We are kicking off mental health month by sharing Jenny Pacanowski’s military experience. She talks openly about her struggle with drugs and alcohol after deploying to Iraq in 2004. When she came home she knew something was wrong, but no one knew what to do with a female combat veteran. Women were not technically allowed into combat roles in 2016 and this was early in the war. Even when I deployed in 2010 and came home and spoke with a therapist about my struggles. I was told I would be fine. It just takes a few months to adjust back to normal life. Hearing Jenny’s story of knowing something was wrong and not being able to find help reminded me of my experience. And makes me sad that even six years later the military was not doing more to help those who were coming home from deployment.
This episode is sponsored by Ashleigh Magee Coaching. you'd like to learn more, send Ashleigh an email to admin@AshleighMaGee.com
Jenny Pacanowski is a poet/combat veteran/facilitator/public speaker/playwright and curator. While in the Army she deployed to Iraq in 2004, Jenny was a combat medic and provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force, and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company.
Jenny is the Founder and Director of Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving; a reintegration program that utilizes writing and performance to empower veterans to thrive in their daily life.
Jenny collaborates with multiple organizations including colleges, universities, middle schools and theaters across the country.
Mental Health in the Military
Jenny Pacanowski started her military career in 2003 as a way to pay off her student loans. Less than a year after going on active duty she found herself on her first combat deployment in Iraq as a combat medic. While in Iraq she provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force, and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. Jenny shares a lasting memory where her convoy was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device and while waiting on a bridge on a night operation where they were almost hit the Marine convoy under the bridge with friendly fire. While home on Rest and Relaxation during her deployment, Jenny did her “goodbye tour.” She didn’t expect to come home from the second half of her deployment and made a point to see all the friends and family that she could while home. Saying goodbye to them, but not telling them of the danger she would be facing while going back to Iraq. While she was home from she also found out that the military would not pay off her student loans.
This made her angry. And she contemplated not returning but felt compelled to return because she could not bear the thought of her comrades dying and her not being there to help. When the deployment was over she started to work to find out how to get the military to pay off the loans they had promised when she enlisted. She was able to transition to the Reserves and go back home where she got a lawyer and took up the fight for the military to pay back her loans. It eventually took a Congressional hearing for her loans to be paid off for time served.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder grabs hold of Jenny
When she got back home she struggled with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and began a very destructive lifestyle. It took years with the help of her parents, a private psychologist, the Veteran Affairs, and a writing workshop to help with her PTSD. And even after she began her road to recovery it took years before she finally woke up to the state her life had become. She talked about experiencing a life-changing moment while looking around at her situation and seeing her beat up arms. At that moment she said this has to change and it was at that point things started to change and she got a handle on her drug use and alcoholism.
She is now a successful poet, public speaker, playwright, and curator. The work she is doing to help veterans and to build a bridge between the military and civilian divide is so important. It is changing people’s lives and changing their stories.
She tells young women considering joining the military to not get caught up in the recruiter glorification of the military. At the end of the day when you sign up to join the military, you are the military’s property. It requires a lot of sacrifices to be in the military. And if you have a family you are asking them to make sacrifices as well. It is important that you take a hard look at what the military has to offer and decide if it is the best choice for you.
Connect with Jenny:
Being a Medic in the Air Force - Episode 24
Overcoming Adversity in the Army - Episode 45
Overcoming PTSD and What’s Next - Episode 11
Additional Mental Health Resources:
Dear Air Force Leadership You Are Missing the Point
Changing the Conversation about Mental Health
Veterans Affairs Mental Health
Amanda Huffman 0:00
Welcome to Episode 73 of the women of the military podcast this week, my guest is Jenny Pancanowski. She served in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2004. She talks about the hard parts of military life. She was a combat medic when women were not supposed to be in combat, and sometimes led to her not even being recognized with the awards that she should have received for being in combat. The whole experience of her deployment and her time in the military was really difficult. And she talks about the realities of felt what sometimes happens when you join the military and the promises that were made or not honored and how hard it is to deal with that, especially in a war zone. One of the hardest parts to hear of her story was when she talked about coming home for her mid-tour from deployment and saying goodbye to people they didn't know she was saying goodbye, but she was saying goodbye to them because she truly thought she wasn't going to survive the rest of her deployment to Iraq. Jenny has left the military and today is the founder and director of the Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving. It's a reintegration program that utilizes writing and performing to empower veterans to thrive in their daily life. She collaborates with multiple organizations including colleges, university, middle schools, and theaters across the country. It's inspiring to see the work that she's doing and to hear the realities of her story. So it's another great episode. So let's get started.
