean so much when you’ve had to pick up bodies. My criteria for a good day was I didn’t get shot at, I didn’t get blown up. I’m home with my family. Everything else we’ll deal with. I remember my wife at the time saying like, “I need you to care about something.” It’s like, “No, I care about things. I’m not going to let things beyond my control ruin my mood.” It’s like, “That’s not a normal life. I didn’t get shot at and didn’t get blown up.” That doesn’t mean that you had a good day. That’s a normal day.
You can maybe riff on this a little bit, but it seems like from what I’m hearing from talking to Thai and from talking to you, Lamarr, is when you’re over serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or any war zone, it becomes this extreme of life and death. Coming back from that, it’s like just as long as it’s not extreme, you’re okay. It’s like you’re not accessible to someone who’s only lived in normal everyday life.
I wouldn’t say as long as you’re not going through that extreme, it’s okay because the fact that you’re not going through that extreme is extremely difficult. Am I right, Thai?
You’re dead on.Instead of a fear-based environment, create a confidence-based and competence-based environment. Click To Tweet
I went from leading a three men sniper teams and going into the qualification course for Special Forces to marking utility lines on the side of the road, working 70 hours a week to keep my family afloat. You don’t have a sense of purpose. I remember at one point, I was talking to my wife at the time saying my biggest fear was when my son is older and he learns about all this stuff that went on. He learns about Iraq. I could say, “I did this.” He learns about Afghanistan. I could say, “I did this.” If something else came up, he’d say, “Dad, what did you do?” I said, “Nothing.” That was a legitimate fear of mine. You’re so programmed to respond and to go.
As I’m saying that, the one thing that comes into my head, and Thai, I know you remember this very well, was when Hartsell got hit and I’ll never forget. To paint a picture for everybody, the snipers were providing overwatch for the recon teams as that they were moving through this valley. As they get to the base of the valley, they open up, shoot one of our squad leaders in the shoulder. We’re on this cliff face. I remember Thai looking over at me and he’s like, “One, two, three,” and we blindly ran towards the fire. I didn’t realize where the people were at or how close they were to us until I looked over at Thai and another guy, DY. I say a twig was being riddled with bullets. From there, I could see where these guys were at. You don’t think about that. It’s, “I’ve got to go.”
I had no idea, Lamarr, that tree. You told me after this whole thing. It was being torn to shreds. I had no idea because I was emptying a magazine. It’s like that tunnel vision. It’s that focus. It doesn’t matter what’s going on right now. I’m rising to my level of training. I’m falling back onto my level of training. I’m doing what I’ve been programmed to do. That is an override until you can sit back at the end of the day and reflect on it.
I remember looking over and Thai was like a big brother to me, one of my best friends in the world. The guy on the far side of him, DY, was like a little brother to me. I still keep in contact with him to this day and I’m just seeing them. I don’t know how they’re not getting hit. It didn’t even register to me. I was up there with them. I overshot a two or three round. It was business. It was, “I’ve got to do what I can to get my guys out.” I know Thai felt that. This guy, Hartsell, got shot on this mission. He leaves the country. He’s about back maybe two weeks later.
It was three weeks. He was back in the country. He didn’t even call. He went to Germany. He did his little deal and came back. He’s in Special Forces right now.
Two or three weeks later, we’re out on a mission and remember him and I got pinned down in that field. There’s a sniper shooting at us. At that time you don’t think like, “This is it.” You’re like, “What do we need to do to get out of this situation?” The thing with our platoon being so close was we always knew they were going to do the right thing to get us out of that situation regardless of what the battalion’s agenda was or brigade’s agenda was. I hate to say, but they would throw us out on the limb. We knew when we were out there, we were going to do whatever we had to do to make sure everybody came back.
