A Lease on Her Life

My Dear Friends,

How do you calculate the cost of war, what are the consequences – the toll it takes on peoples lives? Below you will read the story of a young woman who's whole life has been changed by the experience. I hope that all of us upon reading this tragic story will resolve to remember Jennifer in our prayers. The cost has just been too high for her to bare alone. She like all of the victims of this insane war, need our help, our prayers daily, to help mend the lives that have been torn apart.

May God's Love and Healing be with all these young men and women that suffer from this conflict.


Carl Azcar



    A Lease on Her Life
    By Maya Schenwar
    t r u t h o u t | Report

    Friday 25 January 2008

Jennifer Pacanowski joined the Army to climb out of debt. She ended up in the hole.



     It was July 2004 and Jennifer Pacanowski was headed home to Pennsylvania after six months as a medic in Iraq. Like most other soldiers in the Army, she had two weeks at home to "rest and relax" before returning to the combat zone. "It's kind of a vacation from war," she says.


    But for Pacanowski, this summer vacation did not involve vegging in front of the TV or lazing on the beach; she didn't waste a moment of her break. She visited the people she was close to, spent a few days in Wildwood, New Jersey, "reliving a childhood vacation," and hosted a big barbecue for her friends and family.

    "I didn't think I was ever going to see them again," she says. "I was basically preparing to die."

    Pacanowski joined the Army on April 23, 2003, a month after the Iraq War began. It was a week before the "Mission Accomplished" banner flashed across television screens nationwide, as President Bush announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." Like many Americans, Pacanowski and her family thought the war was, for the most part, over.

    But by the time of her R & R break in 2004, she could not envision the war's end - nor a way out of her predicament. Her small consolation was that, should she get out of the war alive, she'd be student-loan-free and well on her way to beginning a career in nursing.

    However, three days into R & R, Pacanowski received a letter that turned the horror of her term in Iraq to a pointless hell. It was a notice from the US Army, explaining that the government would not pay off her college loans, despite previous guarantees.

    Devastated, carrying both her financial burden and a growing feeling that Iraqis wanted the US troops out, Pacanowski dragged herself back for five and half more months of deployment. Loyalty was her only motivation not to desert.

    "I couldn't leave my friends in Iraq without me," she said. "They were my best friends in the world and still are. If I didn't go back, they would've had to go on more convoys and endanger their lives even more. I'm not a coward - I couldn't do that just because the Army decided to fuck me over."

    Pacanowski now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She vomits when memories of the war hit, and had to put the phone down in the middle of our conversation to be sick.

    Three years after leaving Iraq, she and her mother are still slowly paying back her loans.

    "The Wrong Kind of Loans"

    When Pacanowski left college before finishing, she and her Dad, an ex-Marine, discussed the prospect of joining the military. She'd always considered becoming a Marine, and now, with mountains of student loans to pay off, it seemed liked the perfect time. Pacanowski, then 23, also had aspirations of becoming a nurse, and she hoped that a few years as a medic would jump-start her career. Thinking she'd be involved in post-war health care aid and reconstruction, her parents supported her decision.

    "My dad wouldn't have said, 'Hey, join the Army!' if he thought I was going to go into a world war," Pacanowski says. "That wouldn't have been great parental advice."

    Pacanowski arranged a series of meetings with recruiters and researched all branches of the military to determine which would completely pay off her loans. The Army won: its package offered total loan payment, in exchange for forfeiting the GI bill stipend that usually comes with release. Pacanowski's recruiter assured her, after perusing all her paperwork, that her loans qualified for the Army's reimbursement program. Pacanowski then took six months before entering the Army to make sure "everything was aligned," ensuring that her loans would indeed be paid off in full, and that she'd be guaranteed a job as a medic.

    Upon arriving in Iraq via Germany, Pacanowski got her first surprise: far from assisting Iraqis with building a health care program, she was riding on gun trucks as an emergency medical first responder, often watching as IEDs exploded and small-arms fire erupted. Every day, she was treating injured soldiers on the road or in the hospital. Some died as soon as they arrived. In her eleven and a half months in Iraq, Pacanowski participated in only one medical civic assistance program, providing direct care to Iraqi civilians.

