When former Marine Corps captain Zach Iscol went out for beers with his former commander, they talked about the 33 men in their battalion who had been killed in action in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.
Unfortunately, tragedy did not end there.
“[We] realized that there’d soon be a point in time when we’d lost more Marines to suicide than to enemy action,” Iscol says. “It’s an epidemic.”
That moment six years ago led to the founding of the Headstrong Project, a New York-based nonprofit that helps veterans heal the wounds that have plagued so many of their lives as a result of the experience of war and beyond — in particular, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Today about 15 percent of the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. And veteran suicides occur at an alarming rate, with the Department of Veterans Affairs reporting that about 22 veterans killing themselves every day.
Iscol decided he wanted to do something about this problem by providing veterans with top-notch mental health care, free of charge. He joined forces with two staffers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City: Ann Beeder, a clinical psychiatrist who has treated patients suffering from trauma for more than two decades, and Gerard Ilaria, a licensed social worker and health care professional who has dedicated much of his career to caring for people with HIV. Together they co-founded Headstrong.
At Headstrong, post-9/11 veterans can receive confidential treatment at no cost, and without bureaucracy or paperwork — or the stigma that often surrounds mental health counseling.
“These are good people who have to make impossible life-and-death decisions,” says Iscol, 39. “And you have to live with those decisions. And when you’re a good person it can be really hard to live with those decisions.”
There is no cap to the number of counseling sessions veterans can partake in. According to Iscol, the program currently has more than 500 veterans in treatment across 18 cities.
“We’ve treated over 700 veterans in six years,” he says. “And we’ve had zero suicides that have been in our treatment program.”
Ilaria said that helping veterans in the workplace is a big part of the program. It’s an important part of getting their lives back on track.
“Veterans make excellent leaders and they’re great on a team,” says Ilaria, 57. “But they can’t really do well at their job if their mental health isn’t in order.”
Todd Bowers, director of WeWork’s Veterans Initiative, says that Headstrong is a valuable resource for veterans and their loved ones.
“By providing cost-free, bureaucracy-free, and stigma-free treatment for the hidden wounds of war, Headstrong and their incredible team have helped to shape the narrative around post-9/11 veterans and their families by showing that the right help at the right time can heal anyone,” says Bowers, who was a staff sergeant with the Marine Corps serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Life ‘changed in the blink of an eye’
One of Headstrong’s success stories is Joe Quinn, who was a year away from graduating from West Point in 2001. But a week after he received his senior class ring, a celebratory event, the World Trade Center was attacked. “It all changed in the blink of an eye,” Quinn says.
His 23-year-old brother Jimmy was on the 104th floor when Flight 11 hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001. A graduate of Manhattan College, Jimmy was working for Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm whose offices occupied the 101st through 105th floors. The company lost 658 employees, including Quinn’s brother. “All of the sudden there was this punch in the face,” says Quinn. His classmates at West Point realized, as Quinn puts it, “that this is why we’re here.”
He graduated as a lieutenant and joined the Army, serving two tours in Iraq before being deployed in Afghanistan as a civilian counterinsurgency advisor for General David Petraeus. He then earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School and returned to West Point as an instructor at its Combatting Terrorism Center.
For 14 years Quinn held onto a complex set of feelings wrapped up in the grief of his brother’s death and the experiences surrounding the deaths of many of his fellow soldiers. Quinn, now 38, described in a personal essay how his feelings compounded and manifested repeatedly over the years: a heaviness in his chest; a warm flush of blood rising to his head; a sharp jolt of heat stinging his heart. He had PTSD. At first he thought he felt guilt, but eventually realized it was shame. “I placed no value on myself, which led to depression and aggression,” he wrote. “I thought going to war would save me, but it made things worse.”
After referring numerous friends to Headstrong, Quinn decided in 2015 that it was time to seek help for himself there.
Quinn now serves as the executive director of Headstrong, working from his office at WeWork 42nd Street. “I jump out of bed [to go to work],” he says. Quinn, who grew up in Brooklyn, also continues the annual tradition of the “Jimmy Quinn Mets Game” in which he and early 200 family and friends go to Citi Field in Queens for a ballgame.
Quinn isn’t the only member of Headstrong’s management to seek help at his eventual place of employment. Dustin Shryock, the nonprofit’s director of operations, served two tours in Iraq. During his second deployment in 2007 and 2008, he says his unit set a new record for the number of days in a row during which they were engaged with direct fire, indirect fire, mortar fire, and grenades.
Like many veterans, Shryrock, 35, had trouble transitioning back to civilian life. He had left his home state of California for New York City, enrolling in graduate school, but was doing poorly, and began to notice that he was experiencing anxiety and depression. “I was not going home anymore. I was staying out all night. I quit responding at work. [NYU] was about to kick me out because I’d rather be at the bar than at class,” says Shryrock, who also works from WeWork 42nd Street.
Then, in 2014, he sought help. “I was actually told, ‘You look sick.’” Friends referred him to Headstrong and he’s never turned back — first as a client and now running its day-to-day operations. “That’s when you start to do the work,” says Shryrock. “You address moral injury. Consistent bombardment or enemy fire. You address the absurdity of war. Thanks goodness I cleaned myself up.”
Photos by Frank Mullaney