That’s one of the things that you have to put your weight on as a human, as a soldier, as a mortal being, is your understanding and trust of the people around you. Lamarr’s brought it up several times about the level of closeness, trust and everything that we had as a sniper section and recon platoon that we were all part of. You can’t replicate that. You can’t train for that. You have to have that level of trust. You have to know what somebody looks like under night vision at midnight, 50 yards ahead of you. You have to know who each and every person is. You have to know who acts what way when they’re hungry, who needs more sleep, who needs more water? That level of understanding somebody at that level, it supersedes any civilian type of friendship. I’m sure there are examples out there, but you have to know and trust. You understand that it doesn’t matter what’s happening to you at that time. The people around you are going to help you get out of that situation. You know that in your heart so you’re never truly scared. People ask me like, “Were you scared?” I never had feared. I was always been like a fight or flight mode. I never had that fear because I knew that the people around me, my supporting cast was going to get me out. That’s that level of trust. It was an unspoken thing.
Lamarr, you get done with this firefight with Thai. You go back to your fob. You go back to where your base is at the time. How do you call him yourself down? You got into a firefight. One of your buddies gets shot in the shoulder. What do you do back at the fob?
Everybody dealt with it their own way. For me, if I wasn’t in the military and I could sing. I’d be some type of musician. I’d come back and listen to some type of music. As Thai was saying, knowing everybody so personally like, “This guy might need a little bit more space before he’s ready to talk about what happened than the rest of us.” Other times they were like, “We’d come back.” We’re like, “That sucked.” We would talk about it and process it together. Get everybody’s aspect of what happened, of what they saw. As Thai said, he didn’t even realize that tree was disintegrating around him until I was like, “This is where you were at. This is what was going on,” and vice versa.
That definitely helps you get a bigger picture of the situation that you went through. When you’re in that situation, it’s not like tunnel vision but you’re focused on what you have to do. You might not necessarily take in the stuff that’s happening surrounding you. From my standpoint, getting a bigger picture of what happened definitely was a little bit scary because you’re like, “We made it through that.” On the other hand, it gave me this confidence that no matter what situation you’re in, your guys that you were with were there to take care of you. You did everything to come through that together as best as you could.I remember my wife saying, 'I need you to care about something.' I care about things. I'm just not going to let things beyond my control ruin my mood. Click To Tweet
I’m going to add on one more layer to what Sean said, do you think there should be some standard procedure? Everybody comes back from an event like that and we decompressed together in a certain way?
I don’t think so because the Army as an entity as a whole, it has mass produced hundreds of thousands of kids are joining every day, getting out every day. Going through something like that, at least from my standpoint, is personal. You have to let that person deal with it on their own terms. Come to it and say like, “This is what we went through.” It’s going to either make or break them, as cliché as that sounds. In our platoon, we had a pretty good understanding that like, “We could openly talk about those things.” That being said, you guys brought up the guy earlier that played football. That’s another problem with the Army.
A guy like Eben Britton, he went back to the locker room and they’re prescribing him drugs, “Here’s this, that.” Are you given drugs? Are you given any meds or supplements?
No because especially being in the infantry, any type of mental health is you’re done. That’s why with us, it was important for us to lean on each other because I knew I could talk to Thai and be like, “That sucked,” and let out whatever it was. I remember I’d taken this cue from his leadership when I took over the sniper section. I would brief my guys on whatever the mission was and say, “You guys have a couple of minutes to digest it, voice your concerns, voice this sucks or whatever. At the end of the day, this is what we’re going to go out and do.” You develop that closeness, that family. The Army, like the NFL teams or the NBA teams, as crappy as it sounds, is a business. We came back and weren’t back for a month before people are getting shuffled around and our platoon was broken up. The people that necessarily didn’t get to digest what happened while they were there, didn’t get that time to at home. They go to another platoon in another company and it becomes, “We did this or we did this.” It’s not helping anybody. It’s more of a competition.
You’re out there flapping as soon as you come back. As Lamarr was saying, people are on orders. They’re in the country fighting a war. They’re on orders to go be recruiters or drill sergeants or instructors or go to another duty station. You never get that collective cool down, which if I were to change things, I would say that anybody who deploys and you’re over there as a unit for a year, you have to stay as a unit for at least six months, before anybody PCS’ or whatever. It would be six months of group therapy that the military would not have to pay for.
