Veterans need to be heard, affirms Joshua Piccoli, a United States Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War.
Since the fall, the graduating senior at Rutgers University–Camden has been leading a campus-based Veterans History Project. The initiative, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress, consists of recording biographical, service, and combat information for veterans, ensuring that their recorded accounts will be accessible for future generations to come.
Piccoli will soon pass on the reins of the project as he graduates on May 22 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. However, he vows, his service to his fellow veterans is only just beginning. The Berlin resident will next set his sights on “becoming a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves,” earning a law degree and serving as an advocate for veterans throughout the country.
Much has changed in Piccoli’s outlook and focus since his first, faint attempt at pursuing a higher degree. Upon graduating from Eastern High School in Voorhees in 1997, he ran through the prescribed motions, taking classes for a year at Camden Community College. However, college failed to spark his interest and, in June 1999, he walked into a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter’s office. Two months later, Piccoli was shipped off to Paris Island, S.C., where he spent 13 weeks in basic training. He was then sent to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, known as 29 Palms, in southern California, where he joined the 3rd battalion, 7th Marines, a premier infantry combat unit.
In January 2003, Piccoli’s unit was deployed to Kuwait and spent the next couple months training in the desert. On March 17, 2003, the unit was moved six miles to the Kuwait-Iraq border, as President George W. Bush issued the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq within 48 hours. When Hussein and his sons failed to comply, Piccoli’s unit invaded Iraq and reached Baghdad in early April.
Piccoli recalls that he and his fellow Marines were excited about the invasion, having spent years training for their mission. However, he adds, nothing could prepare them for the stark reality of combat. “Once the first bullets were fired, it became all too real,” he recalls. “At that point, it wasn’t about George Bush’s orders, or politics, or deciding the right thing to do. It was about surviving, and the guy to your right and the guy to your left. It was about getting through it together and making sure that everyone got to come home.”
The unit spent a month engaged in a series of skirmishes in the city. As Piccoli explains, a sizeable portion of the Iraqi Army had deserted, but small factions of Iraqi soldiers were still scattered throughout the urban terrain. Once the city was secure, Piccoli’s unit was moved southwest to Karbala, where they were tasked with maintaining security and stabilization in the city. “We pretty much functioned as a military police in the city, making sure that curfew laws were being enforced and monitoring any weapons violations,” says Piccoli.
When his tour ended in September 2003, Piccoli returned to the U.S. and began teaching as a physical training instructor at Officers Candidate School in Quantico, Va. The following April, Piccoli learned that several men in his unit had been killed in combat. One of the men, Jason Dunham, was a Medal of Honor recipient. Piccoli now dedicates his service to veterans in memory of his fallen comrades.
“Death is something that you have to deal with,” says Piccoli, who attained the rank of sergeant in December 2003. “I wasn’t there, but I believe that there are certain things that I must do – such as advocating for veterans – in memory of those guys.”
Honorably discharged in April 2006, Piccoli returned to South Jersey and worked in marketing jobs for a home remodeling company and later a construction company. A chance encounter would then alter his future plans. In January 2008, Piccoli was visiting a friend in Florida when his car broke down. Unsure of the area, he stepped into a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) office to wait for a tow truck. He ended up talking to a staff member, who convinced him to apply for benefits and undergo a comprehensive medical exam.
Piccoli was admittedly a little hesitant at first, not wanting to draw attention to any combat-related issues he may have been experiencing. “When you are in the service, you don’t want to complain about medical issues,” he says. “You are taught that that’s a weak mentality.”
Piccoli soon relented and, upon returning to South Jersey, underwent a battery of medical tests. He was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear which is related to his combat service in Iraq. He now hopes to serve as a living testament that veterans suffering from PTSD are not “crazy” or “insane,” and every day he is overcoming that stigma.
Piccoli was made eligible for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, a range of services designed to help individuals with disabilities prepare for and engage in gainful employment. Taking advantage of his education benefits, he searched for the ideal collegiate atmosphere for veterans and discovered the range of services and resources offered through the Office of Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden. He reached out to the office’s director, Fred Davis, and was impressed to find the level of attention and detail given to all veterans.
“Rutgers–Camden offers veterans something more than any other universities do; it is really unmatched by another institution,” says Piccoli, adding, “I also love the feel of the campus. It is a great school for non-traditional students.”
Piccoli enrolled at Rutgers–Camden in January 2011 and promptly became the first work study in the V.A. office, a position that he continues to hold today. Just as Davis helped him, Piccoli now helps fellow veterans navigate the application process and ensures that they are in compliance with V.A. requirements. If need be, he will also personally go out of his way to advocate on their behalf when communicating with the V.A.
For Piccoli, it’s just another testament to the perpetual and unwritten bond that veterans on campus share. “It’s like the camaraderie that you have in the military, but on a college campus,” says Piccoli, who serves as secretary of Student Veterans group at Rutgers–Camden. “The veterans group is amazing; it’s great to have friends who you can feel comfortable with and who will be there if you need it. That goes a long way.”
As he prepares for his new mission serving as an advocate for veterans, Piccoli will begin law school this fall. He believes that his time at Rutgers–Camden has been instrumental in making these dreams become a reality. “The Rutgers campus here in Camden has been a major part of my academic success,” he says. “Without the resources afforded to veterans and the opportunities to network, I don't feel as though I would be on this path that I am on right now."
“I look forward to where the future will take me,” he continues. “To my fellow veterans, I am living proof that anything in life is possible when you set goals and pursue them with all you’ve got.”