Inside The Mind Of An Army Sniper with Thai Starkovich

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind

 

Former Army Sniper, Thai Starkovich, gives us a glimpse at the inner workings of his mind. His story helps us to understand the internal wounds our veterans face beyond the battlefield and the path Thai chose to rejoin civilian life.

 

Listen to the podcast here:

Inside The Mind Of An Army Sniper with Thai Starkovich

Sean, I know a lot of times you bring up veterans in our podcast. Veterans are facing a serious crisis. You bring up the stat a lot of times that 22 veterans a day kill themselves. A lot of them are dealing with PTSD and depression and all kinds of other mental illnesses that nobody helps them with or they don’t feel they have someone to turn to.

It’s horrible, Elsa. It’s one every hour. The veterans that deal with the mental health issues and they all come back. Some of them are in tough spots. They can’t get out of it. The PTSD is so bad that they commit suicide. These are the guys who fight for us every day, who protect our kids and our country. The guys who stand for the American flag and our freedom.

When I lived and worked in San Antonio, I was anchoring for an NBC station there. I covered a lot of military issues. One of the issues I covered the most was veterans, homelessness, and their mental health. To speak to them personally about the challenges they face, coming home is astounding because this is the last place they should be engaged in an uphill battle for anything. They come home and many of them are broken. They’re not getting the help they need. Many can’t work, and they end up homeless and living in their cars. How is that happening? It does.

They’re injured from trauma in their head. They’re injured from the trauma in their body. I have friends who have served in Vietnam who we both know and the amount of pain they go through all the time is horrific. They’re trying to find solutions. I believe that OxyContin, Vicodin, and Norco are not what are needed. There needs to be more put into these guys.

Those are going to possibly cause addiction for them. That’s not the answer. We had an amazing man on our show, Thai Starkovich, who has seen a lot of action. He’s been overseas. He’s fought for our country. We were lucky enough to meet him and his wife on a cruise. We got to talking with them and his story is incredible. He’s got an impressive résumé.

He’s a sniper with the Army. This guy was in charge of his platoon and in charge of a team. What he had to do to get in and out of work and deployment and then come back home to be a father. The transition is difficult. My heart goes out to these guys because they have to go from being someone on the battlefield and they’re coming home to being a husband and a father and an everyday civilian.

He also talked about the fact that he’s not trained for anything else. He’s had a distinguished and decorated career in the military, an Army sniper. When you come back home, a lot of these guys who are highly and specifically trained in that don’t have other skills to have a career outside of it. They face a lot of challenges. They hit walls. It becomes demoralizing for them if they can’t find jobs. They have to worry about taking care of their families and it’s tough.

These guys are heroes. We go to the movies to watch The Rock, to watch Avengers or Spider-Man or the Hulk. These guys are living and breathing. They’re miracles but they’re my superheroes.

Thai is open when he talks to us about his mental struggles, his struggles with PTSD and depression. He talks about a lot of the roads he took to bring him clarity and peace inside. It’s a work in progress for him, for many of us with whatever we’re dealing with. He’s candid about it and talks about what he goes through and the books he read. How he adopted meditation and yoga and all these other things that gave him a chance.

The breath work too. It’s about the breath. It’s about filling up the body with oxygen and filling up the heart with love. They’re mercenaries and they’re coming back to real life here.

I’m excited for everyone to read this interview because he’s an incredible person with an incredible career in the military, but also on a different path of spirituality and inner peace and finding himself. He’s quite the inspiration.

Getting to a healthy place is an adventure for most of us. Many will not follow traditional paths. Many will have their own experiences that will drive them to look for ways to heal better outside of the options we are given here in the United States. Our job here is to help you find those options. We want you to be healthy and have a better life and that’s why we’re here. We’re talking to people from all different walks of life with all different types of experiences. Hoping that you can relate to one of these people that you read on our blog because everybody has a story and everybody’s story is worth hearing. There’s something we can all learn from it. We’re going to be learning from Thai Starkovich who was an Army sniper.

Yes, I was.

You spent a lot of years in the military. You are highly trained, and this was your career for a very long time. When you were young you were moved by a movie that set the path for you on becoming a military personnel and a sniper. That you saw a movie and you were like, “That was it.” What was the movie?

It was Sniper with Tom Berenger way back in the day. I was about thirteen or fourteen when that movie came out. I was already shooting competitively with ARA. I had an ARA coach who’s geared towards the long-range shooting and shooting in general. It seemed like a natural progression.

You were inspired by the movie because I don’t know how many times we’ve all walked out of movies where we feel charged and energized. I remember after Rocky and Karate Kid and all those movies, you come out and you think you’re a black belt and you think you can jump in the ring and become a boxer. You did see this movie. You came out charged, energized and you became a sniper. This movie did completely change the direction of your life at such a young age. It set in stone what you wanted to be.

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind
Inside The Mind: You’ve got to be creative in your tactics and how you build the tools that you use to conduct your job.