You are listening to the women of the military podcast where we share the stories of female servicemembers and how the military touch their lives. I'm your host, military veteran military spouse and mom, Amanda Huffman. My goal is to find the heart of the story and uncover issues women face while serving in the military. If you want to be encouraged by the stories of military women, and be inspired to change the world. Keep tuned for this latest episode of women of the military.
Welcome to the show. I'm excited to hear part of your military experience today.
Jennifer Pacanowski 2:09
Hi, how are you?
Amanda Huffman 2:11
I'm great. Let's talk about why did you decide to join the military?
Jennifer Pacanowski 2:18
So I joined the military in 2003. I had about $40,000 in student loans because I had gone to college. First, I was 23. When I joined, I had a series of events that happened. Before I joined, I totaled my car, and I had a fire in the house I was renting. Those combination of events kind of led up to what I like to call the economic draft, that I couldn't quite make it work in the civilian world. So I joined the military. I gave up my GI bill to have the student loan repayment, and my dream was to be in the military for life.
Amanda Huffman 2:58
So you were able to instead of having the GI Bill after you got out it covered your student loans that you had currently?
Jennifer Pacanowski 3:07
That was the the promise, yes, that promise was not actually followed through. But yes, that was the initial promise.
Amanda Huffman 3:15
Okay. So that's what they told you when you're joined.
Jennifer Pacanowski 3:18
Amanda Huffman 3:20
That's a better way to put it. That's what they told you when you signed the dotted line.
Jennifer Pacanowski 3:25
It was in the contract and everything. I mean, I thought I'd cover my bases.
Amanda Huffman 3:28
Right. So you were the army. What was your job when you were in?
Jennifer Pacanowski 3:33
When I joined I was healthcare specialists slash combat medic. So we had been trained in both at Fort Sam Houston.
Amanda Huffman 3:42
And then you weren't in for very long before you deploy to Iraq. So did you go to boot camp, your training and then how much time before you left to deploy?
Jennifer Pacanowski 3:53
I got to Germany. My first duty station. I was there for about a month and a half and then I went right to Iraq. In 2004, so I joined April 23, 2003. And then by January 2004, I was in Iraq.
Amanda Huffman 4:08
Wow. That's so fast.
Jennifer Pacanowski 4:12
Yes. Yes, it is. I agree. Though trial by fire. Our ambulances were so green, we didn't have any armor. And we pretty much went right into medical support for convoys.
Amanda Huffman 4:25
Okay, so let's talk a little bit about convoys and Iraq in 2004. You already mentioned a little bit about the vehicles. So talk a little bit about what it was like to be on a convoy pretty much in a Humvee right?
Jennifer Pacanowski 4:40
So we had FMLA. ambulances were which essentially were a Humvee with a big box on the back that held for litter spots, so stuffers for stretchers, the convoys, we supported everyone from the Air Force to the Marines to the army getting attached to different units. I was all over the Sunni triangle The longest time I was at Al Assad, which is a Marine Corps Base. So we did a lot of convoys with the Marines. The convoys, entailed improvised explosive devices, small arms, fires RPGs all of the weapons of war that those two
Amanda Huffman 5:18
And I think it's really interesting. So you were Did you deploy with a unit or were you like a piecemeal? Like they took your job title and they were like, We need you in Iraq. So go or how did that work?
Jennifer Pacanowski 5:29
We actually were a medical evacuation unit 557th Medical Company Medical Evacuation Unit. So it was it was kind of I have a little bit of a different experience. And I hear from most women veterans, I was deployed with 100 medics, so it was divided pretty evenly 50/50 men and women, but then on the convoys, obviously are mostly men.
Amanda Huffman 5:51
And so your guys's support was to be combat medics it's pretty self explanatory.
Jennifer Pacanowski 6:00
Usually, when you're like I was a combat medic on the frontlines in Iraq, yes.
Amanda Huffman 6:06
You guys bounced around on kind of whatever the needs were for the units that were going out and running convoys, you guy's headquarters put everybody where they needed to be, is that kind of how it worked.
