Pamela Smejkal joined the United States Army at the age of 22 in 1996, honoring her desire to travel and join generations of family members who served.
After Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Pamela went to Fort Lee in Virginia for Advanced Individual Training as a Food Service Specialist. From August 1996 to February 2000, she was stationed in Darmstadt, Germany. Pamela then joined the New Jersey Army National Guard in 2003, giving her the opportunity to plant roots; she bought the house she grew up in as a child and got a dog.
A chance to learn new skills
In 2005, the same time her unit was prepping for deployment, Pamela was accepted to Military Postal School. “I had to make a decision,” she explains. “I could either go with my unit and continue my job in food service or receive a new education to be gainfully employed with a mission.” Pamela chose Military Postal School and graduated at the top of her class.
She was in Afghanistan by March the following year. Her first six months were spent at Bagram Air Base, meeting aircraft to account for all pallets of mail before making sure it was sent to its appropriate destinations. Pamela then went to Camp Phoenix in Kabul as the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in charge of her own Military Post Office. In total, her unit moved 25 million pounds of mail during their year-long deployment.
In Kabul, the threat of danger intensified. On three occasions, her base was attacked. She was lifted off the counter when a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) exploded outside the base. Following protocol, Pamela maintained composure and kept her team of Soldiers out of harm’s way during every encounter. Yet the deafening sounds of bombs and firefight impacted her greatly.
Returning to Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2007, Pamela began a new job as the Plans and Operations NCO at the New Jersey Joint Force Headquarters. But she hadn’t been well since receiving a small pox vaccine in 2006 for mobilization.
Illness and pain arrive
Within two weeks of the vaccination—while in Afghanistan—she started to feel symptoms of joint pain, sinusitis, and tightness in the chest. The pain and burning kept worsening in her knuckles and toes, but because there was nothing marked in her medical records before being deployed, no one took her complaints seriously.
It was not until later in 2007—after returning from Afghanistan—that she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). A year later, doctors also diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress (PTS). “I was rather lucky with my early diagnoses,” says Pamela. “The first doctor I saw at Fort Monmouth knew my symptoms were an autoimmune disease, most likely triggered by the small pox vaccine. He made the referral that led to my eventual diagnosis.”
Pamela really learned about PTS from the Vet Center, a program of the Department of Veterans Affairs that provides quality readjustment counseling. The agitation and irritability she felt being at a desk job instead of a war zone; the inability to concentrate; the night sweats and night terrors; the vivid dreams which left her physically and mentally exhausted every morning; the hyper-vigilance and high-startle response; the aggressive driving and road rage; the fear and anxiety; and the inability to calm down or relax were all symptoms.
“Learning what PTS chemically does to the brain—that my new calm would be another person’s panic mode—actually made me feel better,” says Pamela. “All of a sudden, I felt normal again. This was my ‘new normal.’”
Challenges with disability rating
In 2009, the Military Medical Evaluation Board decided to put her on Temporary Disability Retirement Leave (TDRL) with a 70% disability rating. Pamela retired from the Army as Staff Sergeant (E6) and the Federal Service as GS7. During her years of service, Pamela received many awards including Meritorious Service Medal, three Army Commendation Medals, and two Army Achievement Medals.
However, the military must re-evaluate individuals through the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) after five years of a TDRL to determine their ability to return to duty—or designate Permanent Retirement. Appallingly, the Army gave her a permanent retirement but dropped RA from her rating and changed her PTS rating to 30%.
“I was outraged,” says Pamela. She went to the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency with her rebuttal, including RA diagnosis while on active duty, and within one year of starting the PEB process, the rating was increased to 80% permanent disability retirement. (The max payment from the military is 75% of one’s base pay.)
“The whole experience was upsetting. I should have never had to fight the system, but this was my life, what my service left me with,” Pamela says. “I had to fight for myself.”
The hunt for the right doctors
Finding doctors was also a challenge. Pamela has seen many after nine years, some of whom believed her and worked with her to obtain optimum care, and others who questioned her pain and marginalized her symptoms.
