When Tom Palozola arrived at Webster University after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he struggled to fit in with his younger classmates. But he found solace in in the Student Veterans Organization.
As its president, Palozola worked tirelessly to acquire a grant to open a campus veterans center. He envisioned it as a refuge for veterans who also felt like campus outsiders.
Palozola had suffered a traumatic brain injury when a roadside bomb exploded in Afghanistan. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and died by suicide last May.
Since his passing, Webster University has dedicated the veterans center to him. His brother is working to keep his memory alive by funding other centers on campuses nationwide.
“When you get out, you want to connect with different people who have had similar experiences as you,” said Matt Palozola, also a Marine who also served in Afghanistan. “And that’s what Tom recognized as soon as he got out.”
Every day in the United States, 20 veterans die by suicide according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Doctors say that after returning home, veterans often have difficulties coping with their wartime experiences.
The trauma veterans experience while in combat can increase their likelihood to develop PTSD and can lead to thoughts of suicide, said Jeffrey Scherrer, a professor of family and community medicine at Saint Louis University.
“Unlike depression, there’s no established evidence-based medicine that is a pharmacological treatment," said Scherrer, who studies the effects of PTSD on lifestyle behaviors. “There’s no pill that will make PTSD go away.”
This year, the St. Louis VA Healthcare System has treated nearly 700 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan for PTSD. More than 1,300 veterans from the Vietnam War and other conflicts also sought treatment, said clinical psychologist Shawn O’Connor, who runs the VA clinic for veterans with PTSD who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Enhancing veteran resources
After the death of his older brother, Matt Palozola created a nonprofit organization called the Zola Initiative — named after the nickname Tom was given overseas. Its mission is to raise money to create veterans centers on college campuses.
“[We’re] trying to provide the help ... that the veterans need that they aren’t getting from the VA,” Matt Palozola said. “We can sit around and wait for them to fix the system for years and years and years, or we can get out there and start helping each other.”
Both brothers sought treatment through the VA system for insomnia and headaches but were discouraged by the lengthy wait times for care.
Matt Palozola said he and his brother had better experiences with community-based veteran support programs. He doesn’t believe the VA system is doing enough to prevent suicides and hopes the Zola Initiative spreads awareness about alternatives to VA treatment.
PTSD prevalence among veterans
Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have developed PTSD. The rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans sits at about 10 percent, according to clinical psychologist Paul Korte, team lead for the Behavioral Medicine and Neuropsychology Services at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Columbia, Missouri.
The rate of younger veterans who have PTSD is expected to rise, as U.S. involvement in the Middle East continues. Many veterans will not immediately be diagnosed with PTSD after returning home, Korte said.
Barriers exist for veterans when seeking treatment for PTSD. Adjusting to treatment can be daunting for a veteran returning to civilian life.
“The most ideal situation … is 60 to 90 minute appointments, once a week, every week, for 12 weeks,” Korte said. “That can take a big chunk of time from someone who’s trying to manage a family, a job, etc. It is a big commitment.”
VA doctors say their healthcare system has begun offering more mental health services in recent years.
Korte said VA psychologists are attached to every primary care team. So when veterans go in for physical issues, doctors will ask them questions about their mental health.
The VA now uses a program to coordinate physical and mental health treatment that uses a statistical algorithm to identify veterans who are most at risk for suicide. The VA also offers a suicide prevention crisis hotline with call centers around the country.
VA clinicians say veterans who do not seek such help through the VA care system are at the greatest risk for suicide.
Webster University honors Tom Palozola
Meanwhile, the Palozola family’s work to focus on campus veterans continues. They shared Tom’s story in October, when Webster University renamed its campus veteran center.
Still in shock from his death, family and friends honored the work he had accomplished.
“Tom never put himself above other veterans on campus,” said Jason Blakemore, Webster’s counselor for the VetSuccess on Campus. “He always was the first one to do things and go out of his way to make things happen on campus for other people.”
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