Jennifer Pacanowski 6:18
So it was we were deployed and you know, 100 medics for platoons and the platoons originally got tasked out to different forward operating bases, different bases like that. But then eventually towards the end of 2004, we all ended up in a into crate, I believe, and we were running mostly night convoys with the army. So that was probably the most challenging part of my deployment. I guess I'll just do a shout out to the Marines. The Marines really scared the insurgents, so they didn't really mess with our convoys when I was running convoys with the Marines, but when I did accomplish with the army is when a lot of the exposure stuff happened to the idea is with the the attacks,
Amanda Huffman 6:56
So you attribute it to the fact that they were scared The Marine Corps, cuz when I was in Afghanistan, we were with the French and they would attack the French but they didn't want to attack us because it was the French word an easier target, I think.
Jennifer Pacanowski 7:10
Yeah, I think I think the myth and also, I guess since I gave a shout out, I can't give a shout back have, you know, the insurgents knew that the Marines would really go after them and necessarily follow the rules of war? Yeah, they were definitely scared of them.
Amanda Huffman 7:29
So that makes sense. And that shows like, the Iraqis and all enemies of war, they know who they're fighting against and they know, like they study us just as much as we try and like learn and study about them.
Jennifer Pacanowski 7:42
Yeah, to piggyback off of that, they figured out what the ambulances were. So they started specifically targeting the ambulances towards the end of 2004. So hits like close our crosses, and try to blend in as best we could. And we finally got up armored about six months in, they were definitely like studying us, and who to kill to kill morale, because if you kill the medics, you know, people lose hope.
Amanda Huffman 8:09
So you kind of had a target on your back while you guys were running convoys. That's a little scary.
Jennifer Pacanowski 8:14
Just a little. Actually, honestly, in the moment it didn't even occur to me. I was getting all this information about like, why we were closing things and I know what to watch out for. But I was still doing the same job. And that's what I was focused on. So looking until after I got home that I started to have to process all of the information that I received on the convoys.
Amanda Huffman 8:39
Yeah, cuz when you're deployed, you're just like, go and you're and you're like kind of in survival mode to just get through the deployment. So your body in your mind only takes in like key pieces that you need. Yeah. It's like, okay, we're doing this, okay, I'll do it. You don't really ask questions or even really think about it because you're just trying to get through and survive. So that makes a lot essence. Were there any like particular convoys that stood out? Or like really close calls that you remember that have stuck with you? Or does it all blur into like, everything?
Jennifer Pacanowski 9:11
That's a good question. For the most part they all blur together. It's just like sometimes I say Iraq was like one long convoy the whole year. It's all the same stuff over and over and over again, one of the one of the close calls that really really affected me was kind of like anti climatic and the story but in my body and my mind, it just kind of resonates with me. We were doing a conduit and I and my TC was actually our captain of our company, and we got hit with an ID and some small arms fire and we were you know, the convoy commander was like, go go, go go, you know, just keep going try to try to push through all the the ambush and whatnot. So we ended up on the top of the Summer Bridge and the thing that happened is smart bridge every like every other week, I swear was the assertion of blow it up. So here we are at night. With all of our lights on, on the bridge, and I was like Well God to the bridge couldn't we've gone just a little bit further like over the bridge and I was really angry at the time because I had gotten a letter from the military saying they weren't going to pay my loans back while I was still in Iraq. So I was questioning a lot of the reasons of why I was there and when I was doing and if they weren't upholding their contract was a holding mine so I'd have like a lot of stuff going on inside of me. So I'm sitting on this bridge thinking we're gonna die and then you know we all line up and we got our m sixteens pointed out into the darkness like I don't know what we're going to shoot out outside the bridge but whatever. And they were fixing the truck and no one had gotten hurt. I was with everyone else, you know, because even though you're a medic, you still have a I had an M 16. Because I was on convoys. I didn't have 9M like, like officers and stuff did that were regarding the bridge and you know, people started hearing somebody under the bridge and how they all the whispering have You know, and I was like, Oh man, this is gonna be bad. But it is somebody who's gonna start shooting and it's gonna get really bad really quick, then all of a sudden, over the over the radio we hear, you know, don't shoot, don't shoot, it's 3rd ID. So it was our guys underneath the bridge. So I came to a really close call of getting that, that that friendly fire experience. And it just really added to the anger that I had like with the lack of communication and how just things happen really easily. And that I was really lucky that that we didn't kill her guys, and I didn't have to try to save them after we shot them. But that one always sticks with me for some reason. It was kind of that moment of like, what am I doing here? What's happening right now, that kind of like out of survival mode and into like a little bit more of thinking about what's going on?