 

It did, and I was inspired by the stories of World War II and Vietnam. I was reading all of those books. I always wanted to do small unit stuff because I got to do the cool stuff. I learned about sniping and I was fascinated by it. It seemed to incorporate everything that I liked to do. I got the long-range shooting. There’s a lot of field craft so you got to be creative in how you build your hide, the tools that you use to conduct your job, and the tactics. Small unit stuff is what I loved to do. I saw the movie Sniper and it sealed the deal for me. I was like, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a Marine Corps sniper.” It definitely resonated with me.

You’re on this path. You get into the military. Are you finding when you joined the military you like this? Is this what you thought it might be like?

I did. Going into it especially in a combat arms job with the Army or the Marine Corps or something like that. You have to know what you’re getting into going into it. I prepped myself by watching Full Metal Jacket. What’s the worst of the worst that I’m going to go through in boot camp or basic training? I watched that, and I mentally prepared myself and conditioned for going through the worst of the worst. When I got there it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be, basic training. I thrived in that environment of chaos and order at the same time. You go through boot camp you can imagine what they put you through. It’s chaotic and they want you to be orderly. They’re transitioning civilians into soldiers. I went into the infantry as an 11 Bravo because you don’t go in as a sniper, that’s not your job title in the military. You go to the infantry and then you got to go through different tryouts and indoc training and stuff like that to get to that level. My military experience, I did fourteen years. It was exactly what I thought it was going to be except there are a lot of politics if you get up to a certain rank and stuff like that. By and far, it was exactly what I thought it was going to be.

When I watch movies about TV news and journalism, it’s frustrating sometimes because half the stuff in there is glorified and not how we would do things. It perpetuates the whole stereotype of sometimes shallowness or glamor and it is not. My career was not glamorous most of the time. When I was anchoring, I was in the studio, hair and makeup. When you’re out in the field and you’re reporting on the frontlines of the fire and trying to get an interview with the President who are showing up to your city and all these things. It’s a major cluster and it’s hard work covering everything from hurricanes to fires to flying in F-16s. We get to do a lot of stuff which is fun, but a lot of it is not glamorous. I imagine it’s much the same as you when you watch the movies about the military. You’re sitting there going, “That is not what we do.”

I find that more often than not. I don’t go out of my way to watch more movies or military movies because there are many inaccuracies and many embellishments. They have to sell something. They have this product. The truth of the matter is 95% of combat is boring and 5% is interjected with moments of terror and confusion. They’re not going to capture the 95% of where you’re cleaning out a Connex, the storage bins that you put all your gear in or writing counseling statements. There’s a lot that goes on in a war that nobody cares about. It’s still there and it’s a real thing for us. They don’t capture it as accurately as I wish they would. There have been a couple of documentaries. There’s one by Sebastian Junger book and he embedded with a unit. It was with 101st Airborne or something in Afghanistan and followed them around. It had raw footage and interviews and that was the most accurate portrayal of Afghanistan or combat that I’ve seen. Restrepo is the name of the documentary by Sebastian Junger. He’s done a lot of big projects, big books and that’s the most accurate portrayal of combat. It does capture those long boring moments interjected with moments of confusion and terror.

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For anyone in our audience, if you want to pretty much close to accurate portrayal, they can search that and take a look at Restrepo. I imagine that all these years in the military and your training and the missions you go on this is the part where the glamor is not there. There’s a lot of adjusting mentally to the types of things you see, do, hear as someone high up in the military. Was there a specific incident for you when you were going along in your career that said to you, “This is not the movies? This is real-life, and nobody has any idea what I’m seeing here. This is a lot to take in.”

What I immediately think of is the number of kids in these war zones that are suffering. In the wintertime, you’d raid a house in Afghanistan and there’d be a kid that’s in this bassinet on the floor covered up. We’d have to go through and search the house, so we’d stumble across these bundles. Sometimes a baby’s dead in there or you can tell it is malnourished or it’s freezing to death or whatever. Those are the hard parts are seeing the kids. Sometimes in war, there are accidents or sometimes innocent people get killed. You don’t sign on for that. Other than that, it’s a surreal feeling like combat, especially when you go in somewhere and you have to kill people. It feels I don’t want to say natural or instinctive, but in a lot of ways yes. Taking a life isn’t something you want to experience, but when you do it and you have that adrenaline rush. There’s a sense of being alive. That sounds sociopathic, but it is what it is. We have to look at our shadow selves and understand that we have a light side and dark side. Everybody does. You don’t know how you’re going to react or feel during and after these experiences until you’ve experienced them.

You don’t know until you do it. They could tell you until they’re blue in the face but it’s hard to articulate how it feels. Pretty much nothing prepares you, except for your training.

The military does a great job of dehumanizing whatever enemies you’re going to encounter before you go to that country. That’s for mental health safeguarding for a lot of people. You leave that environment and then you start thinking about stuff. That dehumanization isn’t reinforced any longer when you’re in the civilian side. That’s when people start getting those guilty feelings and whatnot.

