Unsung Hero

The Santa Barbara Veterans Clinic sits right below the County Jail, in the midst of an enclave of County Services buildings, and has been in operation at this site for 33 years this May. Twenty-seven years ago, we were joined by Dr. Steve Oreste Marzicola, a Vietnam Veteran and new psychiatrist. With his arrival, the lives of countless Central Coast Veterans were about to change.

During my first week on duty, 20 years ago, I was looking out the window toward the back of the clinic where there is a large grassy area, storm drain and shrubbery. I noticed a couple of men sitting in the reeds and asked a co-worker what they were doing. She told me that it was Dr. Marzicola treating a patient with PTSD who was too frightened to come inside. She said that was where they always met.

That was my first introduction to this rather extraordinary physician who never fails to amaze us. In his quiet, steady way, he brings great leagues of compassion, understanding and healing to men and women that have been shot, battered, blown, and burned. They have forever been altered by their military experiences, both externally and internally. For nearly three decades, he has been intent on the business of helping them re-gather the shrapnel of their lives to find both meaning and some kind of peace.

I have seen great grizzly warriors come out of his office dabbing their eyes with tissue, swearing undying loyalty to him. I remember one hulking Vietnam Veteran that stood at parade rest in the hallway near Dr. Marzicola’s office. He told me he was keeping Dr. M safe.

Women Veterans, all too often victims of military sexual trauma, quickly find him to be a gentle, safe, highly intuitive presence. He has the remarkable ability to be completely still, yet fully engaged, intent, and listening with his entire presence. He misses very little.

He has rightfully facilitated thousands upon thousands of dollars on veterans’ behalves by correctly diagnosing PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other service-related conditions, allowing them to collect benefits due them, keeping them from being hungry, potentially homeless, without medications they need. The paperwork and reports he has completed singlehandedly would slay an entire army of government bureaucrats. But he is never deterred.

We owe him our undying gratitude for keeping his all of us safe. For years, we had no Security whatsoever, and in the last decade they have added an unarmed security guard with nothing more deterring than a can of air freshener. When you consider how many veterans we see each day, each week, each month, over all these years, it is due Dr. Marzicola in such large part that not one of us has ever been hurt by a patient that was ill, angry, unable to control their explosive emotions. Dr. Marzicola never refuses to see a veteran in crisis, and would never hesitate to step into a hot situation. His ability to infuse calm into any situation is legendary around here.

The idea of him being gone in two week’s time leaves a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in the very heart and soul of our clinic.

Mary Hershey is administrative officer at the Veterans Administration clinic. Also contributing to this letter were Dr. Robert Gaines, lead physician, and Jean Gibson, nurse manager.

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