by Ed Roth
On the surface, Danielle Skranak seems to be living the American Dream. For the past four years, she has been a paralegal; for the past six months, the Army veteran has been Program Coordinator for the Arizona Foundation for Women. In addition to helping women and children create better lives for themselves, the reigning Miss Gilbert (AZ) is in the running for the 100th Miss America competition.
But the story behind the story runs much deeper.
The eldest of five children, Danielle led a very active high school career, running cross country and track. She passed up college scholarships to follow her father’s footsteps and joined the Army as an enlisted Military Police solider.
In her second week of basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood (Missouri), her life changed in an instant. She was carrying 40 pounds of gear, as was the recruit in front of her. He dropped his gear, knocking her off balance, and she fell headfirst onto the hard concrete.
In 2014, the accepted wisdom among the sergeants was to shake off a head injury by sleeping it off and staying quiet in a dark room. Three days later, she was still in pain and finally made her way to the ER, where an MRI and CT scan revealed she had contusions on her brain.
Army doctors prescribed amitriptyline and she was sent on her way. Suffering from long- and short-term memory loss, as well as aphasia (inability to remember words), she somehow managed to finish basic training.
Four months later, she was stationed at Ft. Leavenworth (Kansas), working inside the prison. One night while on shift, she passed out, losing her hearing and eyesight. At the hospital, her dosage was increased, and she was later medically discharged from the Army.
Separated from the service, she didn’t know where to turn. However, she wasn’t prepared for the uphill battle. “The Army really didn’t help me transition to the civilian world. You know, we have no personal responsibility and are not encouraged or seek outside help. It was viewed as a weakness.”
Danielle cites fellow enlistees who had been bullied for seeking help to treat their brain injuries. “These invisible disabilities were debilitating,” she says. “Instead of referring these troops to programs, they were told to ‘Be a leader, be on your own.’”
She also felt resentment from others who didn’t believe she had a brain injury; instead, many thought she was trying to get out of work, specifically overnight shifts at the prison. “The stigma is the biggest thing to overcome. And when you’re a woman, it’s even tougher. You can’t show vulnerabilities.” She soon left the job and looked for something else.
Living in Kansas City and working as a dietitian’s aide, she found herself in an abusive relationship with nowhere to turn. “One night I thought I would die; I was hanging out of the window screaming for help. When the police showed up to arrest him, I was so embarrassed. How could I go from working in a military prison complex where I walked among criminals, studying them, to being in a domestically violent relationship myself? I honestly didn’t know what to do next. I just remember feeling very lost.”
Fortunately, Friends in Service of Heroes (FISH) discovered her plight and helped her get basic living supplies, including food and furniture. To this day, she remains active with the organization that helps disabled veterans overcome the unique challenges they face, especially those with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But Danielle’s journey was just beginning – she had to find a way to support herself and build a career. She met an attorney, Elizabeth Brown, who had experienced similar tragedies and took her under her wing, training her to become a paralegal. Almost overnight, Danielle was making a substantial income and had her own apartment.
In 2018, and off medication, an amazing thing happened: both her short- and long-term memories started flooding back. As she explains, “It’s not like all was blank, it was more like a dream. Now I feel normal because I can relate to family stories and events. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but you know what they say about each brain injury being like nobody else’s.”
Today, Danielle is the Young Professional Program Coordinator for the Arizona Foundation for Women, helping make a difference in the lives of women.
She also urges veterans to tell their stories, encouraging those who have served to join support groups at the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona, where she’s involved with veterans’ and women’s groups. She says the healing can begin even before joining. “Writing every day in a journal is a great way for you to see how far you’ve come. It’s like looking at ‘before and ‘after’ pictures.”
“As a professional speaking about her personal experience with abuse and brain injury, Danielle is a trailblazer,” says Carrie Collins-Fadell, Executive Director of the Brain Injury Alliance. “There can be such an unnecessary stigma around brain injury. We have people that would rather go without help than reveal they might have a brain injury.
“Military personnel are particularly vulnerable due to their unique culture of hiding perceived weaknesses. It’s always wonderful when you hear of someone like Danielle not only working hard to live well after brain injury, but using it as a platform to help others.”
Speaking of “after” pictures, the 25-year-old is representing her hometown of Gilbert, AZ, as Miss Gilbert, the first step to hopefully being crowned Miss America later this year.
“I’m proud of the strides I’ve made, and I want others with brain injury to understand there’s always hope,” beams Danielle. “You can really make a difference in your life once you realize you can.”
For Danielle Skranak, the future couldn’t be brighter.