That’s when you start dealing with PTSD and some of those things. It’s a perfect transition because you spend much of your time training and being disciplined. Going through the psychology of dehumanizing your enemy and all of these things that are perfect when you’re in combat and when you’re in the zones. This is what is expected of you. There is a different tie and a different life. It’s almost you’re in two different universes. You have a military universe and then you transition into civilian life. You touched on it a little bit how a little bit of that psychology, the training transfers over into your civilian life. How do you see it affecting most of your colleagues who are out there with you and who are also your brothers out there in the military? How do you see as a whole most of them adjusting to everyday civilian life?

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind
Inside The Mind: Veterans are tired of the pain. They’re tired of the suck. It seems there’s no one or no organization out there that truly cares enough to get them out of that situation.

 

Not well. The whole dehumanization that the military does teach you creates biases when you leave. You have a bias against Arabs. You have a bias against Afghans. You have a bias against whatever enemy that we’re fighting at that time. You bring that home because it’s conditioned strongly within you. The culture of the military is conservative. It’s nationalistic. It’s a lot of things. You feel like a member of that tribe. If you speak out of turn or you have an opposing point of view or something like that, you’re marginalized within that tribe. For a lot of people, not against their will but against the grain of their own sensibilities and their upbringing or whatever their values. They ascribe to the same political type of narrative that everybody else does in the military. They feel they have to be that uber conservative. They have to be that, “Screw haji,” or whatever the case is. They have to repeat that when they get into civilian life and it’s uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into that context any longer.

When you’re out there trying to be a normal civilian, a normal operating American out there doing your thing and you still have these biases and this speech. You’re still fully in that narrative. Even though it’s causing you discomfort because you’re struggling with it, they still maintain that. Coupled with when they get out is a loss of identity. If you see somebody’s in a military uniform. Your name is on there, US Army, US Marine, whatever. It’s your organization. This is all plastered on your body. Your rank, the unit that you’re with is on your sleeve. You’ve got all your awards. Your accomplishments are on your uniform. It’s your identity. There are a lot of people who are like, “I can’t wait to get out,” because the military is a rough life. The grass is always greener when you’re in the military. The civilian world looks like a cakewalk.

They get out and they don’t transition well because they’re still struggling with this identity that they literally had ripped off of their body from one day. One day they’re in the military, the next day they’re getting out and they’re never to wear that uniform again. There’s this narrative, there’s conditioning, and then there’s a loss of identity. On top of all of that, it’s affecting these former service members for years to come beyond that. It’s like Stockholm syndrome in a way. They are your captors and they’re giving you this narrative over and over again. You better ascribe to that line of thought or else. It’s difficult. They have to think for themselves for the first time for a lot of them.

It’s that transition and all those things you talked about that leads to the scary statistic that we are seeing now, which is 22 veterans a day kill themselves. Many of them would you imagine are dealing with PTSD or some emotional trauma from what I’ve seen and the transition.

It’s all a big bag or a cocktail of messed up things that you have to deal with that you never had to deal with before. That coupled with, “I have to find a job. I didn’t have a college degree. I went in when I was eighteen.” These guys and girls are not able to get out and get real income. They’re not able to get a real job. Even though these are supervisors and managers when they’re in the military, often in charge of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and in charge of personnel and they can’t get a job at Walmart. All of these compounds and weighs on these veterans and I’m sure at one point they’re tired of the pain. They’re tired of the suck. It seems there’s no one or no company or organization out there that truly cares enough to get them out of that situation.

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I learned when I worked in San Antonio for a TV station. I did a lot of stories with veterans. There was a huge homeless veteran population, which to me was appalling. How can these people who fought for our freedom and saw combat and put their lives on the line now be subject to living out of their cars? This is disgusting. What programs are there for them to adjust back into civilian life? It’s like you’re dropped onto the street and, “Thank you much.”

The most realistic program is Corporate America that values time served and sacrifice in the military over a college degree. Some of these people are a lot smarter than people who are coming out of college with a college degree. They’ve done real world stuff. They’ve had to handle situations and be extremely flexible with little to work with in an austere environment. These guys and girls make it happen every single day in the military. When they get out, they can’t even get a foot in the door because they don’t have a four-year degree that’s already irrelevant because things change. Starting out, that’s an almost impossible nut to crack. If Corporate America and these companies that are out there truly care, they will do what they can to hire much more veterans than they are at this point. There are always these initiatives. You see it all the time on TV. If you look at the numbers, I’m not sure exactly what percentage but one-third of homeless people are veterans. They got all this experience. They’ve got all these attributes and they’re homeless. What is going on? Nobody can get a job because Corporate America isn’t taking these people and seeing the value in them, cultivating them, and bringing them up through the ranks of their own business. People feel they’re left out, and then you have 22 suicides a day by veterans because it feels hopeless.

What compounds that too, I’m looking at the statistics that 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities on top of that. The feelings of not being able to get a job to support themselves or their families, in addition to having a disability compound everything that veterans are dealing with.