Amanda Huffman 11:56
Yeah, it's crazy. And the fact that you were dealing With the personnel issue on top of that, and I think we should talk a little bit more about that, about the army, not honoring their agreement and what happened and how that affected the rest of the deployment. So how long had you been in Iraq when you were on that bridge in that news?
Jennifer Pacanowski 12:20
I got that news at the seventh month points. And that was about the ninth month and return that the 11 and a half month, these kind of things just stick with me usually. I can't tell you what I did yesterday, but I can tell you exactly when I got that letter and where I was when I was feeling certain things during that. That realization of what was happening to me.
Amanda Huffman 12:44
Yeah, that makes sense that I think it's really bad that the military obviously didn't honor their agreement, but to be in a war zone, especially dealing with like the things that happen at war and just the overall experience makes it that much harder. And you're kind of stuck because you couldn't go home even if you wanted to, like, you're like, I don't want to hold up my end of the agreement. It's like the military doesn't care that you're there.
Jennifer Pacanowski 13:09
Well, I got the I got the letter when I was home on R&R.
Amanda Huffman 13:14
Jennifer Pacanowski 13:15
in the middle of my deployment because they let the lower enlisted go on are. So I definitely had that moment. Not the proudest moment, but of like, I don't think I should go back. Because I'm going to die. You know, it was when I when I came home on leave, I was like, it's not if I'm gonna die, it's when I'm going to die over there. Because it was just we were just doing so many convoys and it was just, it was 2004. Bad. So I had that talk with myself and I talked to my parents, you know, I couldn't stomach the idea of not going back and one of my friends dying in my convoy, like putting them in more danger just to stay home and like, fight this legal thing are like I had a higher calling to the people I was deployed with and to the military or the army. I wanted to make sure that they were going to be okay. And we were going to go through it together.
Amanda Huffman 14:12
Yeah. Well, that's that's I think that's the truth of the military is the people that you're serving alongside have such a big impact on why you do what you do and like and how you can keep going when it seems like I should just walk away like and fight the legal thing. But yeah, those are the people that are there beside you and like what how you would have felt for the rest of your life. If you hadn't in the back end. something had happened to someone and that's really hard. You did survive the deployment, though, but But what was it like to be home? On R&R feeling as though there was no way you were going to come back alive? like did you spend more time with your parents or what did you do?
Jennifer Pacanowski 14:59
I did A goodbye tour, if you will. I figured out before I got home, that I was going to find a way to say goodbye to everyone that I loved and cared about. So I like I packed the whole two weeks full of things. I threw a huge barbecue at my parents house. And I was saying goodbye to all these friends and family and then not knowing I was saying goodbye to them. Right. So that also made the reintegration harder because I had already like, accepted deaths. And then to live again is something that took me 10 years to learn after that. Well, yeah, I did everything I saw my friends. I went to New York City for the last time I went, you know, had the barbecue in my family's house. I did the goodbyes, or
Amanda Huffman 15:40
I thought it was interesting. You said that you didn't that people didn't know you were saying goodbye because when I was deployed, I was really trying to protect people back home from like experiencing what I was experiencing and it feels like you were kind of doing the same thing you we're like, I'm going to say goodbye them. I'm not going to tell them that I'm going to die because though each moment traumatic and I don't want them to worry about me. But that sounds like a normal, Phyllis. I feel less crazy now. That was so important that I protected my family and my friends.
Jennifer Pacanowski 16:13
And I yeah, anybody would ask me anything even while I was deployed, write me letters write me emails or whatever, because we didn't have like, any access to the stuff they have now. And just be like, yep, everything's okay. Oh, that's something just fell off the shelf, or they like I got cut off because it goes black when someone dies. And I'd be like, Oh, you know, three days ago, you know, it was just the, you know, the wirings really funky here and the connections back. And my mom knew I was lying because it was mostly my mom. I was selling those things too. But yeah, is that protection and you want to keep them like I was already experiencing so much like they didn't need to. They didn't need that and not be able to do anything about it, even though they were already feeling that way.