If they did that, the suicides, all these behavioral problems when guys come back would be cut down dramatically because I knew at no point when we were over in Afghanistan, we’ll start going to leave me hanging, vice versa. I knew at no point if I was out in Nashville drunk, being stupid, he has a tape to snatch me up and bring me home. It was one of those things that they don’t let you fully digest what happens before they throw you back into, “Get ready for the next one.”
It seems like when you come back for however long a time or permanently, you lose that brotherhood and you lose that support structure. When you don’t have someone to lean on, you start to feel isolated.
Lamarr, how tough was it when Thai left. He decided to end his career and you took over, how was that for you? How is that for you, Thai, that separation?
For me, from a leadership standpoint, I don’t mean to sound I’m tooting my own horn or anything, but from a leadership standpoint, I don’t want to say seamless, but it was easy for me to step into that. That’s only because he trusted me with so much from the beginning. As he said earlier, I was his right-hand man. I would do anything and everything. From a standpoint with the guys, they knew that and expected that. It was easy for them to fall in line because they knew what type of leader Thai was. They knew how well he and I got together, got along together and how our personalities meshed. They knew that his leadership style or my leadership style was more so based off of his leadership style. There wasn’t like this big dramatic rift where we come from the Dalai Lama to Hitler the next day. It was an easy transition but I definitely feel that I had some big shoes to fill.
As a sniper section leader, that’s normally a job of an E7 or a captain. I was doing that as an E5. At that time, Thai had given me the confidence to say, “You know what you’re doing. When you’re briefing these company commanders or you’re talking to these company commanders and you’re asking for certain support elements, you’re not asking for it just to ask for it. You’re asking for it because that’s what the mission requires.” I can say before he left, he definitely gave me the confidence and the tools to step into that. Is that to say that there weren’t times where we were out there and I’m like, “Am I doing the right thing?” Absolutely not. The culture that he created around that was it’s an open environment. I’m not always going to have the right answer. We had that open dialogue with our guys where my team leaders could say, “What about this? That sounds like a better idea,” versus your traditional infantry squad leader, team leader relationship, the squad leader’s going to say, “This is what we’re doing.” There’s no conversation in that. That’s what it is. He definitely set things up for me to have a seamless transition. I didn’t get fired or anything, so I was doing something right.Life is always a work in progress. It's a marathon, but just take it day by day and go from there. Click To Tweet
Before I go in on where I was at during that transition, I want to expand upon what Lamarr was saying. The way that I wanted to run everything is I wanted leaders. I wanted leaders from the bottom guy in my sniper section to me, I wanted them to be leaders. Leaders sit down, talk with each other and work through things. We’ve talked about Michael De Young, which Lamarr was talking about DY earlier, he saved my life in Afghanistan. In thinking back on it, it was partly because I empowered him to make decisions when he needed to make them. Instead of a fear-based environment, it was a confidence-based, a competence-based environment. These guys rose to the occasion. I could never shuffle the deck, get a better group of people to work with and to go to war with, which is more important.
My last day in Afghanistan before I went home, I was getting out a little early. I was due to get out in April 2011. You have to come back home for about six months early. In December. I left and there was an event where I was sitting on the airfield and I think you guys were on QRF, which is Quick Reaction Force. You’re on duty. If anybody, any Americans get into any firefights in your vicinity, you’re the first to go to assist. Our platoon was put on QRF. I was hitting on that airfield waiting for this helicopter. They got called up. I’m watching them all scramble. I’m seeing my dudes run to the vehicles. The drivers got the vehicles up. Everybody is grabbing the gear. It took so much for me to not jump up off of that airfield, go over and drive out there. I wanted everybody to make it home. Your obligation isn’t just come home yourself, even though that is your obligation to your family and to your friends and everybody knows you. When you see your boys kitting up and they’re about to go answer the call in a firefight or do any of that stuff, your instinct after serving with these guys for years is to grab your stuff and get up and go. I mourned that period of my career because I wanted to get up and go. I knew that the helicopter was ten minutes out. I couldn’t go. I would have missed my time to get home. You can’t do that.
