A bond of iron

This Bucks resident is pushing himself to the limit to combat veteran suicide

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

It’s 4 a.m. and still dark outside, but Nathan Zavanelli is already out the door, helmet in hand, ready for his 100-mile bike ride. Since January, the Doylestown resident and United States Military Academy at West Point cadet has traded in extra hours of sleep to train for the 140.6-mile Ironman Boulder gauntlet of swimming, biking and running on June 11. These past five months of pain, sweat and perseverance have been to raise money for Mission 22, an organization that works to prevent veteran suicide.

Running down a dream: Nathan Zavanelli has been training since January for the 140.6-mile Ironman Boulder gauntlet of swimming, biking and running, to be held on June 11. Zavanelli is raising money for Misson 22, which works to combat veteran suicide. PHOTO: Nathan Zavanelli

Each day, 22 veterans make the tragic choice to commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program. This statistic hits close to home for Zavanelli. In 2010, his cousin Michael took his life after returning from deployment in Iraq and Djibouti. When he came home, Zavanelli reflected on how everything seemed normal at first. He was the happy, fun-loving guy who had always been a role model to him. But soon after, there were indications that something was wrong.

“He started acting less enthusiastically, as if his energy was left over there on the battlefield somewhere,” Zavanelli said. “We were worried, but didn’t know what to do. Then one day in 2010, we got the terrible phone call that would change all of our lives forever.”

In January, Zavanelli started a charity called A Bond of Iron, the proceeds of which go to Mission 22, a platform that helps give hope to veterans, provides support for loved ones and shares resources on how the community can give back to the country’s heroes.

“It came from being upset at the way my cousin Michael and so many others who went through trauma are remembered,” Zavanelli said on starting his charity.

Although Michael’s loved ones saw him as a hero, he was internally suffering from the traumatic memories he felt he needed to suppress. According to Zavanelli, there is a stigma around PTSD and society automatically assumes hospitalization is the answer. But this is not the case. Veterans are afraid to admit to having a weakness because they are made to feel like something is wrong with them, and he believes this is why his cousin didn’t reach out for help.

“They are still heroes. They just went through this traumatic experience that shakes them to their core,” Zavanelli said. “They’re still the same person.”

With his charity, Zavanelli has committed himself to fighting the stereotypes that plague veterans and making sure soldiers know they’re never forgotten. For each mile he travels in the Ironman Boulder by swimming, biking and running, totaling 140.6 miles, he hopes to raise $10 for Mission 22. He will also complete an additional 20 pushups for every $20 donated beyond this amount. So far, A Bond of Iron has raised $1,910, which is close to Zavanelli’s goal of $2,200 to match the statistic of 22 veterans taking their life each day.

The balance of academics, military duties at West Point and Ironman Boulder training has been a commitment for Zavanelli, but it’s his way of acknowledging the pain his cousin and other soldiers went through while deployed and upon returning home. He believes this display of toughness and grit will help show the world how wrong our societal stigma toward PTSD is.

“I can afford to put a little pain on myself,” he said. “It makes the training a lot easier knowing that it all goes toward an outstanding cause, something that fills me with pride every day.”

PTSD and traumatization affect countless veterans when they return from deployment, but Zavanelli believes their stories don’t need to end like his cousin Michael’s.

“Our veterans are not patients needing treatment. They are heroes needing camaraderie,” he said. “To make a difference, you don’t have to be a doctor curing cancer. Just a kind word or a smile is enough.” ••

For more information on Mission 22, visit mission22.com. To help Zavanellii and A Bond of Iron reach the goal of $2,200, you can donate at crowdrise.com/a-bond-of-iron-fighting-to-prevent-veteran-suicide/fundraiser/nathanzavanelli.