December 16, 2017

The heroic life and traumatic death of Tom Palozola

U.S. Marine Mike Nowicki woke up on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend thinking it was another celebration weekend. Then his phone rang.

The call was about Nowicki’s friend of 18 years, U.S. Marine Tom Palozola. Nowicki went on with his morning routine but feared the worst.

Nowicki knew Palozola suffered from depression. Palozola had sustained a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. He suspected he had cancer from chemical fumes associated with burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been trying to get an appointment with a specialist and he recently had to put down his rescued mastiff, Basilone.

Photo Credit: Mike Nowicki Tom Palozola and Mike Nowicki serving in Iraq together in 2007.

Photo Credit: Mike Nowicki
Tom Palozola and Mike Nowicki serving in Iraq together in 2007.

Nowicki ate breakfast, showered and drove to Palozola’s Maplewood apartment. He went from the first floor to the third, each step heavier than the last.

Nowicki walked down the hallway to the last apartment. He unlocked the door and peeked his head inside. He saw his friend’s body on the floor, he allowed himself to hope that Palozola was sleeping off a hard night of drinking.

“‘Hey, what’s going on, man?’” Nowicki said.

No response.

Nowicki took a few steps inside and saw the red spray of blood on the wall. He was unable to recognize his friend’s face. The .45-caliber handgun Palozola used to take his own life had fallen between his legs.  

Nowicki sat down on the couch, staring straight ahead. A mix of emotions welled up. Palozola had been the strong one, the rock for Nowicki and many other veterans.

“‘F–k you, man. F–k you,’” Nowicki said.

“We had no idea it got to that point”

Corporal Tom Palozola, 31, shot himself on May 27 of this year. The Webster University graduate received a $9,000 grant in 2015 to open the Veteran Resource Center at Webster, which now bears his name. Webster University has around 17,000 students worldwide. Today, 7,000 of these 17,000 students are military students.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention claims that around 9,500 veterans committed suicide in 2016.

James Messenger served with Palozola in Iraq. He said if the aftermath of serving got to Palozola, then no one is immune to suicide.

“All the Marines that came out for his services, we all looked up to Tom pretty much the whole time we knew him, for being the strong minded one and very hard-willed,” Messenger said. “If it can take him, ain’t none of us safe. If any of us lose what we hold most dear, we’re probably gonna need to be on some kind of watch.”

Palozola’s brother, Matt, was ready to spend some time in a secluded area in the Ozarks when Nowicki called him to break the news of his brother’s death. Matt Palozola then drove back to St. Louis to his brother’s apartment, and he said sitting in the car for two hours thinking about his brother made him feel worse. Matt Palozola was in shock, with a thousand questions about his brother’s suicide.

“Coming home [from war, Tom] seemed fine and happy. He always seemed happy, never seemed depressed or anything like that. Some people are just good at hiding it,” Matt Palozola said. “We had no idea that it got to that point.”

Contributed Photo: Matt Palozola Three generations of Palozola military men. Top left is great Grandpa Leo (WWI), top right is Grandpa Len (WWII), bottom left is Tom Palozola (Iraq and Afghanistan) and bottom right is Matt Palozola (Afghanistan).

Contributed Photo: Matt Palozola
Three generations of Palozola military men. Top left is great Grandpa Leo (WWI), top right is Grandpa Len (WWII), bottom left is Tom Palozola (Iraq and Afghanistan) and bottom right is Matt Palozola (Afghanistan).

Matt Palozola recalled that by helping a fellow recruit during Marine Corps boot camp, his brother cost himself the chance to graduate on his first try. In the final week of training, a fellow recruit had gotten hurt and Tom Palozola put the man on his shoulders and carried him. That left Tom Palozola with a hiatal hernia and tore the muscles in his stomach. He was medically separated from the Marines three days before his boot camp graduation.

Tom Palozola left the boot camp, moved into Nowicki’s basement and got an advanced hiatal hernia surgery. He spent an entire year living with Nowicki, rehabilitating himself. He worked out, ran, lifted weights and ate a healthy diet. He eventually signed up for the Marine Corps again and went to his second round of basic training. He graduated and went on his first deployment in his early 20s to Ramadi, Iraq in 2006.

Matt Palozola said his brother has always been a support for those around him and wanted to appear strong for them. Tom Palozola refused to admit or show something was wrong. Matt Palozola said his brother was too prideful. Being an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, Tom Palozola perhaps thought showing emotion would be perceived as a weakness, Matt Palozola said. He said friends and family expect to see veterans returning from deployment act brave, even heroic.