There are a lot of factors and I got lucky when I separated from the military in 2011. I went straight into a State Department contract where I was essentially protecting diplomats as a PSD, Personal Security Detail for a State Department running out of Iraq. I was doing my job and I was a sniper in that job for the most part. I had a good transition from the military into that because it was a paramilitary organization. I was getting paid a lot more than I was in the military. It was a great transition for me but not everybody has that opportunity to do those jobs. Furthermore, doing those jobs extends your risk. A lot of people when they come back from that, they’re still in the same boat they were when they got out. They haven’t paddled out of the harbor yet. They still have to deal with identity loss and the feeling of, “I will never be as badass as I used to be,” which weighs on the minds and egos of a lot of these people that are coming out. They know what they were and then they lose that. It’s a sad thing.

In addition to Corporate America saying we have to have a four-year degree or some education. Do you think there’s some unspoken fear of veterans possibly dealing with PTSD that the corporate world thinks about?

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind
Inside The Mind: The entire culture needs to change so that we’re not self-medicating and we have real-time treatment.

 

Absolutely, I don’t know to what degree that is affecting the employment of veterans. Certainly, especially if you look at the statistics with the police. A lot of these incidents where the cops in a wrong with police brutality, whatever you want to call it, misstepping their authority. A lot of them are veterans. Some people will say, “That’s the natural job that gets filled by veterans.” I’m here to say, “No, it’s not a veteran-heavy thing for the most part for law enforcement organizations.” I got hired by Gardena Police Department in 2002 and while I was going through the academy, there were only three veterans in the entire class. This is LA Sheriff’s Academy so it’s not a small academy. There were three military veterans and they needed three people to put the flag up and take it down every day. We were the guys. They’re not filling their departments with strictly veterans. If you look at the percentage of incidents and you look at what percentage are veterans. There are some unworked issues that a lot of people are not working out before they can get on the streets and interact with the public.

I feel that you feel there is not a good safety net, despite the fact that we have the VA for our veterans to make the emotional transition to civilian life.

It’s a safety net full of holes. Not the holes that are small, they’re big holes. People are slipping through the cracks and it’s inefficient. Instead of spending money on new projects, we should take the projects that we do have. The VA should have a solid handle on every veteran. If we want to go to wars as a country and subject all of these people to these horrendous situations. They come back, and they’re affected by it and now they need treatment. If you’re going to up that ante, you need to up the ante on the recovery and the help that these veterans need when they come back home. They should take a look at the VA, how it’s run, and see about how to get it more efficient and not make it a hassle. From personal experience, a lot of people don’t go to the VA because it’s a hassle. It’s disruptive in their lives to go sit down with somebody and then more paperwork to get a percentage of disability or whatever they’re trying to capture. It’s highly inefficient. People don’t want to deal with it. When it’s able to be dealt with then people will use it.

When you’re already in a state where you’re anxious and you’re depressed, and you’ve got PTSD going on. You have to jump through all those hoops and then it takes forever. These are roadblocks to someone who’s not well.

Somebody who is recluse at this point in their life and they don’t want to go out. A lot of these people are anxiety-ridden. They’re suffering through depression. They don’t even want to leave the home, let alone go through the rigmarole of the VA system. They choose not to get treatment.

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They choose to try to self-medicate. Would you say a lot of people you know self-medicate with prescription drugs like Oxy, Vicodin, and alcohol, all of the above?

The VA or even while they’re in the military, they’ll hand out Oxycodone or OxyContin like candy for whatever injury. When they get out and they’re no longer subject to a urinalysis, they continue that because they remember what it felt like. It numbs them. They think it’s helping them to get through something, but it perpetuates the problem because then there’s addiction on top of your issues. Self-medication, I’ve seen that. The military itself is a freaking frat house, especially in the combat arms barracks. Everybody’s drinking to deal with the stress. Everybody’s playing injured, to get rid of injuries you use all that stuff. When you leave them, it’s effective. Drinking alcohol removes you from your current mindset and current reality. For a lot of people, that’s a reprieve. We know about the dangers of alcohol but that’s the only way to a lot of them, especially when they’re on active duty. That is the only way. They’ll smoke a joint and get a little bit of relief that way. That is their medication. While they’re in the military, especially in combat arms, what you have is the suck it up mentality. You don’t go to sick call. You don’t go to the medics or whatever because you don’t want to be that guy. Everybody sucks it up. What that does is it causes problems while you’re in and it makes it worse when you’re out. The entire culture needs to change so we’re not self-medicating and we have real-time treatment.

I don’t know if you remember the show The Sopranos. Tony Soprano didn’t want anyone to know he was going to a therapist because he was having anxiety attacks and problems. Everybody would see that as a weakness. I would imagine it’s the same culture. You’re in a culture full of men and everybody’s got to be stronger and more mentally stronger than everybody else. Saying, “I’m going to go see the military therapist,” probably would go over like a lead balloon.

