I met Tom Palozola during my first year at Webster. We sat down at Weber’s Front Row for a lunch interview to discuss his plans as the newly confirmed president of the Student Veteran’s Organization (SVO). Talking with another veteran, even if you have never met, is like sitting down with an old friend. Marines and infantry in particular have a distinctive style of speech that tends to be lost on civilians. That day we discussed his plans for the SVO, along with swapping stories about our times in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I never saw any signs of distress that day at Weber’s, none of the signs that he may be going through any sort of mental distress. I always search for those traits whenever talking with another veteran, because few will ever openly admit to it before it’s too late. And I’m so goddamn tired of burying my brothers and sisters.
Tom Palazola is the fifth veteran I know to take their own life. He is one of the few that I did not serve alongside. All five have happened in the six years since I left the Marine Corps. Men who were as close to me as brothers were just gone. Each one chips away at you a bit more until you become numb to something as dire as taking your own life. I think the worst part is that I never suspected any of them needed help.
Veterans of America’s wars commit suicide at a rate of approximately 22 a day. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA), “After adjusting for differences in age and sex, risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adults. After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 19 percent higher among male Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adult men. After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 2.5 times higher among female Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adult women.”
This trend is a fairly new one that I believe stems from the modern American perception of war. American culture has created an obsession of romanticizing war and violence. We heap praise on our veterans for their service and sacrifice regardless of what they may or may not have done during that service. Their hearts are in a good place by doing this, but it may not be what we need.
Just imagine you are 19 years old with people coming up to shake your hand when they see you in uniform. They buy your meals, upgrade you to first class on flights and little old ladies offer you their granddaughter’s phone numbers. These have all happened to me while in uniform.
Now imagine that feeling of alienation when you take off the uniform and nobody gives a damn who you are. Those feelings lead many of us veterans to feel like our best days in life are behind us by age 22.
That feeling of isolation is only compounded when you realize that, for the first time in your adult life, you are no longer surrounded by people with shared experience. Friends you spent four years with are suddenly split up and either sent home or to new duty stations. You cannot make the same jokes or recall stories of war with civilians; they just do not get it.
The United States military drills the warrior mentality into its service members from day one. The idea that asking for help makes you weak is incredibly commonplace, especially in the combat arms professions like infantry and artillery. That mindset and training does not just disappear once you leave the military. I have thrown out my back twice in the last year and I was ashamed of myself for taking time off work to get it looked at. It took me three years and a significant drinking problem before I was even able to admit to myself I may need help. Most do not bother addressing their mental health issues at all.
High suicide rates among veterans are not going to go away anytime soon unless Americans step up to make a change. If you are a civilian, do not romanticize war. Do not ask veterans if they have killed anyone or if they have PTSD or depression. Do not badger them for cool war stories that make you venerate their service. Instead, focus on the here and now. Ask them about their plans for the future and for the life they want to lead. How can we grow as people when all anyone wants to talk about is what we did when we were young?
For the other veterans out there, no matter what, you are not alone. You are not weak for bringing home scars from war, you are human. True strength is recognizing that you are hurting and seeking a solution to it.
Depression is not something you are just forced to live with; it can be beaten just like every other enemy. But you can’t do it alone. Seek out help, whether it is through the trained psychologists at the VA or with an old Vietnam veteran in a bar over drinks. Talk about the burdens you carry with you. More often than not those same people are dealing with the same issues you are.
If you are not connected with any veterans, email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will always take the time to listen and counsel to a member of our military. It does not matter if you never served in combat or if we have never spoken before; your life is valuable and I will do everything in my power to make you see that. You survived the service, and you can sure as hell survive the fight after.
Rest in peace, Tom.