When the battle isn’t over: Honoring veterans by supporting mental health

Haley Herrera has been married for four years. For almost three of them, her husband has been away with the Army on overseas combat deployments and training assignments.

On one hand, she’s extremely proud. Her husband is a member of the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash. “You have tremendous pride in the work that your spouse does. All the things that the military has made for us – security, benefits, community,” Herrera says. “I would consider him to be our best and brightest. There’s a reason why he’s doing the job he’s doing. I can’t see him doing anything else. I wouldn’t want him to.”

On the other hand, she lives with a large amount of uncertainty. When he deployed last July – his third time – she knew he was going into an active combat situation in Afghanistan. That summer, she also took over as manager of a Starbucks store in DuPont, Wash., near the base.

“Sick, alone, nervous, with a 6-month old, excited for a new opportunity, distracted by my fear and anxiety, very real fears about something happening to him,” Herrera says, trying to describe the rush of feelings at the time. “About a month into the deployment, I found out I was pregnant. I was feeling unsure, feeling tremendous pressure to keep that all to myself. You have this preconceived notion that nobody understands.”

This May, during Military Appreciation Month, Starbucks recognizes the sacrifice and commitment made by the Herreras and all the other military families across the United States. We honor the soldiers on the front lines and the families holding down the home front.

As part of Starbucks commitment to responding to the needs of the military community, the company is partnering with Blue Star Families and Headstrong to support the mental health and well-being of military families and veterans. For each new Starbucks Military eGift card activated between May 21 to June 1, Starbucks will donate $5 to Blue Star Families and Headstrong.

This partnership is a continuation of the company’s existing efforts. Starbucks believes veterans and military families make the company better and communities stronger. In fact, Starbucks has hired more than 26,000 veterans and military spouses since 2013, far exceeding company goals. The company has also dedicated 68 Military Family Stores across the country to help support soldiers, veterans and their families. These stores are typically near military bases and are usually staffed by veterans and military family members.

‘It makes me feel a part of something’

When Herrera took over the DuPont store last summer, she realized right away the level of deep shared understanding and unspoken support in her store community. About 90 percent of her store’s employees and customers are involved with the military – soldiers, base staff, veterans and family members.

“They knew the fears that I was having, that I hadn’t felt comfortable speaking,” Herrera says. “At that moment, I realized I need to do more to create this community for all of our partners (employees) who are feeling isolated and alone.”

She began mentoring store partners who are military spouses around career advancement. One of her store partners trained as a mental health counselor and social worker but moved with the military three times, meaning she had to recertify with a new state each time, and start yet another job search. Another partner was about to be promoted to assistant store manager in Washington state when the Army moved her and her family – with just a month’s notice – to North Carolina.

Herrera, who worked in human resources before joining Starbucks, believes military spouses can have a career at Starbucks. The company allows military spouses to transfer to other stores across the country when they’re relocated.

She also helped facilitate support groups at her store – on pause now with COVID-19 – including a mentorship group run by a retired Army officer that has been meeting for 29 years, almost every week since the store opened.

Last fall, her husband’s teammate – a close family friend – died during a combat mission. The moment was devastating, Herrera says, not only for the loss of human life, but for the way it played out with the surviving family – the stress caused by mundane discussions around paperwork and life insurance and navigating details of funeral arrangements. “It was horrible,” Herrera says. “A ton of very complex things that you would never even think about or even want to think about.”

The death reinforced the importance of her role. Herrera wants to facilitate meaningful conversations, develop programs and lead partner networks that expand on corporate initiatives and address more of what military partners are experiencing.

She also wants to directly confront the stigmas around mental health and well-being in the military community. Many reasons – not wanting to burden others, not wanting to constantly explain or justify or be vulnerable, assuming people don’t care – “cause the military community to internalize a lot of their struggles,” she says. “There’s a resistance to asking for help, to express what’s going on. (But) it’s crucial to somebody’s mental health to talk about it.”

Support from Blue Star Families

Allyson Harasimowicz, Blue Star Families (BSF) Craig Newmark New York Tri-State Chapter Director, has moved 13 times in 25 years with the military – while raising four children. Her husband, Mike, a retired Air Force colonel, has been stationed all over the U.S. and deployed to the Middle East and Asia.

Right before one of those moves, their 18-month-old son Joshua was diagnosed with liver cancer. They arrived at a base in Missouri, with a severely sick child, not knowing a single person.

“That sounds like a real low point, but it really became one of the highest of high points,” Harasimowicz remembers. “I continually would be getting cards and notes of encouragement and meals. One person drove blood samples to a lab. It was one of the most difficult things we had to do and yet it was the most incredible camaraderie that we can say that we felt.”

Joshua, now 22 years old, is in college and completely healthy.

Harasimowicz wants to recreate those feelings of connection for other military families. BSF is a longtime partner to Starbucks and Harasimowicz has worked with Starbucks managers in the New York area – Brooklyn, Yonkers, Newburgh – to host instore hiring events, coffee connects and holiday parties for military families. She’s passed out free tickets to Broadway musicals and local museums, and organized scavenger hunts in Central Park.

