Veteran suicides aren’t just faceless statistics to Rick Zappella. Sadly, they’ve become part of his life.
A U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) report released last year found that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans took their own lives on a daily basis.
“I personally know 12 that have done so,” said Zappella, a former staff sergeant who spent nine years in the U.S. Marine Corps and was deployed four times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-09.
His company “conducted hundreds of raids and patrols” in “some of the most dangerous” conditions imaginable.
Zappella, who was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal with “V” (or valor) device, recounted the details of one raid.
“We had received intelligence that a high value target was in the vicinity of the town,” he said. “The raid was to go down at 3 o’clock in the morning. It was winter, it was raining and it was cold.”
While waiting, one of his fellow Marines told him he had “a bad feeling about this one tonight.”
“The look in his eye, I’ll never forget (it),” Zappella said. “We were all scared. Everybody was scared. But we looked to one another for support because we were all in it together.”
After they entered the building and began conducting a room-to-room search for the target, Zappella saw “women and children screaming and running.”
“You don’t know who is good or bad,” he said. “Your heart is pounding and all you can think of is ‘how do I get out of here alive?’ The wrong decision or the slightest hesitation could send you to prison or to the cemetery.”
Zappella urged audience members to remember “these are the situations that our service personnel find themselves in every day to keep our country safe.”
“They fight the enemy in foreign lands, so we don’t have to fight them here at home,” he said. “Keep in mind, the average age of an American service member is 20 years old.”
Zappella continues to be impressed by the “willingness” of U.S. service members “to continue to put their lives at risk day after day, year after year, deployment after deployment.”
“I have friends that I joined the Marine Corps with that are still serving nearly 16 years later,” he said. “One such Marine was deployed overseas, in combat, more than 13 times. His unending dedication to this country is remarkable. There are many thousands just like him who keep the watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”