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Little Things: Finding the Good after Witnessing War

Little Things: Finding the Good after Witnessing War

Photo by Lisa Anderson

David Tozzo

Update: David and Shae recently announced the sale of CrossFit Zoo. See their Facebook page for more information.

“Let peace take root. This cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world.” – Beirut Barracks Memorial, placed October 23, 1984, Arlington Cemetery

“Sunday morning. 7 A.M. A truck comes in, and the building comes down over 200 Marines,” David Tozzo recalls, as his voice cracks and his eyes tear up. It was October 23, 1983, when a truck loaded with explosives barreled into a four-story, concrete building, housing 350 sleeping American servicemen. Two-hundred forty-one U.S. military personnel were killed in the bombing, and over 100 were injured.

Round Peg, Round Hole

David grew up in Miami, Florida. His parents moved to the Ocala area just before he joined the Marines. “In all honesty, I had no clue what I wanted to do growing up,” he laughs. “Most of the things in my life I’ve just kind of stumbled into.”

He loved animals and considered being a veterinarian, leaving the idea of being in the military as a backup plan. “As I got older, it just seemed like [the military] would be a good fit for me, and it was! You know, the round peg in the round hole. The whole structure of it fit very well for me.”

David enjoyed working out and the early mornings. He had come from a loving but disciplined home, so he found the structure the military provided almost comforting. His body and carriage reveal his story: The years of fitness, military discipline, over 31 years as a firefighter/first responder, and nearly 11 years as the co-owner of CrossFit Zoo. However, that hard exterior has a gooey center. In the world of Harry Potter, David would be a Hufflepuff. “They are the caregivers. You look at the things I’ve done and that’s me to a T. Helping people really clicked for me. I got a lot of satisfaction from that.”

Peacekeeping Tour

He spent four years in the Marine Corps and left as a Sergeant E-5. During his time, he completed one tour, extended to eight months due to the delay of their replacements. His post was in Beirut, Lebanon. “We went over there as part of the multinational peace-keeping force. We were stationed right in the city of Beirut, which, at one time, to my understanding, had been a beautiful city. At that time, it was not a beautiful city. It had been destroyed by fighting.

“I think [the experience] was difficult but bearable and survivable simply because of the people I was with. I don’t think I could have done it without them. I have found that to be very true in the military, in the fire service, and those kinds of things. Sadly, back then, there was not nearly the support structure that there is now, regarding PTSD [etc.]. It was the strength of those other people that, I think, probably carried us all through.”

David was posted about a half-mile away from the barracks, but it was common for his unit to rotate out for mess (kitchen) and other duties. He was not in the building that morning in October, but a friend of his was on the top floor and wound up riding the building down as it collapsed. He miraculously survived. “There is a picture that you see a lot in the newspaper. They’re carrying out a young man of color on a stretcher, belly down because he had been injured on his backside.” David pauses before continuing, “That was my friend.”

The iconic image was taken by journalist Bill Foley, and it depicts the devastation, confusion, and horror of the situation. “For days, you could hear the jackhammers.” David’s voice drops to a whisper, as he fights back the emotions. “I’ve never felt as useless in my life as I did then. You know when you join up, you’re writing a check up to and including your life. That’s something you try to be prepared for.”

Those types of situations are not something anyone wants to be in, according to David, even when you volunteer for it. His parents and siblings didn’t know if he was alive or dead for three days. “That was before the days of texts and emails, so they truly didn’t know. Eventually, we got to make a phone call. Here’s a carbon copy of every phone call made: ‘Hi, Mom! I’m okay. No, I’m okay! You don’t need to cry. I’m okay. I have to go now. Bye.’ That was it, and it was repeated hundreds of times for everyone.”

Photo from Wikimedia (Public domain as a work of the United States Marine Corps by SSgt Randy Gaddo, USMC, Rescue & Clean-up, Marine Barracks, Beirut, October 23, 1983)

Finding the Good

David’s life has been a series of helping others. It has been his purpose and still motivates him to this day. “You can look at all the ugliness in the world, and it can overwhelm you. But you can help with the little things, whenever you can. For me, those little things were big things, and that’s what helped me see some sort of purpose, some sort of reason, in the insanity that is conflict, war, death.”

He retired as a firefighter/first responder two years ago and has been managing CrossFit Zoo with his wife of 20 years, Shae Tozzo. David may have stumbled into many of the things he has done in life, but finding the good and helping other people have always been, and will continue to be, a common thread.

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