Amanda Huffman 16:57
Right. Yeah, that's really Interesting. So when you got home what happened after that? With Were you able to do anything? Or did you pursue like legal action against the military? Or did you just move on what happened next?
Jennifer Pacanowski 17:15
So my duty station was Germany. I got a lawyer assigned to me who was like a civilian. In Germany. It was very odd. The whole thing was weird. So he advised me to apply for the GI Bill and get out and at that point, I was so angry and so raging with my PTSD, I was like, Yes, that's what I'll do. I'll just get out and I'll find it on the outside. So I flew home and got out date in the reserves because I got like really weird right before I left and I was like, I don't know what I'm doing. So maybe I'll just stand the reserves. Even though they gave me a cleaning out like no IRR, no reserves, no thing. My dad was really mad at me when I did that. But I got home and Night, this man called my parents out and was like, Hey, can I speak to Jennifer and I was like, This is her and they're like, maybe they should private back last year, whatever specialists whatever I was at the time, I was a specialist. And he was like, oh, what are you doing? And I was like, I got out, I'm home. I left Germany, and he's like, Oh, you should just eat it, and we would have paid your lawns off. Like, this is gonna be like so much paperwork. I'm like, Oh, sorry. inconvenience you as he was like, oh, if you have stayed in, we will. I'm like, well, where were you three months ago. I've been like trying to figure this stuff out by myself with some some random dude in Germany that had no connection to the States. For some reason. They didn't talk to each other. So then my parents kind of took point on the whole thing, and went to our House of Representative guy, Mario's Cavallo, and then he got other senators involved, and I think it took years by that time. I was suffering with my PTSD so bad. I was not part of the process. They kind of kept me out of it. But it took eventually a congressional hearing to get my loans paid off for time served. So So I got out a little bit early, so they held that against me. I only paid about three quarters of the loans off, but by that time I had filed for my VA disability claim and had been had been awarded I think, was 70% at the time, and so I used my disability money to pay the rest of the loans off.
Amanda Huffman 19:31
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Amanda Huffman 20:03
Let's get back to the show.
It sounds like the year and Iraq stayed with you long after you got home even when you left the military. And then the military held the fact that you got out early because of what they had done against you. And eventually paid off some of your loans, but not all of it, which is really frustrating. And annoying. And a lot of and disappointing, I guess is a better word. So I think we should talk about your PTSD if you're willing to talk about how did you realize that your place where you like couldn't deal with it and that your parents were having to work on thegovernment?
Jennifer Pacanowski 20:44
I didn't know what was going on. It was really early in 2006. So the information wasn't out there yet. And especially coming home as a woman combat veteran was something that most of the VA is had never seen, nor the community especially where I live In Pennsylvania, my mother called everybody and anybody and they were like, We don't know what to do with her who can help you. So I didn't even have the language and I just knew I felt different and I could not function. I was having anxiety attacks, I was flashing back to convoys. When I was driving at home, I was really dangerous on the road, because I would just like, reset back into that convoy mode. And that was I was like running people off road and doing really, really inappropriate things. So one of the women that I had been deployed with, she had joined the veteran organization and was like, Hey, why don't you talk to these people? They're in Philly. You're in the Poconos. So that's like a two hour drive. And I was like, No, I won't go. I'm not talking to anybody. There's nothing wrong with me. You know, the typical veteran response. There's nothing wrong with me. Everything's fine. Even though I'm drinking the sleep and I can't function in the normal world and I'm running people off the road and doing Thanks. So eventually my best friend flew in from Indiana who I also had been deployed with her name was Brooke Melton. And we went down to the VA, I met a service officer, the night before we went to the VA because he wanted to, like prep me for the whole VA situation at the time to Philadelphia, VA and a little bit now even like one of the front doors has, like where all the transporting happens they set all the guys up there and they're older gentlemen so they're like, you know, they're doing the the sexual harassment stuff and you're raging with PTSD. The last thing you need is someone to be like, hey, pretty, are glad to smile. Somebody says I want one more time, man. Like it was a challenge. Just get me past that.
Amanda Huffman 22:47
To just get in the door, yeah.
