From California, to Texas, to New York, people from every corner of the country traveled to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis on June 2, 2017 to honor Corporal Tom Palozola at his funeral. The Marine veteran committed suicide on Memorial Day weekend.
Palozola’s brother said his death came as a shock to those closest to him, as he was known to be the strong one.
The night before the funeral, two important people in Palozola’s life met for the first time. His brother Matt Palozola, and Jason Blakemore, Tom Palozola’s Veterans Affairs (VA) counselor and friend at Webster. Matt Palozola asked Blakemore to be a pallbearer at the funeral. Later, he asked him to become a part of his budding plan to keep his brother’s memory alive, the Zola Initiative.
The initiative is comprised of veterans and volunteers with the mission to continue Tom Palozola’s legacy of helping veterans adjust to civilian life. The Zola Initiative is a nonprofit organization, run by those closest to Tom Palozola from his brother, to those who served beside him in combat. Matt Palozola wants the initiative to prevent as many veteran suicides as possible.
“That’s kind of why I’m doing what I’m doing now,” Matt Palozola said. “[Tom] had so many positive things going for him, but with PTSD and stuff like that pretty much no one is really immune to it. Everybody is vulnerable to it coming from our background.”
Tom Palozola devoted much of his time to bringing veterans together through the Student Veterans Organization (SVO) during his time at Webster. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Management. While an undergrad, he was the president of SVO and received a $9,000 grant from Home Depot to open the Veterans Resource Center on campus. Webster renamed the center to the Cpl. Tom Palozola Student Veteran Resource Center in late October.
James Messenger served with Tom Palozola in Iraq and was a fellow student at Webster. He witnessed his friend grow and lead other veterans on campus. Messenger is now the treasurer of the Zola Initiative and wants to continue Tom Palozola’s work.
“We all have this real desire to do something Tom would be proud of,” Messenger said. “He was very proud of getting the vet center at Webster. It was all he talked about for a while. He would be proud of us doing [The Zola Initiative] in his name.”
Messenger recalled Tom Palozola’s passion for helping fellow veterans in the fight against veterans committing suicide. In the summer of 2016, Tom Palozola did 22 pushups for 22 days in honor of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.
Many veterans, especially those who experienced combat, struggle to replicate the close bonds and camaraderie they experienced with those in their unit when they come back to civilian life according to Blakemore.
“Combat veterans come from all different backgrounds and are very close,” Blakemore said. “The most diverse groups you could ever imagine [coming together]. A lot like [the diversity] in Webster’s student body.”
The initiative wants to build a network of veterans who support each other and look out for one another. Blakemore said these connections can act as a way to check on other veterans who may be struggling, and give the initiative the ability to extend a line of communication and support.
“The goal is when veterans return from the close camaraderie of their unit, they still feel supported by veterans who are willing to watch their back here at home, where their struggles are not the same as they were in combat,” Blakemore said.
As a VA counselor at Webster, Blakemore sees how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect veterans after leaving the military. He said veterans can be home for years before they realize the effect their service had on them.
“Tom was the third that I’ve lost to suicide,” Blakemore said. “The other two I served with and it doesn’t get easier. The ones that I lost were years after they came home, not just months. Years and years of things compiling on them to the point that they saw no way out.”
According to the initiative’s website, it has four main goals: to build veteran centers in college campuses around the country, to create veteran outreach programs in communities throughout the country, to grant scholarships to veterans who have exhausted their VA benefits and to raise and donate funds to other veteran suicide prevention organizations.
“If we take the things that Tom stood for, and what we love about Tom, and we continue to carry those on, those are going to be healing points,” Blakemore said. “Tom was willing to help anybody and he was always taking the initiative. We’ve had veterans who didn’t even know Tom wanting to be a part of this.”
One of those veterans is James Taylor, a student at Webster majoring in Interactive Digital Media. Taylor did not even know Tom Palozola before this project. He volunteered to work with Matt Palozola on the nonprofit’s logo design and also produced a video for the website of Matt Palozola telling his brother’s story and the mission of the initiative. Taylor said using his creativity to tell another veterans story was healing.
“It hit really close to home with Tom’s story,” Taylor said.
Taylor has struggled with PTSD and suicidal thoughts post-combat service in the Air Force and said veterans struggle to admit when they need help. Taylor explained how veterans worry about how admitting to a problem could affect their career in the military. When veterans admit they have mental problems, they run the risk of being sent home or demoted.
Matt Palozola said in his experience most veterans feel pressure to appear strong all the time. The military demands a certain level of composure and seriousness, limiting emotional expression in order to be a more efficient soldier.
“Most veterans have in some shape or form the same mindset that my brother had,” Matthew Palozola said. “You have to appear to be strong and showing [emotion] is perceived as a weakness.”
Blakemore, a board member, said they hope the Zola Initiative will continue bringing veterans together and helping veterans as Tom Palozola did while he attended Webster. He said the initiative wants to bring veterans of all ages across St. Louis, and eventually the nation, together to combat veteran suicide.
“If this organization is able to help even one veteran from committing suicide, it’s done its job,” Blakemore said.