When Zach Iscol returned from his service in the Unites States Marine Corps a decade ago, he couldn’t help but notice that many of his friends were suffering, either from lack of access to care, or a complete inability to deal with the psychological trauma, often including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that soldiers often encounter in warfare.
“I don’t know anyone who has served in the last ten years who doesn’t know somebody who has died by suicide,” Iscol told Variety at Wednesday’s Words of War Benefit, a fundraiser for the Headstrong Project, held at Tribeca 360.
The Headstrong Project works with the Weill Cornell Medical College to create mental healthcare programs designed to help soldiers deal with what the organization calls “the hidden wounds” of war. Iscol, the program’s executive director, said he and his friends were “perplexed and a bit outraged” to discover that soldiers were often facing unreasonable waiting periods to get help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“And so, maybe somewhat naively, we set out to build a program that provides completely cost free, bureaucracy free, and confidential mental healthcare treatment to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” Iscol said during his speech at the fundraiser. Iscol, who is also the founder and CEO of career guidance company Hire Purpose, said that Headstrong has been so effective that one doesn’t even necessarily have to have served in the military to get help from the program; since no identification or paperwork is required, the only thing needed to get help is a desire to feel better.
During his remarks, Iscol also said that he’s heard from mental health workers who, as a rule, never give out their phone numbers that they now regularly give veterans their numbers and receive calls during especially difficult time periods, like the holidays.
In addition to dinner (pear salad, and steak fillets served family style) and auction items (a jersey signed by soccer legend Pelé, glasses from Warby Parker and New York Knicks tickets), Words of War featured appropriately-themed entertainment. Performing for an audience that included Seth Meyers and former Marine-turned-actor Adam Driver, writer and veteran Gerardo Mena read a poem written by Gary Johnston, a solider who was killed in action, and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, whom Iscol called a great friend to the organization, gave an impassioned reading of a poem by serviceman Derrick Brown titled “You Will Be Destroyed in Your Own Way.” Also, Anthony Edwards, David Strathairn and Lili Taylor performed the Japanese Noh play “Fujito,” which tells the story of a mother grieving the death of her son, who was killed in action.
“I think our community is becoming much more comfortable talking about these real issues. A lot of them are stepping to get help, a lot of them are stepping forward to get their friends help. I think all of us are starting to really take this seriously. I do think that in terms of challenging the stigma, we are making progress,” Iscol told Variety. The event raised $400,000 for the Headstrong Project.
(Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal and Seth Meyers at The Headstrong Project’s Words of War benefit)