Jennifer Pacanowski 22:49
It's getting the door to get your services. So that service officer helped me he was a Vietnam veteran, and I ended up filing with him and And then through that organization, they were really helpful to me at the time. So that's how the process got started. And I continue to go to affiliate VA and also saw a private psychologist that my parents paid for that was recommended by the service officer, because he was an expert, and he had been through it with the Vietnam vets, and he was we were the next day for him.
Amanda Huffman 23:22
That's awesome. I you found someone who could help you and that he was able to, like direct you and get the help. And I think one of the things that's really interesting about your story is that people think that because 2016 they finally let women into the infantry that women are like now, you know, running convoys and doing all these things, but the reality is that they've been doing it since the war began. And yeah, and like you said, there's not there weren't very many women, because it was limited, but there I tell people as like that Army didn't change their mind because they had this bright idea. Its women had already proved that they could do it and that they were doing it. And so the Army's, you know, caught up with what was already happening. People have it all backwards. I think the army is like so innovative. It's like, No, we already proved it, and never letting us in. So
Jennifer Pacanowski 24:21
And piggyback off of that I when that whole controversy was going on, and everyone was like, we don't want our women in combat. And I was like, I was there in 2004. And there's been women fighting wars for hundreds of thousands of years and didn't get the credit. So at least if we make it legal, that we can actually serve them they can get the recognition they deserve, because not a single woman in my unit got any kind of Combat Action ribbon or anything like that, because we weren't supposed to be there. We were a secret.
Amanda Huffman 24:56
Even hides like the stories even more because you don't have The medals and the badges that you should have that the guys that you were with got because they were males and your female. Luckily, by the time I deployed, they were giving women Combat Action badges even though I guess we weren't supposed to be there. I don't know. But I was there
Jennifer Pacanowski 25:17
It all depended on the unit.
Amanda Huffman 25:19
Jennifer Pacanowski 25:20
I think I think I had a lot to do with it.
Amanda Huffman 25:22
That's really interesting. Yeah. That's crazy. Because Yeah, the requirement to get a Combat Action Badge in the Army is to get shot up. That's it. You definitely deserve it.
Jennifer Pacanowski 25:35
Do I get a couple then?
Amanda Huffman 25:37
I don't think you have more than one. I think it's like a one. But
Jennifer Pacanowski 25:42
even though I will assign people tell on me all the time I should apply for it or something, I was like, I just, I've moved on. Yeah. Yeah. I don't need that. I don't need that from them.
Amanda Huffman 25:52
No. So you went through so you were finally able to get help and you found someone who could kind of be an advocate For you to get you into the system and get you the help that you needed. And I would say like a year from when that process started, what would you say your life had changed life? Or was it longer to see changes?
Jennifer Pacanowski 26:13
Yeah, it took me a while to figure it out. Even though I had all that help. By 2007 I had my service connection, but I was still drinking heavily. And within that year or so I started to find a veteran community as well as the veteran organization that gave me the service officer was there as well. But we were all kind of doing the same thing, which was drinking and fighting and not really finding healthy ways or outlets for, for what we were going for, whether we had PTSD or not, there's still emotions and a charge of energy there. So finally, I went to a writing workshop like an artist retreat for veterans, which, again, my mother stepped in, it was like, you're going and I was like, I'm not going I can't drive. I didn't have my service dog, yet. She was like, I'll drive you.
Amanda Huffman 27:01
You were like, I really don't want to go.
