I received a text late at night while watching a movie with my wife at our home on May 27, 2017. My friend Mitch asked if I was able to talk. That was strange, because Mitch knew he could call me anytime, so I knew something was wrong before I received the call.
Mitch and I became friends after we were slated to serve as the two medics for a platoon of Marines for a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan. There wasn’t much he could say to surprise me anymore. But when he told me a Marine from that platoon, Cpl. Tom Palozola (Zola), committed suicide earlier that day, I was shocked.
I experienced confusion, anger, sadness, disbelief and guilt almost simultaneously. Zola was not the type of person to do this. He was well liked, generally happy, intelligent, capable, funny and full of life. Zola was strong, and not the type of person who stopped fighting.
Trying to understand the reason why someone commits suicide might be futile. There’s a possibility that even Zola didn’t understand the underlying reasons for his pain. But after my initial reactions to his death, I found myself stuck on asking why.
I don’t know why Zola chose to take his life. But I can reflect on my experiences transitioning from active duty, and those of my friends, to try and understand what might have been going on with him.
Imagine a rollercoaster. The ride has ups and downs for everybody, but they are tolerable for those passengers who started at the beginning and are strapped in. Now imagine jumping on a rollercoaster mid ride. It would be chaotic, painful and maybe even deadly. And while every person on that ride goes through the same ups and downs, the experience for the passenger who jumped on in the middle would be much different.
The problem is I started living day-to-day as if life could end at any moment, and that line of thinking is hard to turn off. So when I came home my friends and family noticed a change in my behavior. They didn’t understand why I did certain things, but I didn’t understand why that was wrong. I simply acted in the way I had conditioned myself to act in order to survive both mentally and physically. I believe that damaged many of my relationships and made me feel more isolated.
I wonder if Zola had the same experience. I know he saw combat. It can be discouraging to come home and feel like you don’t have a place, you’re misunderstood or you’re broken. After the excitement of separating to start a new chapter, going to college, meeting new people and starting a new job wears off, it’s easy to look around and wonder, “is this it?”
Many veterans separate for the right reasons. They want to go to college, get married, have a family and contribute to society in other meaningful ways. But it can be easy to forget how valuable all of that is and, instead, wish for the adventure and prestige of military service. It can be easy for veterans to focus on the negative. Especially if they don’t value themselves as much as they want others to value them.
So what’s the point? All veterans are insecure, fragile and need constant validation? No. If anything, I want to say veterans are like anybody else. Veterans have problems, just like everybody else.
I am very bad about keeping in touch with friends once we move apart. I lost contact with Zola a couple of years ago. I know he had a good family, and I know friends who talked to him often. But I didn’t. And while I’m not arrogant enough to think my presence in his life may have helped prevent his death, it’s hard not to feel guilty that I didn’t even know something was wrong. It’s hard not to feel guilty that I didn’t even try.
If I can help create anything positive from Zola’s death, I hope it’s a message to care. Care about the people in your life and let them know that you do. If you want to do something meaningful for veterans, care enough to help them maintain their dignity through a difficult transition that can take years. Care enough to notice when someone might need help and then care enough to do something about it, even if it’s uncomfortable.