Semper Fi–serving his fellow veterans
Honored as one of the Grand Marshalls of the 2019 Veterans Day Parade in New York City, former Marine Captain, Zachary Iscol, is the real deal. Semper Fi. He served from 2001 through 2007, including two tours of duty in Iraq and participating in the Second Battle of Fallujah.
The Pound Ridge native says, “The Ward Pound Ridge Reservation was something special for a young boy. I spent lots of time in the woods and playing tag and capture the flag, and building forts, shooting BB guns, and doing other activities which probably contributed to my abilities as a soldier.” But about why he became a Marine, Iscol reveals, “I always knew I wanted to serve. My grandfather and other relatives served in World War II, and my father served, and I think that instilled in me a sense of American duty, honor, and country that are central to who I am. And, being a Jew, and having relatives who fought to liberate the Nazi death camps and end the Holocaust, just made military service seem like my natural destiny.” Iscol spent two summers doing military training while a student at Cornell University and joined the Marines on August 11, 2001—just one month before 9/11.
When he returned from the front, Iscol was compelled to tell his story—mistakes made, lessons learned, and transparency about what was still happening as the war raged on. He returned to Iraq as a filmmaker, and eventually wrote, directed, and produced The Western Front, a documentary that debuted at the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2010.
Iscol is now married, living in Manhattan, and a father to four kids, but he also identifies as a part of the Marine family. He cites his battalion commander, Colonel Willie Buhl, and others with whom he served, as having taught him much about being a man. And Iscol founded and runs two businesses dedicated to assisting his fellow veterans: Task & Purpose, a digital media company for active military and veterans, and Hirepurpose, which offers veterans job referral and employment advice.
What drives Iscol today is providing veterans with top-quality mental healthcare. “I’m haunted by the fact that an equal number of men and women in my battalion have now died from suicide since being home as the number killed in battle. Post-traumatic stress can be overwhelming, and we have the science to prove the effectiveness of mental healthcare. It’s treatable, and I believe veterans should have the best access to the best care that America has to offer.”
In 2012 Iscol co-founded the Headstrong Project to take on that mission. In partnership with Weill Cornell Medicine, the not-for-profit provides free, top-quality mental health treatment for veterans through a network of medical professionals in 25 cities. They have developed a system of patient intake and stabilization, reprocessing, and reintegration that delivers positive and measurable results. Headstrong has already treated over 1,500 veterans, is on track to treat 1,500 this year, has the capacity to double that number each coming year, and boasts a success rate of close to 90% achieved after an average of only about eight months in treatment!
It is sometimes said that “On the seventh day God rested—and the Marines filled sandbags,” and it is with that purpose and energy that Iscol works to support Headstrong. The organization has yet to receive funding from the VA, so grants and corporate and private contributions have to pay the entire budget. With typically Marine-like selflessness and focus, Iscol deflects attention from himself to direct it to the foundation’s needs, encouraging anyone who is moved by the mission to contribute (getheadstrong.org).
General James F. Amos, the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, famously declared, “A Marine is a Marine. There’s no such thing as a former Marine. You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform, and you’re in a different phase of your life.” Zachary Iscol has apparently taken that proclamation to heart.