Especially if it’s adult behavioral health because anything that’s mental health is a huge stigma. You don’t choose to have PTSD, it just is. It’s a natural reaction to being in a scenario or scenarios for a period of time or even once. People forget that. It drives me crazy because we can do better. It should start during active duty, especially if you’re rotating in and out of combat zones. You should have every six months a mental health evaluation. Go in, you sit with the mental health professional, and they talk you through. Your chain of command should not have to know the results of that unless there was something like you were going to kill yourself or something like that. Sitting down with somebody every six months as a check up to make sure you’re doing okay. It wouldn’t kill. It wouldn’t take too much time out of these units’ lives to rotate their soldiers through every six months to get a handle on that. You can then start treating the problem in real time, instead of these guys and girls getting out of the military and having to deal with this as civilians. Feeling like they’re on an island all alone and self-medicating. They’re not given the tools. They’re not given the talk. They’re not given the advice. Nobody is taught how to deal with the aftermath. We’re taught to deal with how to create the aftermath. We’re taught to destroy and that’s it. We’re expected to be hard and a lot of people take that to heart and they don’t get checked up when they should.

Knowing all of this, your experience, you’ve seen your colleagues go through addictions with alcohol and medication and whatever else they need to try to patch themselves up emotionally. What have you done to heal?

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind
Inside The Mind: As the military and combat are complex and multifaceted, so is recovery from that.

 

I started out on that path of self-medication. I was drinking a lot. I thought that it was therapeutic. It certainly was not, especially when I’m getting two-day hangovers. My wife is mad at me, wondering when I’m going to finally die of liver cirrhosis or whatever. I went down that path for a long time when I got back from work in Triple Canopy over with the State Department in Baghdad. I blew my knee out and I had to go come home and get the surgery done on it. The surgeon was like, “You’ve got to find a new line of work. You can’t run, jump, squat, crawl.” All these restrictions and I was like, “That’s like me telling you can’t be a doctor. I’ve built my life to do these types of jobs and you’re telling me I can’t do it.” After that, I was looking for a job. The uncertainty was killing me, and I was drinking a lot. I suspect almost as much as your average self-medicator that’s a veteran. My wife was patient. She was the one who yanked me out of that hole. She gave me a couple of books to read to change my perspective and I did need a paradigm shift. I was down on myself and loss of identity, loss of a job. I wasn’t feeling as badass as I used to. You’re sitting at home dealing with that. For never having done that, it’s painful.

That’s not a healthy switch from military to civilian to being a dad, husband, and civilian. That in itself is tough, whether you’re mentally strong or not. That’s a big transition. Your wife, Shelly, who’s been part of your healing as well starts you on a path. She gives you some books to start reading. Different types of healing speak to different types of people. Not every plan of healing works for every person. Everybody’s an individual. Everybody has their own way. They can customize their healing, which is why we’re doing this show. There is no right or wrong answer to healing. When I worked in San Antonio, I did a story with a Vietnam veteran. He had tried the traditional paths. He went to a therapist and tried taking a few drugs that were prescribed to him to help him through. He wasn’t connecting with these things. He was frustrated because he saw other people who were in his position, veterans who were benefiting from this type of help, but it wasn’t resonating with him.

I did a story with him because what resonated with him was a spiritual healer. Here’s a guy who was in Vietnam. He’s been struggling off and on with PTSD before anybody knew what PTSD was because he’s an older gentleman. Nothing resonated with him until he went to this woman. She didn’t even speak English. She spoke Spanish only. She was a healer and he got word from a friend of a friend who said, “Go to her. What’s it going to hurt?” At this point, you’re frustrated with the options you’ve been given. They’re not connecting with you. He went to her and from that point on he never not went to her. She was a spiritual healer who did things her way and saged the room and lit candles and did her thing. For him, that’s what worked. For others, people might go, “That’s ridiculous. That’s not going to work for me,” but it didn’t resonate with them. It resonated with him. Everybody has their unique way of healing. Your wife set you down the path by giving you books, and you start reading. How did you customize your healing from that point?

It was a long road and my wife’s a reader like myself. She devours books and she has a wide range of them. She let me read those books. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, she told me at the time, “This book changed my life.” I was annoyed by that term, “It changed my life.” I was like, “Life-changing? Are you being hyperbolic here?” I was dismissive of it. I’ve read The Alchemist. It’s a simple story but it changed my perspective on how I view things and my mindset. I found out that I was stuck in a negative mindset. The focus was on the negative. Everything that manifested henceforth was going to be negative because that’s what my focus was. I learned to start looking at things positively. It sounds cheesy but the power of attraction. If you put energy out there, even if it’s thought energy, whatever you want to manifest. You’re putting that positive energy out there and you’re going to get a yield on that return. You can’t be like, “I’m putting that positive energy out to win the lottery.” It doesn’t work like that.

