NYSOM Editor in Chief Christine Murphy interviews Zach Iscol, military veteran and founder of Hire Purpose and The Headstrong Project.
It goes against modern convention that a man raised in privilege — and educated at Exeter and Cornell — would enlist in the military.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” says Zach Iscol, who is one such person. “I just knew growing up I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to be in the military. I don’t know where that comes from … you know, it’s similar to why does somebody want to be a writer, a doctor; why does anybody choose any passion?”
It was in those circles of privilege that Zach saw models of service — his family has a strong altruistic tradition — and connected with a person who would guide him to fulfill that passion. At Cornell, Zach intended to study veterinary science; he jokes that he went from being a vet(erinarian) to a vet(eran). His sprint football coach was a highly-decorated (Silver Star and Purple Heart) Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, who developed into Zach’s mentor and friend, and encouraged him to consider the Marine Corps rather than the military’s other branches. Zach attended Officer Candidates School in the summer between semesters at Cornell. He was commissioned August 11, 2001, “and then, a month later, we were at war.”
Zach deployed to Iraq twice during the war: in 2003 to southern Iraq, which Zach describes as “pretty uneventful,” and again in 2004 to Al Anbar province, an entirely different experience. In what Zach describes as “the most dangerous part of Iraq at the time,” he fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah, considered by many to be one of the U.S. Military’s greatest conflicts since the Vietnam War.
Since his time in the Armed Forces ended, Zach has grappled to understand nearly every aspect of the experience — from strategy to combat techniques to interpersonal interactions. He recalls his pre-deployment expectation of marching off to war to change the world. On the other side of that experience, he’s somewhat dubious.
Zach has embarked on three major projects in his civilian life that are helping to resolve some of the questions that remain: “Western Front,” the Headstrong Project, and Hire Purpose.
“The Western Front” is Zach’s first foray into filmmaking. “It’s really hard to look back on the [Iraq] war we just fought, and the [Afghanistan] war we’re still fighting, and know what we’ve accomplished.” “The Western Front” allowed him to return to Iraq five years after his second deployment in an attempt to determine what progress, if any, was made. His conclusion? “It’s evolving.” The film debuted at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Before releasing to wider distribution, Zach is considering producing another chapter of the film, perhaps with an emphasis on the Iraqi citizens themselves. He acknowledges, “The Iraq War that was over for America is not necessarily over for the Iraqis. And they are 90 percent of the story of the Iraq War … there is a final chapter that has to be written or told in order for the film to be complete.” It is Zach’s concern for all human experience that makes his founding of The Headstrong Project seem like a logical next step.
The Headstrong Project’s mission is “to heal the hidden wounds of war,” and is a means of empowering vets rather than casting them as victims. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very real, and the statistics for suicides among veterans are devastating. According to the Headstrong Project’s website, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (the V.A.) estimates that 22 veterans take their life each day, and the U.S. Department of Defense reports that 30-50 active duty soldiers commit suicide each month.
From his own experience, Zach knows that most veterans are “People like myself, who are good people who are put in awful circumstances. Who have to deal with issues of morality upon coming home.” When asked if any of the infinite military movies — increasingly visceral with each new production — at all ring true to his experience, Zach identifies a single scene in “The Hurt Locker,” in which the lead character, having returned home from active duty, stands in a grocery store examining an endless array of cereal. Simultaneously confounded by the available options and seemingly disgusted at the excess, the character indiscriminately grabs a box at random and departs. Zach sums it up: “You mean [selecting cereal] is the hardest decision I have to make all day?” This reality paints a stark contrast to the portrait that Zach notes is “in our collective consciousness” of traumatized, angry veterans ready to fight or flee at any moment.
Once again, Zach turned to Cornell — this time at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Since 2011, The Headstrong Project, of which Zach is Executive Director, makes the services of dedicated Cornell psychological clinicians available to veterans and their families. It’s a patient-driven health care model: clinicians take the patient’s background and prescribe a treatment regimen, and adjustments are made based on what is or is not working. It’s not a research program with the objective of validating any one method of treatment; “we’re there to do whatever it takes to get them better.” Zach’s responsibility at Headstrong, in his own words, is “to make sure there’s no barriers to treatment, there’s no bureaucracy, there’s no cost” to those seeking help.
While the Headstrong Project works on the psychological aspect of a veteran’s next chapter, the adjustment to a post-military career is a huge gap to bridge. The military is not a place where resumes are polished and practice interviews are simulated. Once veterans return from service, they are unfamiliar with a job market that has changed in their absence, or which they may never have entered prior to military service. Even though many veterans present “a phenomenal talent pool” of people who “hold themselves to an incredibly high standard, who are not familiar with failure,” the barrier to career entry can seem insurmountably high. Zach says the soldiers with whom he served are, with all due respect to his fellow Cornellians, “the best and brightest of the generation.”
In a few weeks, Zach will launch Hire Purpose, a job-matching for-profit which has a two-pronged strategy: to provide an online job assessment tool to help veterans identify the sectors and jobs for which they are well-suited, and also to recruit major firms and educate them on the benefits of hiring veterans. At present, Hire Purpose has amassed a network of 3.5 million veterans to present to potential employers, and hope to grow the number of partner companies to 150 in the first year.
Zach is a New Yorker who has stepped outside of the State’s borders and endured the unimaginable. His choice to turn that experience into something positive – across the entertainment, nonprofit and for-profit sectors — exemplifies outside-the-box thinking; he has not taken any of the easy paths that have been presented along the way, but instead has reached out a helping hand. His parting words are a message to fellow New Yorkers, encouraging us to engage with veterans: “Participate. Don’t write a check. Find a way to get actively involved with veterans … They truly are the best and the brightest.”