“You come home and you don’t wanna be like ‘oh well I got some issues I gotta work with,’” Matt Palozola said. “I feel like it’s probably difficult for most veterans to ask for help.”

Medical Problems

Nowicki said Tom Palozola suspected he had some kind of throat cancer after leaving the Marine Corps. Palozola’s unit used burn pits to dispose of their waste, and a few of the Marines in their unit died from esophageal cancer. They believe the exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan caused the cancer, Nowicki said. The Marine unit burned batteries, trash, paint, plastics, car engines and heavy metals. They would throw it all in a 55 gallon drum, pour diesel fuel on it and burn it.

Nowicki said burn pits are to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans what Agent Orange was to Vietnam veterans.The VA listed 122,073 veterans and service members in its latest registry of those with health concerns linked to burn pits.

Nowicki said Tom Palozola went to his primary doctor, who in turn sent him to another doctor and then another doctor and another. He would vomit whenever he ate and could not hold anything down. He was confident something was wrong.

“This process of them taking a month, two months, three months to get you to the doctor at the VA started wearing Tom down,” Nowicki said. “He was like ‘I can’t get the help I need. He goes ‘I feel it, I’m dying.”

Waiting so long to receive medical help from a specialist weighed heavily on Tom Palozola. This frustration was one factor that, in combination with many others, led to his suicide, Nowicki said. Tom Palozola was two-thirds of the way to receiving medical attention when he took his own life.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General released a report in 2015 which found 300,000 veterans likely died while waiting for VA health care.

“And then when you mix the horrors of war which you’ve survived through with the feeling of helplessness in the hands of the VA, it creates some form of whirlwind,” Nowicki said.

Becoming a Marine

Those “horrors of war” started with Tom Palozola’s first deployments to Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He served as an infantry Marine in what Matt Palozola described as a violent area with intense firefighting.

Tom Palozola saw Iraqi families accidentally run over improvised explosive devices (IED) meant for U.S. Marines. He and his fellow comrades would have to go pick up the remaining body parts. Matt Palozola, a Marine himself, said military personnel have a different mindset when it comes to seeing corpses: they expect to see the death of their enemy, but civilians losing their lives is devastating.

“It’s one thing to see one guy shooting at you dead; you don’t really feel too bad for that guy,” Matt Palozola said. “It’s another thing when you see a handful of women and children that are blown up because they ran over a bomb that somebody else planted for us. When you’re in a war zone you see dead innocent people, which is traumatizing.”

After coming back from his first deployment, one of Tom Palozola’s friends from the same barracks died of a self-inflicted gunshot.. Matt Palozola said it is questionable whether it was accidental or intentional.

James Messenger served with Tom Palozola in Iraq, in both first and second deployments. The second deployment was to Al Qaim in 2008.

Photo Credit: Matt Palozola

Photo Credit: Matt Palozola

Messenger said there was constant fighting, and the enemy would remotely activate IEDs with cellphones while unseen by the Marines. Some of their men got injured and they lost multiple trucks due to IEDs.

The intensity of that experience made Messenger want to leave the Marine Corps. Being blown up by roadside bombs is not what he signed up for, never knowing whether some rock on the road is another bomb, he said.

“I won that gamble multiple times and I didn’t re-enlist to go back over because I didn’t feel like I was gonna keep winning,” Messenger said. “How many times can this happen before you don’t come back from it?”

Matt Palozola signed up for the Marine Corps and graduated from boot camp while his brother was on his second deployment. Tom Palozola decided to extend his contract for a third deployment after learning Matt Palozola was going to Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Due to the delay of paperwork on the administrative end of the Marine Corps, Matt Palozola was wrapping up his time in Afghanistan when Tom Palozola was ready to head overseas. The brothers did not serve together, but they did run into each other in Camp Dwyer. Tom Palozola had just landed as Matt Palozola was getting ready to fly out of the country.

During his year-long deployment in Afghanistan, Tom Palozola was a machine gunner for one of his platoon’s vehicles. He was tasked with ensuring the safety of the Personnel Security Detail for Regimental Combat Team 7. The security personnel includes the sergeant major and colonel commanding the entire area.

