News: Finnish-American soldier lives the modern 'American Dream'
By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Amber Wilson
1-135th Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs
BALKH PROVINCE, Afghanistan—According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the American dream is “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism, which is a belief in human equality, especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs.”
U.S. Army Spc. Juha Paljarvi, an aircraft electrician from B Company, 127th Aviation Support Battalion, of the 1st Armored Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade, attached to Task Force Reaper, and a staunch believer in freedom, patriotism, entrepreneurship, and using your skills to better yourself, is an American soldier achieving his own version of the modern-day “American Dream.”
“I love our Constitution,” Paljarvi said, considering his various life experiences. “As restless as I am with my careers, America is really the only place where you can have that.”
Paljarvi was born in College Station, Texas, in 1973, but moved to Finland as an infant with his family in order for his Finnish father to complete his service for Finland’s army. The family had temporarily moved to America because his father had a wrestling scholarship and earned a degree at Texas A&M University. Paljarvi has three siblings, two of them Finnish citizens and the other, an American citizen like him.
The family returned to America when Paljarvi was 3 years old, and this would be the start of many travels Paljarvi and his family would take during his child and young adulthood.
Paljarvi’s father worked at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., for six years, visiting Finland every summer throughout his childhood. Then, in 1982, they moved to Africa for three years because of his father’s career, once again. The Paljarvi’s family lived in Moussaka, Zambia, until he was 13 years old. However, they were pulled back once more to the States in 1985, where Paljarvi and his siblings completed high school.
Although Paljarvi is an American citizen, he was drafted into the Finnish Defense Forces as an artillery runner, for eight months in 1991, before being honorably discharged. All Finnish men have to serve in the Finnish military, which did not bother Paljarvi. He said he felt proud of his Finnish heritage because they were strong warriors, comparing themselves to the ancient Spartans. After his service to Finland, he returned to America in 1992, to gain a higher education.
He enrolled in and took classes at three different colleges around the country before finally choosing Morrisville State College in upstate New York to study equine science.
Afterward, he went to work for horse trainers who dealt with harness horse racing where he helped a team win the third leg of the Triple Crown of Horse Racing for Trotters. Furthermore, they broke the world record for the fastest three-heat race. He would get a taste of entrepreneurship, opening his own stable in 1997.
Switching gears and new circumstances brought him to Ithaca, N.Y., where he opened another business; this time delving into the construction business. He built houses from 1999 to 2005.
Nonetheless, Paljarvi’s adventurous side took him back to Finland, where he learned of a different form of construction. In 2007, he joined the International Dive School Association in Lohja, for underwater welding and conducting underwater inspections. He used these new skills while working for a company called Terramare, building forms for harbors of an archipelago in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. He worked underwater construction for the company for eight months, which included midwinter diving.
Seeking a warmer climate, Paljarvi then moved back to Zambia, at the age of 33, for a year. He had decided to return to his “old haunts” of Moussaka, and work there, constructing houses in the bush, with the locals. When he was unable to obtain a working visa, he moved back to the U.S. to further pursue his “American dream.”
He was building a house for a U.S. Army recruiting officer when Paljarvi decided to join what he calls “the greatest Army in the world,” the U.S. Army, April 26, 2011, at the age of 36.
“I joined for strictly patriotic reasons,” Paljarvi said, adding that his younger brother, who is in the U.S. Marine Corps, and all his Finnish male ancestors, who served in the military, inspired him.
Based on his background in construction and underwater welding, Paljarvi tried to get engineer diver as his military occupational specialty, but there were no openings. Instead, he chose aircraft electrician because his brother works in aviation with the Marines, his background knowledge from electrical work in construction, and his interest in the MOS.
When he recalled his first few months in the Army, he admitted to being nervous because of his age difference during Basic Combat Training, but having served in the Finnish army helped prepare him for the training. He said he was surprised how well he did physically, having thought the younger Soldiers would out-do him.
“(The experience) wasn’t that shocking, but a little bit more yelling in the U.S. Army,” he said.
Paljarvi’s experiences and leadership have made a significant difference in his platoon and his leaders recognize his contributions.
“Spc. Paljarvi trains soldiers in the platoon physically, conducting cross-fit workout sessions daily, which is a huge factor in our platoon’s unparalleled 273 (Army Physical Fitness Test) average,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Lemker, Paljarvi’s current platoon sergeant.
Paljarvi explained that the Finns have a word, Sisu, which means, in his words, “intestinal fortitude and quiet optimism.” According to the Finlandia University, “It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.” Therefore, he wanted to show this while serving in the United States Army.
Lemker provided evidence of Paljarvi’s display of Sisu, stating, “Spc. Paljarvi brings so much real-life experience to the table and constantly shares his wisdom with the rest of us. He inspires the soldiers in the platoon to perform at a much higher level of maturity and professionalism. The soldiers in the platoon respect him as a knowledgeable soldier because of all that he has accomplished and experienced in his life. Spc. Paljarvi is one of those soldiers that naturally excels at most of the things he tries.”
Having traveled all over the world, Paljarvi is currently on his first deployment, serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at Camp Marmal. Although he concedes that the camp is not what he had expected; it is not as stressful as he thought it would be; he said he has learned more about his job here than back in the U.S. In addition to working as a helicopter electrician, he has cross-trained with the avionic mechanics so he can work with more of the components.
His platoon leader, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Cynthia Bingaman, Avionics platoon leader, noted that Paljarvi “is mature and diverse and brings that higher level of professionalism to the table. His work ethics are implacable, and his knowledge and experience allows him to easily train other soldiers who work with him. Over the last nine months he has conducted over 400 maintenance hours, and has processed over 600 work orders, which in our world is going above and beyond.”
An unexpected occurrence for him, during this deployment, was seeing the Finnish flag flying over Camp Marmal. He visited with the Finnish army when he first got in country because their camp was positioned near his unit’s sleeping quarters. He said he would speak Finnish with them, and introduced them to soldiers in the 127th ASB. He built a friendship with them, shooting with them at the range, inviting them to tour the helicopters, and even using their sauna, which is an important part of Finnish culture, on numerous occasions.
Among his most memorable experiences, besides this deployment, are the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, since his sister was in Manhattan at the time, and his parents were in Washington, D.C.; and the moment the media announced the death of Osama bin Laden when he was at B.C.T.
As for the future, after this deployment, Paljarvi will have 3 ½ years left on his military contract. During that time, he would like to volunteer for the Special Forces as an engineer. He revealed that his inspiration and respect for the military, and especially for the Special Forces, comes from two of his heroes: Lauri Allan Törni, later known as Larry Thorne, a Finnish army captain, who was highly medaled after World War II and eventually transferred to the U.S. Special Forces to serve in the Vietnam War; and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Corbit Flannery, who was not only in the U.S. Special Forces, but is Paljarvi’s best friend’s dad.
After leaving the Army, he would like “to start an adventure travel business in Alaska,” with his wife Lynn Marie and his children, Matthew, Aili, and Aksel. He said he would like to open this business because “only in America” can you have private property and the ability to own your own business. He believes in this dream because of his numerous hobbies, to include: diving, fishing, boating, orienteering and bush craft; plus, his wife wants to open a bed and breakfast. He would additionally like to open a cross-fit gym there. They plan to be a one-stop shop for vacationers, opening their home to any adventurous person wanting to get away.