You start seeing the good things, the right things. The things that are going right or are nice. Instead of focusing on the dog piss that’s on this beautiful deck, you’re seeing the beautiful deck. Observing the dog piss as something and it’s not a negative or positive thing, it’s just there. I came across it and I started studying a lot of the Buddhist precepts and their mindset and meditation. By no means am I a Buddhist at all, but there’s a lot to learn on how to be a good human being and have a healthy mindset through Buddhism. Meditation I did a lot. As a sniper I didn’t realize it at the time, but you get into a bubble when you’re shooting long range. You’re concentrating on everything so much. You have to keep track of wind, temperature, elevation, humidity, all of that. You’re in this thought bubble. It’s a meditative state. I didn’t realize it at the time. I took that in. I was like, “I remember when I was long range shooting, I was almost craving it.” Long range shooting requires a lot of concentration and factoring all the stuff in. I remember feeling calm, feeling at peace and in the present while shooting long range. I was like, “This is meditation. I’ve never meditated before seriously, so I didn’t know what it felt like.” When I start reading about meditation, there are a lot of similarities.

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Everybody has their own way of healing. If we’re going to talk about taking off the stigma of treating your mental health, we have to take off the stigma of some of the pathways to get there. When you talk about psychedelics, are you talking about mushrooms?

That’s the only psychedelic I’ve ever taken. I can’t speak highly enough of them. There are a lot of epiphanies that I always have. It’s this continues train of epiphanies on deep life events and you’re not in the mindset of writing this stuff down, “Where’s my journal? I’m tripping.” Once you’re done with it, you’re like, “What was I thinking about? I had this great breakthrough and I’m done now.” The biggest takeaway that I got from taking the mushrooms is the feeling that it felt normal. This felt right like, “I should be consuming these for my human holistic health.” Not just your mind but the whole thing felt right. My perception of things, it’s beyond explanation in a lot of ways. It was a healing thing because there was calm after that and a better outlook that took a long time to fade away. It hasn’t totally faded away because I’ve learned. I’ve gained some wisdom from that trip.

I would like to see the VA, any of these veteran organizations freely be able to use psychedelics in the course of their mental health work. MDMA, which is ecstasy, organizations are experimenting using that for people with PTSD and are yielding good results. Remove it from schedule one and use it medicinally, at least in a trial period, until we can get real results from it and move forward. We’re demonizing these medicines. You were talking about going down to Mexico or South America, Central America and these curanderos are out there and they’re doing real work. Some people will receive it better than others. I would love to go to Peru and do a ten-day ayahuasca trip and work through my demons. It’s a challenge because people say, “You’re going to your own personal hell. You got to best it and come back,” and I’m like, “Let’s do this. Once and for all let’s cleanse my soul.” There’s a lot of benefit for it all.

The good news about you is that you’re open to these things that have such stigma. We’re watching what’s happening with marijuana and how it’s being legalized for medicinal use as well in a lot of states. Maybe psilocybin is the next thing that’s going to be on the States’ plate to decide whether or not it’s going to be a medicinal thing or recreational thing or both. There is an article in Rolling Stone that talked about the fact that the FDA granted researchers breakthrough therapy designation. They can study how mushrooms have an effect on people with PTSD and other emotional issues that maybe they need to try because nothing else has worked. It could be scary territory for people because everybody’s got that mindset that, “They’re mushrooms. This is totally highly illegal. How is this any better than getting a prescription from a doctor?”

It all depends on how it’s used and if you’re learning about it correctly. There are a lot of books that are coming out that if our audience wanted to start researching. How doctors and researchers are starting to figure out how these medications like marijuana and mushrooms are helping people with depression, PTSD, some of these more resistant mental health issues that people aren’t resonating with in the regular Western medicine that we have available now. Which not to say that it’s not good because Western medicine has helped many overcome their mental challenges and get their lives back, but it doesn’t resonate with everyone. These options are out there if you open your mind. There’s a book, for example, if our audience wants to take a look and start their road to research. How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan talks about how some of these things, like mushrooms, can help you on your journey to healing. Yours wasn’t just that, it was a combination of enlightening yourself through reading.

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind
Inside The Mind: If you have social anxiety, get out there and meet people. You’re going to run across some good people with kind hearts that will be there for you.

 

Years and years of doing so and then finding these avenues. A lot of times if I’m feeling a certain way and it’s a chronic feeling that isn’t good, I’ll look it up on Google. You can get into the dangerous rabbit hole of going onto WebMD and, “Click this link for your diagnosis,” or you look at the address bar and its www.ItsProbablyCancer.com. I would Google it and go through and see what people are saying. Maybe there are some message boards and self-diagnose and self-heal. In doing so you’re going to encounter the institutional medicine side of things, the Western medicine side of things. If you click through the pages on Google for whatever you’re searching through, you just got to read. People have got to take the time to read. It’s this website describing, “Fix or cure” or whatever, for what I’m feeling, the affliction that I’ve been feeling for a while. Am I comfortable doing this? Is it therapy where you’re talking one-on-one or is it sticking quarter-inch needles in your toe to fix you? You do have to explore all these options that are out there and it’s a work in progress. There’s no one quick fix heal.