Jennifer Pacanowski 27:07
I'm not going like, I don't know how to say this to you, any other way. And then the day of the retreat she showed up at my house, she was like, We're going Pack your bags. So I was like, I didn't pack so just leave. She's like, No, I'll back for you. Are you are you well, somebody's gonna pack. You are going on this trip. She was like, I just have this feeling Jenny like, I just think, to go. And she was right. Is this the beginning of my whole story of my homecoming, somebody finally asked me in the writing workshop, like how I felt about the war or how I felt at all. I can't even remember what the writing prompt was. But I just remember I had sure had a lot to say that I didn't know I had to say, and I did my first poetry form performance. That week, I did the writing workshop and then I went right into performance and then something moved inside of me. But again, it's still took time. So I didn't get out of the drugs and the drinking and the self medicating until about 2011. So it was a long journey from when I when I got out to. I just couldn't seem to get out of my way for a long time. And I was just like building skills and building skills and building skills. And then finally it clicked and I looked around and I was like, nope, this is not my life. I was thinking that's like, total bullshit. When you hear people say that, and they're like, I woke up one day, and I just had to change my life. And I was like, that doesn't happen. It does happen. I was doing some serious stuff though. I was I was shooting heroin and, and I was treating it like anxiety medication, I would shoot up and then I go to school, and then I would shoot up and I would drive without my service dog. He left him home because I wasn't gonna drive with him. So people thought I was getting better. I got thinner because obviously that's one of the side effects there. People were like, oh, you're Pretty and you're so active now you're doing so well. And I was just I'm seriously seriously addicted to heroin and then it just took over and then I stopped going to school stop going to work, stop driving and sat in my house. So yeah, and then then it happened one day I woke up and I looked around and I saw my weepy arms and my my really, really bad living situation. And I was like, No, this is not for me, this is my life. This is not what I'm supposed to be. And within the next week, I'm to actually hear it the Ithica, the Ithica New York, which I'm visiting right now. I still speak at Ithica college every year since 2011.
Amanda Huffman 29:40
Wow. I think that's really important that you talk about how much time it takes Yeah, and how, like, I think especially in today's world, everyone's like, instant change like it is. I tried this for five minutes and it's not working. So it must not work but it's it's not It's not especially like dealing with stuff that happens within your mind and like rewiring because you're overseas and going through such trauma and then being betrayed and all those things that you had to go through. It makes sense that it took a lot of time and a lot of different programs and different opportunities that push you to get to where you are, well, not today. But you know where you are today. Because eventually, you know, you move forward, and now you're doing all these amazing things. So let's dive into what you're doing. Now. That's a good segue. So let's talk a little bit about what you're doing today.
Jennifer Pacanowski 30:42
Currently, I am the founder and director of a nonprofit called Women Veterans empowered and thriving. It's a reintegration program utilizing writing and performance to empower our experiences as well as thrive and daily lives. So so all the skills that I gathered During that really bad time, are now my arsenal. So or toolbox is a nicer way to say it. So I have this huge toolbox of stuff and I tell the veterans all the time if one thing doesn't work, you just got to keep trying or keep trying that one thing and see if maybe it sticks. So I'm the founder and the director of that program. I facilitate the workshops. I focus specifically on women because they're a completely underserved population. When I started the facilitation of workshops, I they were coed and I continue to do coed ones, but the focus of the nonprofit is specifically women veterans. When I moved into the Lehigh Valley, there was no support group for women veterans, even at the VA. They're like, Oh, we tried that. And they just got they got hostile or they weren't utilizing it right. And I was like, that sounds like a facilitator problem, like the shrink in the room should have been helping them communicate. I'm also a playwright. I guess we'll say that too.
Yeah, I got my first play produced this October 2019. It was, it was a Greek adaptation of the book I that I called Dionysus in America, which essentially took the Greek, the story of the Buckeye, but then I transformed it into modern times modern language and, and made the setting America and Iraq or the cradle of civilization, as it is also called.
Amanda Huffman 32:39
That sounds really interesting.
Jennifer Pacanowski 32:41
Yeah, it was a it was it was a cool experience. I didn't even know I was adapting and until someone told me I was there like you're writing meditation. I was like, Oh, yeah. Okay. I am doing Oh, yeah. Because it was I was working with. I started working in New York City. It was really when the things started to take off for me, I moved from Africa to back to Pennsylvania, and started getting opportunities in New York City where we started this project called impact theatre, which I'm now a board member of where half of the cast is civilian actors, and half of the cast is veterans. And we create a story of the veterans struggle, and it is absolutely the worst case scenario. But then after the 20 minute play skit that we put together, we drop the fourth wall, which is the wall between the actors and the audience. And the audience gets an opportunity to ask the actors in character questions, and they get to create solutions. And they get to work out this stuff without making personal even though everything's personal to everyone a lot. It's because they recognize themselves or a doctor or a veteran. And then we have this conversation with with the actors in character. And the interesting thing about the process itself is the civilian app. Actors play the veteran parts. And the veterans play civilian parts. So that was my first go at acting like a civilian when I was in the project, which is surprisingly helpful to see it from the other side, and be like, I wouldn't say that, but then my director would be like, well, it's not you. It's a civilian act. So I'm involved in a lot of cool projects like that. The art is is a vehicle to, to get the stuff out of your body, whether it's trauma or whether it's just residual pain of experiences. The body remembers and to get the movement in the body, as well as your mind is key. And I think a lot of therapists miss that they miss the talk. Pair therapy is great. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is fantastic, but I think if you don't find a way to move your body or get this stuff out of you physically, whether it's screaming on the stage which I've done with my own stories, or, or crying or whatever you need to do. It's actually like literally purging it out of yourself.
