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Healing with Headstrong

Culture Watch
Zachary Iscol, founder of The Headstrong Project.

By Christopher Mason

Zachary Iscol, a combat-decorated Marine Corps officer, fought in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004—a brutal engagement considered the bloodiest conflict of the war in Iraq. “We were one of the hardest hit battalions,” he says.

After returning to civilian life, Iscol discovered that many of his friends struggled with the psychological ravages of war, including grief, depression, anxiety and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was horrified to learn that many sufferers encountered intolerable delays in receiving adequate mental healthcare from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In describing the dire situation to friends, Iscol considered himself fortunate: As the son of philanthropic parents, if he were to find himself in similar anguish, he could get expert care from top psychiatrists, no matter the cost. “Why can’t we do that for our veterans?” he asked. In 2013, Iscol founded the Headstrong Project, a charity whose mission is to enable military veterans suffering with PTSD to receive cost-free mental healthcare. The following year, the group launched a partnership in Manhattan with Weill Cornell Medical College, one of the nation’s leading mental healthcare centers, to develop a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive program for veterans in need.

“We don’t have volunteers. We work with clinicians who have at least 10 years of experience,” Iscol explains. Treatment is tailored to the needs of each veteran and is without charge, confidential and bureaucracy-free.

The need is urgent. According to the VA, more than 200,000 former service members of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, but the VA’s flawed bureaucracy has seemed incapable of keeping up with the volume of requests. Meanwhile, brave women and men who served their country have been dying in tragic circumstances. Approximately 20 combat veterans commit suicide every day.

Fortunately, tremendous advances have been made in clinical therapies for PTSD since veterans returned from Vietnam. “We know there are programs that do work,” Iscol says. “So people can get better and get their lives back.”

Over the past two years, Cornell has treated more than 160 veterans and Iscol expects the number to increase significantly over the next year. The Headstrong Project is also expanding into areas with a high population of veterans in need of effective mental healthcare. Branches have already opened in San Diego and Houston, and in May the nonprofit staged its first fundraising gala in Chicago, where it plans to debut a clinic later this year.


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