As the military and combat are complex and multifaceted, so is recovery from that. You’ve got to be open to a lot of options and do your own research basically and see what works for you. Don’t give up because you can get past it. You can get past these bad feelings. They’re a temporary situation. You got to commit and know that it’s a marathon. Give it years to heal but find these mechanisms that do help you heal. It doesn’t matter what it is. You can sage a room or have a shaman, curandero, or whatever come and beat the drum and get it out for 45 minutes every two weeks. It doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever helps you and your mindset is what’s going to heal you. There’s no one quick fix.

People have to remember it took years to get you to that position. It is going to take you years to retrain your brain. It happens little by little and along with that path to healing, you will find what resonates with you. People probably get frustrated because the traditional routes for them aren’t working. They get upset, frustrated, scared and, “Nothing’s going to work for me.” They’re not given options that are off the beaten path, which you did. You educated yourself and took some advice with a grain of salt. There’s so much information on the internet, a lot of it is not true. People giving their own accounts. You have to remember that when you start researching. You’ve got to find some credible sources and stick with those because there’s so much noise out there on the internet. At least this is a great example, Thai, of you going off the beaten path to healing. Look where you are now because if back in the day you talked about healing with your bros out there on a mission about meditation, mushrooms, and reading and all that, people will laugh. They’d be like, “Whatever,” but it works for you.

Two out of three of those I implemented while on active duty. I understood meditation for a while. My dad introduced it to me when I was young, but I never did it effectively. It was like, “This is too hard. I’m not doing it anymore,” when I was younger. I talked to my snipers about meditation. I said, “You know that feeling you get when you’re in the bubble on the range, that’s a form of meditation. If you can go practice meditation, you’ll be able to slip into that zone easier and quicker and make those. You’ll be a more efficient shooter.” We started implementing a little bit. I wasn’t there. This was late in my time with that unit. I didn’t have time to implement it fully into our training schedule or foster it to a certain degree.

They were meditating and also, I had them read a bunch of Paolo Coelho books. He wrote The Alchemist book. I read almost all of his books. My wife would send them to me when I was in Afghanistan. My entire sniper section plus a couple of NCOs that were in the recon platoon with us, they read The Alchemist. They were receptive to it and it was amazing. It helped them in their mindset while they were deployed for this year in Afghanistan. I did what I could. It was an insurgency essentially at that point because you don’t want to soften the soldier. It doesn’t soften the soldier, it hardens them. It prepares a soldier. It’s low intellect. It’s a low blow to dog that stuff or any treatment for mental health because like, “Why would you not want to put on some armor? This is mental health armor.”

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That’s a good way to look at it and help at least take the stigma away. It’s not just military people who face the stigma, it’s everyday people. There’s still that stigma with mental health issues. This is beneficial for people who aren’t in the military. You don’t have to be in the military to take these routes and explore these things.

Trauma is trauma. Anybody can find these modalities for healing. They have to be open enough to them and try. I know for people with depression and a lot of social anxiety, which I suffer from social anxiety. They’re not willing to put themselves out there, especially if you’re a veteran or even in society we should be hard. Everybody’s comparing themselves to everybody else like on social media and going like, “This person had it hard. I should probably shut my mouth and suck it up.” You need help too. Why are you closing yourself off?

Everybody’s experience is different, and it affects them in different ways. It’s because somebody had something worse or that you would consider worse happen to them, and that you should be fine. It’s not. It’s how you individually react to it. What’s your inspiration day to day? What’s your why?

My wife, my kids, that’s my world right there. I work and live remote of them. I live in North Carolina with Mr. McAfee.

You are lead security for John McAfee, who if that name sounds familiar with people who may not know, look up McAfee Antivirus and you’ll figure it out.

I’m Executive Director of Team McAfee but part of my responsibilities is security. I lead that as well. Everything’s been great since I’ve been here. I can’t complain.

We were shooting for my show Adventures in Crypto. We were at John McAfee’s house. That’s where we got to do the most interaction with Thai. We met Thai on the Blockchain Cruise that we did for my show. When we met Mr. McAfee as well on the cruise and Mr. McAfee agreed to have us come out to his home and shoot for our show. Thai was there, and we got to talking. That’s the connection there for people who are wondering. What are your thoughts on our current President or is that off limits?

He steps into that zone where you keep your views to yourself because the surrounding environment around you has differing. If I were to lay out exactly how I feel on economics and the social makeup of America, people would probably be like, “I’m a libtard. I’m a liberal.” They would use that pejorative and I’m like, “You’re conservative. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove here.” As far as Trump is, I don’t think that he’s the best representative internationally for our country. People love him for speaking his mind. He’s saying what everybody’s feeling and I’m like, “You’re collectively sowing the same thing. Put yourself in this category and label it whatever it is. You can come up with ten labels right off the top of the head.” We have a lot of repairing to do as a country, in our brand, in our reputation with the whole global war on terror still going on for whatever reason.