    By the time she got her second surprise - the loan rejection while on break - she was waking up every day expecting to die. Morbidly, that softened the impact of the loan notice, she says. "There were two things going on," Pacanowski says. "One, I didn't really think I was going to live. Second of all, I knew that if I did, I would have avenues to fight it when I got back to Germany. I have a very strong will."

    The Army justified its refusal to pay Pacanowski's loans by stating they were the "wrong kind," asserting that her loans were private, since they were directly borrowed from a bank - even though all of her paperwork showed that they were federal.

    "My recruiter must have known my loans looked sketchy, but no one told me," she says. "I found out that when you're in the military, they will fuck you over at any chance they get."

    Another Battle, Stateside

    With no legal aid available to her in Iraq, Pacanowski pushed through the last five and a half months of her deployment, her outrage at the Army overshadowed by her daily struggle for survival.

    Finally, when she was redeployed to Germany, she sought redress. The military appointed her a lawyer who advised her to give up any hope of loan repayment in exchange for the GI bill money she'd agreed to forfeit earlier on.

    At that point, Pacanowski's two goals were simple: to get her money - or as much of it as possible - and to get out.

    She addressed the "get out" objective first. Under the guidance of her lawyer, Pacanowski fought to leave the Army, and won. She was released on "breach of contract" after showing that her military contract stated that her loans would be paid.

    "When I was in the outprocessing office, everyone else looked at my breach of contract slip and said, 'How did you do this?'" Pacanowski says. "Everyone says their recruiter lied to them, but I fucking proved it."

    However, on coming home, it became clear that, despite her lawyer's counsel, getting out early might have crushed her chances of reimbursement.

    The night Pacanowski's plane landed in Pennsylvania, she received a call at her parents' house from the Army Board of Corrections. A secretary informed her that if she'd stayed in the Army, the military would have paid off her loans, after all. Now that she'd left, both the loan payments and the GI bill compensation were "questionable," and, since she was no longer eligible for a military lawyer, she would have to build a case herself.

    "I still had the loans, and now I couldn't even get the GI bill," Pacanowski says. "Essentially, I got out with nothing, except a big pile of shit in my hands to figure out."

    For the next few months, she devoted herself to fighting for her loan reimbursement: compiling paperwork, making phone calls and gathering information from recruiters. She spoke with her state congressman, Mario Scavello. Almost every day, she called the secretary of the Army Board of Corrections to clarify details on the information she was expected to supply.

    Pacanowski put together a complete account of her situation, which was reviewed by the board. The final decision: the Army would repay a portion of her loans.

    She faced the fact that, after putting in a year of unforeseen horror and bloodshed, she'd have to pay off the rest herself.

    "I had no fight left in me," she says. "I just wanted to dig a little hole and stay there for the rest of my life."

    Pacanowski initially tried to step back onto the path she'd veered off when she entered the military. She took an anatomy class, but found that, far from building up her tolerance for gore, her year in Iraq had upped her sensitivity. Injury and illness were not subjects for study; they were gut-wrenching reminders of IEDs exploding, guns firing and Iraqi children covered in blood, dying upon arrival at the hospital.

    Pacanowski "didn't have the stomach to see people die anymore." Her plan for a career in medicine was shot.

    As she searched for work and attempted to brainstorm new career options, her mental health was faltering. Then, two and a half years after leaving the war, it took a nosedive. She became an alcoholic, lost the ability to work and began vomiting uncontrollably.

    Pacanowski realized her mounting financial obligation wasn't the only debt she'd be paying off. She was also paying for her time at war with her mind.

    A Heavy Price

    Pacanowski now works as a part-time receptionist at a doctor's office. When her PTSD symptoms flare up and she feels sick to her stomach, she signals to a coworker, who takes over while she runs to the bathroom.

    She speaks of an "impending doom feeling," a sense of imminent death for herself and those around her. Coupled with anxiety and nausea, it's tough to leave the house. Driving triggers flashes of the explosions she witnessed on convoys, and she often asks others for rides. Above all, any mention of Iraq is likely to send her over the edge.