During the quarantine, on Easter Sunday, BSF volunteers went shopping for a young military spouse who had just moved to the area and whose husband had deployed. She was at home with two young children, didn’t know her neighbors and was concerned about how she was going to safely get groceries.

“One of our main missions is helping our military families with that sense of belonging,” Harasimowicz says. “If you are a family that has to move every couple years, it’s hard to feel that. But we are in this life together. This COVID-19 craziness has really given that sense of, everybody is in the same boat here, and we have the same basic needs.”

If families and communities are strong, soldiers and veterans are strong too, says Mike Harasimowicz, who retired five years ago and assists his wife at many BSF events. It’s a lesson he’s learned many times as an Air Force commander: families and strong support systems help people survive crises.

“Isolation is not an option, you have to get involved,” he says. “When people become isolated, when people lose that sense of camaraderie, they are vulnerable. And that’s what we’re trying to fight. You are important, you do belong, your service is respected. Your service made a difference and we care about you.”

Finding help through Headstrong  

After he returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Pasha Palanker hit rock bottom. He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury caused by a rocket attack. When he was deemed medically nondeployable by the U.S. Army, he grappled with the loss of his identity after more than 12 years of service. Panic attacks and uncontrollable bursts of anger were affecting daily routines: work, family time, even just a trip to the grocery store.

“At that point, there were only two options,” Palanker remembers. “Suicide, or start the long climb out of a very dark place.”

For Palanker, an Army Master Sergeant who lives in a Washington D.C. suburb in Maryland, what made him choose the latter was his children – three young boys at the time (he now has four). Palanker’s own father had left the family when he was 6 years old, back in Moldova where he grew up. “To me, being a father, it’s a huge part of my identity,” he says. “Because of them, I gave it everything I had.”

Palanker’s mental health journey has been slow and painful, but steadily trending upward, he says. He’s now a client with Headstrong, which provides cost-free, stigma-free and confidential mental health care treatment to veterans suffering from the hidden wounds of war. Starbucks supports Headstrong’s mission to improve mental health outcomes for the military community and end veteran suicide.

“It’s so hard for soldiers and veterans to ask for help, for mental health help,” Palanker says. “Headstrong made the process so simple, then they get back to you right away, the next day, so you don’t have time to change your mind. Everyone I dealt with was so compassionate and so sensitive to my struggles. It just felt right, every step of the way.”

Born and raised in Moldova, part of the former Soviet Union and now one of the poorest countries in Europe, Palanker came to the U.S. when he was 15 years old. He settled with his mother, grandmother and little brother in North Hollywood.

“Started out in a rough neighborhood, welfare, didn’t speak English,” says Palanker, now 39. “But I would pinch myself every morning, happy to be in this country.”

Wanting to give back, he enlisted in the Army after graduating high school. By Christmas 2004, he was in Iraq, working as part of a counter IED (improvised explosive device) task force. He supported a team that would try to disarm roadside bombs or analyze scenes after one detonated.

His experiences overseas were intense. One time, he came within 10 feet of a suicide bomber. Another time, he had to go to a market after a truck bomb blew up there. Two weeks away from returning home at the end of his first deployment, in September 2005, an IED went off underneath Palanker’s feet. The explosion sent him flying 15 feet and burst his left ear drum, an injury which required three surgeries. He received the Purple Heart Medal, the first of two, the oldest military award still given to U.S. military members.  

After his second deployment ended in 2015 – after the rocket attack – he decided to seek help. The anger and adrenaline that had helped him survive combat situations didn’t dissipate when he returned home. There were road rage incidents. He blew up at a passenger on an airplane who was kicking the chair behind him. He’d get irrationally angry at his boys when they dropped something and startled him. Increasingly, he spiraled into an unhealthy combination of guilt, isolation and alcohol.

His first session eased some of the “crushing pressure,” he says. Medication also helped, and then he started reading books on post-traumatic stress and brain injuries, which unlocked new revelations. He went through an intensive four-week in-house stay at Walter Reed Hospital, and eventually met Jessica Gada, the Headstrong therapist who is still helping him today.

“It took me five years to realize I had a problem, and it took me another five years to take it seriously,” Palanker says. “I underestimated the impact that post-traumatic stress would have on my life.”

He has strategies now – mentoring veterans struggling with mental health, taking long walks, retreating to his car when his emotions are about to spike and working out at a mixed-martial arts studio he also co-founded, called The Compound.

“I want anybody who’s struggling to know, there’s a lot that can be done,” Palanker says. “But that starts with you saying to somebody, a friend, a therapist, ‘I’m struggling.’ Once you say it, it becomes real, and once it’s real, you’re forced to do something about it. Once you say it, it’s out and it gives your friends permission to check up on you.

“I’m still struggling big time with things, but I’m in a lot better place,” Palanker says. “Now I have hope.”

thumbnail for Workforce Diversity at Starbucks

Workforce Diversity at Starbucks