To Thai’s credit, even when he made it back to the States, there was never any disconnect. We communicated daily, whether it was Facebook Messenger or leaving each other a message, an email, whatever. We communicated daily and he always wanted to check up on the guys, know how the guys were doing know, know how I was doing. Thai and I are rare breeds in the infantry. We treated our guys as human beings. If you’re not the alpha male personality to say, “I’m not going to treat this guy like crap just because he’s a lower rank than me.” In most infantry platoons, you will get eaten alive. When Thai left, I was the last one of the squad leaders that was like, “I’m going to treat my guys like my guys.” I’m not going to treat them like my employees or I’m better than them just because I had a tour under my belt. Knowing that if nothing else, he was there at the end of the night when I went to the MWR to hop on a computer to vent about things that were going on or whatever was a tremendous help.
This is a terrible analogy. It’s almost like somebody getting out of prison. You’re just like, “Fend for yourself.” You’re straight up with these guys day-in and day-out, for 365 days a year and they come back. They do reverse re-integration for however many days. A month later, they’re in a brand-new cell blocks, brand new platoon. It does the Army as a whole a big disservice if they don’t let people grow together and go through those things together. I’ll never forget when I came back home and Thai was already home. Within 24 hours of me being home, I was at his house. Do you remember going to get soup? I was sick. I was like, “I want some soup.” I went over to the house. We made some soup. We had a couple of beers and that was one of the best nights that I can remember. I had somebody there that I knew had been in my shoes, had dealt with the same frustrations that weren’t going to judge me. I was like, “This was a crappy situation. This is how I felt about it.” You could talk about it. Especially back then, was I definitely dealing with depression and all that stuff? Absolutely. Did I feel like I was at a place or in an environment where I could say that? Absolutely not because I would have been taken out. They would have forced me out of the infantry.
When that label gets put on you, as you alluded to earlier about any mental health issues, you can’t come back from the deployment and go talk to the adult behavioral health because that goes on your record. It almost screwed me to go to the cyber school because after my second tour in Iraq, I came back and they were like, “Are there any issues you need to talk about?” I was like, “After my first tour, I was depressed.” It started three months after you came home, which is three months after they had initially asked you, “How are you doing?” It’s ridiculous to ask that that close. You suck it up. All you can think about when you’re deployed, besides surviving day to day through the missions, is you’re in touch with when you’re supposed to go home, “Six months, I’m halfway through. Three months, it’s 25%.”
You start making these markers and you get home and you’re happy when you actually get home. The whole process of getting home is a joyful experience. You get on these airplanes, a series of helicopter rides, airplanes and finally you’re back in the States with your boys. You’re walking off that plane a hero with everybody around you. You’re going back to your wife or you’re going to go out to the bar, have some drinks and maybe take a girl home or a guy home or whatever. Life is good when you first get home. It’s not until about three to six months later that the depression monster comes creeping in. It hits hard and you don’t understand it. You’re like, “How am I depressed? I’m on top of the world.” You’re on top of the world six months ago. You’re not on top of the world right now.
To that point, I’ll never forget there was a big difference between when I came back from Iraq. We were in Iraq for fifteen months versus coming back from Afghanistan. Coming back from Iraq, I was ecstatic. I was like, “I’ll never go back to the Middle East again. I’m done.” I remember coming back from Afghanistan. At that point, you’re very well aware of the process of coming back and what that reintegration is going to be like. I remember standing in the formation after they open those hangar doors. I was angry. I was in a miserable mood. Not to say that I wasn’t glad to be home, but I was upset to leave my guys. At the same time, I was definitely not looking forward to the process that I knew was going to start thereafter. Thai being there definitely helped ease that transition. When I came back, there was somebody else that had been through my shoes that had left a little bit early. I didn’t necessarily have to burden that guilt by myself.
