December 17, 2017

Silence is deafening: veterans will not go quietly

“I cringe every single time I get a phone call from another veteran that I know,” is what Mike Nowicki told me while drinking his glass of whiskey. “I never know which phone call it’s going to be that I find out that somebody I love and care about is dead.”

This is the reality for many veterans. The fear of receiving another phone call about yet another veteran committing suicide or about to pull the trigger. Nowicki said his heart drops and his stomach crunches up. He feels a little rush of fear but he answers the phone. He answers because he know he needs to offer support and help for those reaching the bottom of a bottle.

I met Nowicki at Amvets Post 6, a private bar for veterans in Maplewood. Nowicki welcomed me to his “home territory,” and shared the most vulnerable experience with me. He opened up to me and walked me through the scene of finding his childhood best friend’s dead body. I’m not sure why Nowicki felt comfortable to give me all the details he did. I am a stranger, after all. Merely a reporter seeking a story to tell.

But this project is not just another story to tell. It touches on a nationwide problem. The Department of Veterans Affairs says 22 veterans commit suicide a day, that’s a veteran every 65 minutes. That’s one every hour.

I never knew Tom Palozola. But meeting his brother, meeting Nowicki and the rest of Tom’s friends and family members made him less of a stranger. The amount of love his friends have for him is so overwhelming I couldn’t help myself but get too close to the story.

Palozola’s story started with a short brief in The Journal’s first issue. We ran the brief without knowing what had happened to Palozola. We simply said “Webster graduate U.S. Marine Corporal Tom Palozola passed away.” We didn’t take the brief any further than this piece of information until curiosity hit us, and we started asking questions.

One veteran and one story led to a three-month-long project, because there are thousands other veterans out there suffering what Palozola suffered. Nowicki and Palozola’s brother, Matt, promised each other to never allow this to happen again. They launched the Zola Initiative to fulfill this promise. The Zola Initiative is a nonprofit organization aiming to spread awareness about veterans suicide and create veteran outreach programs.

“We’re going to ensure that Matt and I make it. Make it through this together,” Nowicki said. “We found a reason not to pull the trigger.”

Nowicki knows he will eventually hear about another veteran committing suicide. He knows this because he said it only takes sunrise to sunset for someone to reach for another glass of alcohol and load a gun.

“You don’t wake up in the morning wanting to kill yourself, but throughout the day, it starts to accumulate,” Nowicki said. “You wake up sane in the morning and by the time you’re in that [place], you’re absolutely psychotic.”

I cannot find the right words to tell you how devastating that was to hear. The war is out of our sight and veterans coming home are out of our minds. We are quick to send people to war and slow to help those who come back with war’s invisible wounds. The wounds of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. Twenty-two veterans a day has become just a number. It’s become so abstract. We’re so numb to what this number actually means.

Nowicki said he and his unit killed 500 Taliban members in seven months while in Sangin, Afghanistan. His Battalion as a whole killed 1,000 Talibans. Nowicki said service members get used to the adrenaline rush and the high speed of events.

Moving back to the slow civilian life is challenging. A veteran may start school and get a job and then things slow down and that’s when “the demons will catch up to you.” He left the Marine Corps in 2011 and struggled with his own demons.

“I’ve had pistols to my head in the past,” Nowicki said. “I’ve had a 12-gauge shotgun to my head in the past just because I was so pissed off at the world that I wanted my family to see me in a closed casket.”

The VA says 50 percent of veterans committed  suicide in 2011 by using a gun.

I was relieved to hear Nowicki is now out of this mindset. He said he found his support system. He said being a part of a community that understands and accepts him is what keeps him going.

“This post right here,” Nowicki said. “This very [veterans bar] right here saved my life.”

Civilians need to be aware of this epidemic. It may be a veteran you just walked by, or a veteran you just thanked for their service. We need to honor the dead and help heal the wounded. The experiences of war are forever stored in their memories. The shadows of who committed suicide are tangible.

If one veteran commits suicide every hour, then something is seriously wrong. I hope this project gets the conversation started because silence is deafening.

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