Afghanistan included more heavy combat than Iraq. While there, Tom Palozola’s vehicle was blown up, and he was knocked unconscious. He spent a couple days in a hospital bed with a grade three concussion and a traumatic brain injury, but he could not wait to get up again and finish the rest of his deployment.

Working for the VA

Messenger said pressure often builds up for Marines once they get out of the military if they do not have a solid plan for what to do next. To fight this issue, Tom Palozola pursued his education at several colleges and eventually landed at Webster University. Tom Palozola became the president of the Student Veteran Organization and received a $9,000 grant to start the Veteran Resource Center on campus.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Management, he got a job at the Veterans Affairs (VA) office in St. Louis with Messenger. They both started in the mailroom and worked their way up to work full time as legal administrative specialists in the benefits call center.

Messenger said they were both thankful for getting a job with the VA. He said as infantrymen, they did not have any transferable skills to make it in the civilian life. They both were not interested in becoming police officers or security guards.

“It was nice that when we started, we both kind of felt like we both got something to really build upon outside of the military, because I don’t think either of us until that point had a clue as to what was going to stabilize our lives,” Messenger said. “[The job took] away the uncertainty and put us on some kind of a path.”

At the call center, they would receive phone calls from veterans and their beneficiaries, usually due to not receiving money or benefits. Messenger said veterans call because there is a big problem somewhere, which can lead them to be angry and frustrated. This was challenging at first for Tom Palozola and Messenger. Messenger said veterans hate calling to find a “greenhorn,” or new employee, on the phone who does not know what is going on with their claim.

“You can’t hang up on them, either,” Messenger said. “They can sit there and scream at the top of their lungs and you have to take it.”

Messenger said Tom Palozola had a good understanding of why veterans might be disgruntled and did not let the outrage bother him. Despite the angry phone calls, Messenger said the help he and Tom Palozola provided was worth working for the VA and it was especially rewarding when they helped someone who lost a loved one.

“[Tom] enjoyed it, and he was rewarded by it, but it wasn’t what kept him happy,” Messenger said. “His dog was.”

Basilone
Tom Palozola’s coping mechanism was exercising and lifting weights. Messenger said Tom Palozola and his dog would run around Creve Coeur lake almost every day. This time with his dog was beneficial to dealing with stress and staying focused, Messenger said.

Tom Palozola named his dog Basilone, after the World War II Marine John Basilone, a Medal of Honor recipient. John Basilone is well known among Marines and Messenger said Tom Palozola wanted his dog to have a prideful name.

Photo Credit: Matt Palozola Tom Palozola and his dog, Basilone.

Photo Credit: Matt Palozola
Tom Palozola and his dog, Basilone.

The 10-year-old mastiff suffered a terminal liver failure. Tom Palozola tried treating it with special foods, but Basilone could not take the struggle any longer. Tom Palozola had to put Basilone down a month before he took his own life.

Infantrymen face darkness and loneliness after getting out of the military, Messenger said. Veterans may start feeling secluded, and having a pet, something that is living and requires care, keeps veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) calm and busy. Messenger said putting Basilone down pulled the rug from under Tom Palozola’s feet.

“The dog was Tom’s anchor in life,” Messenger said. “I think that created a void that wasn’t going to be filled. His mindset went from stable to not.”

Funeral

Palozola’s funeral attracted service members from around the country. Messenger said it was an emotional mess with many shocked and crying faces. He said it was amazing to see hundreds of people coming together to honor Palozola.

“[Tom] was a born leader. He was someone that was always willing to take charge to forge a

path,” Messenger said. “That’s why so many people came in from around the country for his services. I was blown away by the amount of support. Everybody he got involved with, he touched on a positive basis. He always left a positive mark.”

It is important to be aware of the warning signs of suicide. Some warning signs may include talking about wanting to die, looking for a way to kill onself, talking about feelings of hopeless and having no purpose or increasing the use of alcohol or drugs. 

If someone you know shows some of these signs, please do not leave them alone, remove any firearms, drugs/alcohol or sharp objects, call the suicide prevention lifeline or take the person to an emergency room. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

This is a free, 24/7 confidential service designed to provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress with support, information and local resources.

The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1

This crisis line connects veterans and service members in crisis with a qualified member of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  They will respond through a private, toll-free hotline, online chat or text.

Crisis Text Line: 741-741

For anyone in crisis, this line is a free text-message system set-up to connect you with a trained crisis counselor right away.

***This online version of the story has additions to the print one.

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  • Carlos Alcala

    Well done.