I remember we would talk about it often like, “How are the guys doing?” I was in the same situation. I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, but I had to leave essentially. I was within my three-month window and they’re like, “Are you going to re-enlist or are you going home?” I was talking to the Special Forces recruiters back home. They said, “As long as you come back, go to selection and you come back with 90 days on your contract, we can re-enlist you.” At that point, I knew it was time for me to go. I’m not a hateful person. I’m not an angry person, but it got to the point where it was hard to separate being outside the wire versus inside with the third country national folding your laundry and he mixes up your laundry. I was furious. It got to the point where I was like, “It’s time for me to go.” I know I’m not a hateful person and Thai, I can tell you I’m not an angry person. We had been through so much there, I was turning into something that I didn’t want and I recognized early on it wasn’t me.
Thai being so instrumental and being in touch with us was something that helped me recognize that. I was like, “It’s time for me to go.” I went on missions until the day I left. I went on missions and flew out the next morning to come home. I won’t say guilt, but the sense of responsibility like those is your boys, you don’t want to let anything happen to them. When I got home, I don’t think the transition would have been possible or as smooth as it was, if it wasn’t for somebody like Thai waiting for me when I got there. You’re on your own at that point.
Would you make every veteran who comes back home from deployment put it on a sobriety plan for least 90 days or the first year away from the alcohol?
From experience, especially in our era, that would have been impossible. You’re going to come home. You haven’t been able to drink or do anything for a year or longer. Medication’s not available to you. We’re expecting you to re-assimilate into everyday life raw. It may be possible. We had some guys in our platoon that didn’t drink. For myself, would it have been possible? Probably not. It wasn’t even about like, “I want to get wasted.” I remember sitting on Thai’s porch in Woodlawn, Tennessee and having a couple of beers and talking. It wasn’t like we were going out and getting knocked down, drag out drunk every day. It helped you to loosen up. You could talk about things. It doesn’t hurt to sleep a little bit.
As close friends as Lamarr and I are and the experiences that we went through in combat and a year of pre-deployment training, there was never a time where I was ready to let him or anybody know that, “I’m feeling something. I’m feeling depressed. I’m feeling anxiety. I’m feeling guilt. I’m feeling whatever,” like these foreign feelings that only people who go overseas and kill other people can fill. It takes that tribe, the tribe that you went to war with, the tribe that you came home with, that tribe that you’re protected and the tribe that protected you. It takes that tribe to sit around, put your feet up, get real and talk about things. Alcohol was instrumental in that. You have to sit around, be able to talk about these things and re-live them, process them, get some outside perspective maybe, but internally get through it.
To your point there, it’s because that didn’t exist in our world then. Thai and I are good enough friends. We used to say we were life partners. If he came to me and was like, “I’m sucking,” would I have ever held it against him? No. Would the infantry hold it against him? Absolutely. That didn’t exist during our time. It was you deploy, you come back, you re-integrate and you’re good to go. I remember those conversations on Thai’s porch, hanging out, having a couple of IPAs, being able to open up, talk to somebody and be like, “This is what’s up.”
Listening to you guys go back and forth and pick through this, it seems that throughout your whole experience overseas and coming back that key element was that human connection. It’s what got you through tough times overseas. If you didn’t have someone to connect with, someone who understood you, someone who’s been through what you’ve been through, there was never going to be that ability to feel at ease. Without someone to relate to and without friends, family and loved ones in our life, especially someone who can understand what you’ve been through. In my mind, it’s impossible to ever integrate that if you don’t have someone who you can go to and say, “Remember that crazy whatever we went through?” “That was something.” If you need to have a few beers to open up and hang out with your friends, to me more than anything, what I’m hearing is the most important part of this whole equation is that human connection that you were able to create in your division and create within your band of brothers.