We have to repair it. It takes somebody with polish, somebody who can slide into different continents easily, visit heads of countries, speak eloquently, and show them what America is. That’s what we need more than anything else. There’s always going to be domestic problems like unemployment, homelessness, healthcare, and whatever. America needs brand repair. I’m sorry but we’re living in this bubble called America. Go get the opinion of people in other civilized nations and then come back and tell me, “We don’t need to repair our brand.” We need somebody with polish and Trump is not the person at this time to do that. He’d be pretty good at running businesses and doing reality TV shows. Maybe he has a future in that. Being the President of the United States in a time where we need to fix our brand, no. I’m not a fan of him.

Everybody has their own opinion, which is why it’s great to live in America because we’re allowed to have our opinions without having to fear for our lives. The reason why we have that is that people like you Thai and people in our families who’ve also sacrificed in the military too. My dad, my stepbrother, my grandfather, and people in your family too. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Thank you to people like yourself, members of the media looking for ways to reach other people. The protesters, thank you for taking an interest in your country and your well-being because nobody is going to stand up for you except for yourself. That goes with these feelings that you feel when you leave the military. Nobody is going to take care of you. You can’t rely on the VA. They’re not going to call you at 5:00 every night and check in on you. You have to be proactive. Everybody is in charge of their own well-being and information gathering or whatever. It’s not just the veterans. We’re largely not forced, and I don’t want to use the word conscript, but the military is the only option for a lot of people in America. They package it well and it’s attractive that they capture you at a young age before you realize the breadth of it. Why we’re doing what we’re doing. You’re young coming out of high school. A lot of guys get conditioned into that and they fall into war. I joined in 1997. There was no war going on, and then 9/11 happened and I deployed. The people that are online on social media, on the streets, on the news, on podcasts in America are the ones who are making a real difference in shaping where America needs to be. Everybody out there who are doing that and involved in actively changing our country and make it better.

We’re starting by talking to you, somebody who has the real-world experience. Would you encourage young people to join the military?

I would, with the caveat don’t join combat arms. Don’t because you’re fodder, you’re overused. Your life expectancy is a lot lower. Join the military. Do as well as you can in high school. Get a good concept. Get a good fundamental understanding of every subject so that when you go take the ASVAB test you score high. If you score high on certain areas of the ASVAB, it’s almost like an IQ score. It opens up job opportunities and I would say you get into something that’s computer-related, technology. That’s moving forward. People are like, “Robots are going to take our jobs.” Automation, it just is. There’s a burger chain that is fully robotized, making the perfect sandwich or the perfect burger. They have this whole assembly line thing going on. That’s consistency. The jobs creating those types of technologies, the jobs doing the maintenance, that’s where the future is. Do something technical. Get a job that’s technical is my best advice, something in computers or whatever technology. It helps.

Prepare them basically before they go into the military too for life after the military.

Nobody that’s in high school can see beyond that year. They don’t understand like, “I’m a senior. I can finally leave this place,” but you’re leaving for something that’s bigger and more unexplored that you have to navigate. You’ve got to set yourself up for success moving forward. Do as well as you can in high school is all I can say. Take the ASVAB. Study for the ASVAB, get an ASVAB study guide. ASVAB is the test you take to see where you’re at intellectually and where you’d be slotted for a good job.

Thai, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing your stories with us because I know they’re deeply personal. I know when people talk about their past and the things they’ve done, it can pull up some emotions and things like that too. Also, talking about it can help this deal with them as well.

It’s true. It is cathartic talking about this stuff. Realizing there are more people out there who feel the same way that I do. You got to connect with those people and you’ve got to develop a network of support. It’s proactiveness. If you have social anxiety, do it. Get out there and meet people, because you’re going to run across some good people with kind hearts that will be there for you. There’s no need to erase yourself from this life.

Those are awesome inspiring words and you give a lot of hope. Thank you so much. When we have guests who make impacts, all of you make an impact. We’re going to add your picture to the Tree of Life on our website. People can read a little bit about you and choose to listen to your story. Maybe your story will resonate with somebody who hasn’t found something yet that will help them.

I would be happy to come on and we’ll talk about individual experiences. You can make it a combat thing, whatever. I’m more than willing to talk about getting deep into some of the situations and experiences I had so the audience can understand it based on first world experience versus something from media or watching 13 Hours or something crazy like that.

Be careful because we will be tapping into you a couple of times throughout the years.

I told Shelly too. I was like, “They want to do a follow on the podcast.” You can get her perspective. That is important because when I say she was instrumental, she was truly instrumental in why I am living now in 2018.

She’s a plethora of healing ideas. I cannot wait to speak with her. I cannot wait to have her on the podcast. Thai, thank you so much for your time, your energy, your stories, letting us in. I look forward to speaking with you again and Shelly your wife soon.

You guys let me know. I’ll be on any time you need me.

Thank you, Thai.

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About Thai Starkovich

AIH 6 | Inside The Mind

Thai Starkovich is an Army veteran who has served multiple tours in Iraq. He has experience as a marksman, counter-IED analyst, and leader. He is currently the Executive Director for Team McAfee.

 

 

 

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