“Every veteran is different; the way we respond to therapies, the way medications make us feel,” she explains. “For me, medications lessen my symptoms. I tell my fellow veterans: seek out a specialist that makes you happy. If you are not satisfied with your care, go elsewhere. You deserve it.”
Pamela also stresses the importance of being honest with medical providers. If a medicine isn’t working, tell your doctor: “Your treatment is directed by you. Don’t give up on yourself. Today may be bad, but tomorrow could very well be the day that changes everything.”
She also encourages vets to join local veterans service organizations. “We all need support and camaraderie,” she says. “Surround yourself with people you can talk to and who understand.”
Currently, Pamela has found a doctor who not only listens to her concerns and requests, but also is responsive to her suggestions. Her pain levels are now at a 5 on the 0-to-10 scale. Every joint has been affected, including her jaw, shoulders, ankles, hips, knees, toes, and wrists.
“There is no cure, so it’s treating symptoms,” she says. “For years, I have been trying injections and infusions; treating inflammation by taking immune suppressant medications and TNF blockers.” Alpha-blockers, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines round out her PTS medications. She takes sleeping medicine too.
The pain ranges from annoying (feeling heat in her joints or like she pulled a muscle), to burning from the inside out, to debilitating pain (feeling like she is walking on crushed bones).
Explaining RA to others continues to be a constant battle. “People hear ‘arthritis’ and immediately think of their own nagging pain from wear and tear of joints,” she explains. “But RA is more than that. My immune system won’t turn off; it’s always trying to fight an invader that isn’t there.”
Seeking help and relief through adaptive sports
For many years, she wanted to cut her arms or legs off to end the pain. She could barely walk on her own, and her mom had to brush her hair, put on her socks, and tie her combat boots for duty.
Yet through adaptive sports (mainly skiing), she learned her life didn’t end with her diagnoses, but rather began. Adaptive sport programs like Unlimbited, Heroes on Water, the Salute Military Golf Association, and Operation Beachhead have been influential in her recovery.
“I found a new ‘me,’” says Pamela. “I was never a sports person. But after learning to ski, I learned to golf, play sled hockey, kayak, and cycle on a recumbent bike. I learned to use a crossbow and have hunted for deer and pheasant. My life changed for the better due to pain.”
Training her German Shepard, Gunny, to be her service dog reestablished her independence. Before Gunny, she never left the house; she ordered everything online. “He is my battle buddy,” she explains. “I go to stores again and can walk down a busy New York City sidewalk because Gunny keeps me safe.”
Seeking advocates, and becoming advocates
Pamela feels that more societal compassion and understanding could go a long way. “Wounded warriors aren’t all amputees, and veterans aren’t only male,” she says. Many vets suffer from deep invisible wounds, which has left veterans feeling more isolated.
“PTS isn’t what is wrong with us,” she says. “It is what happened to us. We sacrificed who we were to do our jobs—the jobs we loved. We aren’t the same, but different doesn’t mean we are weak, frail, or less-than.”
A dear friend—who passed away in 2003—once told Pamela not to take anything for granted. She thinks of that conversation often.
“Sure, I have days when I lack motivation, deal with horrific pain, or feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by anxiety,” says Pamela. “But quitting is not an option. I am going to continue traveling, photographing nature, and creating things with my hands (carving wood and making ceramic bowls) because it makes me happy.”
Pamela advocates for herself and others. She is forthright when it comes to her health, and a pillar of strength and support to her fellow vets. Generous to a fault and downright sensitive and sweet, Pamela will not allow pain to dictate her future. She is a warrior through and through.
“I have learned making memories is more important then buying things, and how important calling a friend and saying ‘let’s go’ can be. I love our country, and I know the sacrifice of freedom. I appreciate and honor those who served before me; we all should.”
Disabled Sports USA: disabledsportsusa.org/programs/warfighter-sports/
Heroes on the Water: heroesonthewater.org
Higher Grounds Sun Valley: highergroundsv.org
Maine Adaptive’s Veterans No Boundaries: Maineadaptive.org
Operation Beachhead: opbeachhead.org
The Salute Military Golf Association: smga.org
Vet Center: vetcenter.va.gov
Vet Tix: VETTIX.org
Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports: watervillevaleyadptiv.org