    "I get sick when I read about it, talk about it, after I eat," Pacanowski says. "I get sick and I move on; it's just life to me now."

    Help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not come easily. The VA is only required to see psychiatric patients once a month, and Pacanowski feels as if the staff wants to shut her up with drugs and be rid of her. Though she's tried six medications for PTSD, enduring a bout with valium addiction, she has not found relief.

    Pacanowski wants to get well, move past her financial burdens and start thinking about her future - beyond what it's going to be like to leave the house each day.

    "The fight in me has come back, and I don't want to be a prisoner in my own home," she says. "I want to be a real person again."

    For right now, though, the journey from here to there seems unbelievably long. In Iraq - and even during her battle at home with the Army Board of Corrections - the opposition was easily identifiable and wholly separate. Now it's inside of her.

    Pacanowski often finds it easier to write than to speak. In the last stanza of a poem, she reflects:

    "I'm home. No M16. No I.E.D.S, R.P.G.s and small arms fire or the bad guys. No, now, the enemy is my sickness."

    With supportive parents, an understanding boyfriend and a "fighter" personality, Pacanowski is determined to make a comeback. But that doesn't mean she absolves her recruiters and the military enterprise. Joining the military was supposed to ease her debt and boost her career prospects, she says, and it left her with the opposite consequences.

    Despite her trials, Pacanowski doesn't fault the armed forces, as an entity: "I still firmly believe in the military," she says. But she condemns the way the system operates.

    "I believe the people making these decisions should have a child in the Army," Pacanowski says. "They would be making completely different decisions if it was their kid fighting this war."


    Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

davelambert's picture

I too was discharged through breach of contract after serving as a medic. I struggled in a much less dramatic way with many of the issues that Jennifer has dealt with. The things you see change you. I also know firsthand what the government's promises are worth. Again, I found out in a less traumatic way. It would be easy to say I was tougher than Jennifer, and it would be bullshit.

This lack of integrity in its institutions is at bottom of all that the world suffers.


Carl-Azcar's picture


I too served in the U.S. Armed Forces – U.S. Air Force, 1955 - 59. I am thankful I served during peace time and was stationed state side for my four years at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. I actually got pushed out because I did not want to re-enlist for another 4 years. That was fine, I certainly was not in agreement with making war on anyone, I served because I otherwise would have been drafted into the Army and I didn't like the thought of living in a tent or a muddy trench.

Luckily I did not have to cope with the stresses that the present forces are up against.

Thanks for reading this material.

Carl Azcar

--- Post removed at author's request ---

Angelaura's picture

And for the many other Jennifer's out there. Fred's quote really says alot of how I feel about this article. How wise are his words. "How much have we chosen to abandon each other, and even more importantly, to abandon ourselves through focusing on our differences? Even when we work against the old paradigm, we are choosing more polarization and judgment. When instead we work to support what's best for all of us, we create transformation which transcends duality." My heart goes out to Jennifer and many more like her who are left feeling totally and utterly "abandoned" after experiences such as this, to the point that they are feeling "hopeless". This goes world wide for me for all the other people, fighting in all the wars, no matter what country they live in. They all have mothers and fathers who love them dearly, brothers and sisters who miss them terribly, and friends who count the days to see them. None of them count on their loved one being treated as such. My heart felt prayers and LOVE go out to all of them, and then to the whole world in general to bring peace to us all. Love and Blessings, Laura.

Carl-Azcar's picture

Dear Friends,

Thank you to all who have taken the time to read this very timely article. I find no fault for those who serve their county with the best intent. I do find fault with those bureaucratic authorities that mess up peoples lives with their manipulative policies.

How little seems to count for the tremendous personal sacrifice that every man and woman performs by putting their life on the line for the irrational ends and ambitions of governments operating in the power mode over others.

Love and prayers for all that are caught up in this merry-go-round.

Carl Azcar

The Gathering Spot is a PEERS empowerment website
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