I’ll be 100% honest here, that’s not easily replicated. When I joined the National Guard and ended up recruiting, I thought, “I’m wearing the uniform. I’m still working for the military. Everything is okay.” Me being an infantry guy, I would wear my combat infantry badge. I’d wear my airborne wings. I would go to high school. I would get the question of what’s that badge? I would tell them straight up like, “This is what happened. This is how I earned this badge.” It’s not to discredit the National Guard. For such a large population that has never had that combat exposure, it absolutely terrified them that somebody that was on active duty is coming back and dealing with this stuff. There was not that connection like they treated recruiting in the National Guard as a 9 to 5, whereas I looked at it as I’m still in the Army. The two things couldn’t be further away. It was very hard for me to be in that environment where I didn’t have somebody to talk about things with.
Again, not to toot our own horns, but Thai and I were very good at what we did. We were used to operating at a very high level for a long time. For me to come back and be in the National Guard, still wearing the uniform. Struggling in recruiting, I remember being in high schools, talking to this new generation of kids and talking to them about the infantry. I never took the approach of, “I’m going to convince you to join. Either you want to or you don’t. If you want to be in the infantry, cool. This is what it is, good, bad and ugly. If you don’t want it, no problem. I don’t want you in the infantry if you don’t want it.” Not having somebody like Thai or somebody that you’ve been to those experiences with, you look for that same coping like, “I’m going to just come home and have a couple of drinks and relax.” Eventually, it turns into a problem. It did with me.
This is the first time I’ve said this publicly. I went to AA meetings. I thought wearing the uniform and being a recruiter for the Guard would help me. I would be good to go. I’m still in the Army. I’m still doing things. It’s so far from the Army that I knew. It got to the point where I was like, “I want to do something different.” I started going to AA. As crazy as this sounds, going into those AA meetings, as I said, I have a twin brother, I told him it was like being in a room full of 25 of him. Every excuse that I threw out, every rationalization that I threw out of why I had to drink or why I needed to unwind, was in that room. The only thing comparable to that would be my platoon that I was with because they knew me on that level. They knew anything and everything about me. Thai knew more about me than anybody. He knew if I had hooked up with a girl the night before. He knew if I was hung over. He knew if I was going through a breakup while we were overseas. The intimacy that you have in these sections, I don’t think could ever be replicated. The Army as a whole did our guys a big disservice by not letting us come back and process that together.
Lamarr, I have a question that we ask everyone and the final question is, what’s your personal inspiration? What inspires you to go forward and keep going?
One, it’s definitely my kids. I’ve got three amazing kids. I have four-year-old twins. I have a little Lamarr Jr. I have Maya and Layla. Unfortunately, my wife and I are divorced, so I only get them 50% of the time. I approach fatherhood with the same tenacity that I approach being a sniper with. It’s always good to reconnect with guys like Thai. Hit him say, “What are you doing?” I’m working for Constellis now, which owns Triple Canopy and everything, but knowing that I haven’t let him down. I’m still going forward. I’m still trucking along. He’s one of the few people in the world outside of family that I care what this person thinks about me. He’s one of the people that I’m maybe sucking. It’s okay to tell him that I’m sucking, but I’m not going to let them down. Guys like him and my kids are what re-directed my life and keep me moving in a positive direction. It’s always a work in progress. It’s definitely a marathon, but take it day-by-day and go from there.
Thank you so much, Lamarr. Shout out to all the readers, if you enjoyed the story, please share it. Especially if you know a veteran in your life who could benefit by hearing either Lamarr’s story or Thai’s story, share those with them and let them start to relate. As Lamarr said, there’s no way to recreate it, but we can at least start sharing the stories and getting the message out there. Thank you very much, Lamarr.
Thanks for having me.
- Thai Starkovich – Previous episode
- The Gift
- Lamarr Payne
- iTunes – Adventures in Health
- The Alchemist
- Triple Canopy
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.
About Lamarr Payne
Recruiter at Constellis