Amanda Huffman 35:10
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Especially a few podcasts back. I was like, bawling listening to the lady's story. And I was like, What is wrong with me, but like you said, like, there was something inside of me that just was awakened through hearing her experience and like, I couldn't stop crying. But it's really, it's really moving. And I think I think what you're doing is amazing, and it's so helpful for both the civilian and veteran community. I really liked what you said that they switch their roles because I think a lot of times we get in, especially like, the military, we get in like this military bubble. Yeah. Like, I sometimes people are, they keep saying like, only 1% of people serve and I'm like, but I know all these people serve I was not even possible but in reality, that is there's a difference. But it's because I'm in the military or I wasn't an altar. But I know all these people. And so it's feels really unbalanced. And so to change, like the frame of thinking which I should be able to do, because before I was in I had no military connection at all, because my family's not military. And so I grew up not even really knowing the military existed. So it shouldn't be that hard for me to put that thinking. But I don't really ever think about that when I'm thinking about like, there's only one percent I'm like, but they're everywhere.
Jennifer Pacanowski 36:34
And then it's also something that I learned pretty recently within the last couple years is using that military language and surrounding yourself with veterans can be super helpful with the camaraderie and everything but it also keeps you stuck. Because you're continuing to do the same things and expecting a different result. We can't learn to be civilians, we can't learn to be successful veterans in the civilian culture. If we don't immerse ourselves, so in the performances that we have in my nonprofit, we invite the community in and we have we tell them our stories. It's a, it's my recreation of rituals that you know, I'm like, and a lot of people are discovering this, like Romans, Greeks, Native Americans, they had these rituals of homecoming, storytelling wasn't afraid and waving flags. It was embracing these service members and being like, this is what I went through. This is what you went through, oh, you know, you don't have somewhere to live. come live with me because it was tribal. And we don't have that. So in my own, you know, small way, if you will, hopefully, we bigger someday, inviting the community in and hearing the veterans stories and then the civilians telling us what they did when we were gone, creates its reconnection, and we really need that in our system. And I think I think isolation kills veterans. It's not the addiction. It's not the suicide. It's not the homelessness. It always begins with the isolation. I think that's the key factor that people don't realize.
Okay, I have one more question. But is there anything from your experience that you think we missed or I need to ask about? I feel like it was really good. I think we hit everything, let's say war, drugs and alcohol, reintegration, my work.
Amanda Huffman 38:43
So the last thing that I asked people is what would you tell young women who are considering joining the military and it can be good or bad? Your answer? Don't feel pressure.
Jennifer Pacanowski 38:56
Yeah, I'm thinking I had an I have a usual answer I'm just had a moment When I I can just speak to the the truth of what I what I already do when I'm approached by a woman that or a girl that wants to join the military and and I just give her all the truth that I can. Because when I joined and when many of us join, we get the recruiter golden ticket they promise you everything even if you're like me and was thorough and got it in your contract, they breached the contract anyway. You know, rape in the military or the civilian culture happens all the time to women, but there is that that do you want to roll the dice? Do you want to see if it's going to happen to you? Or do you want to try to find another another way another, another path and then also I discussed with them very clearly. When you join the military, you give up all of your work rights and you are property, you are government issued and if you're okay With that, if you're really okay with that, then I would say move forward and maybe roll the dice. But if you're not okay with like, you know, being penalized for a sunburn because you've damaged government property, maybe the military is not for you and to explore all your options and potential. My stepchildren are 16 and 13. And after they heard the stories from the veterans that they know that I work with, neither one of them are going into the military. So it's just truth in recruiting that I hope for more than anything, be truthful, if I'm going to be exposed to something that I need to know. And that's not always the case. But I'm willing to talk truth in recruiting for sure.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai