Back to Army ROTC
This piece discusses suicide, and some might find that disturbing. If you or someone you know is suicidal or in need of assistance, please know that you are not alone. Contact your local physician, go to the ER, or pick up a phone and dial 988 to speak with someone at the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
September is Suicide Awareness Month with September 4-10 being Suicide Prevention Week.
Lizzy and Julie Zinn graciously shared their story and experiences surrounding suicide. The author of this piece, whose own life has been affected by suicide, felt their honesty and vulnerability would resonate with our audience, creating an open space for others to connect, help those in crisis, and change the conversation around suicide.
Lizzy Zinn is finally thriving.
A second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Zinn is beginning her second year of medical school at Wright State University's Boonshoft School of Medicine.
“I’m finally where I wished and hoped and worked so hard these four years to get,” Zinn said. “I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, in the exact spot I’m supposed to be doing it in.”
She revels in the thought, because five years ago, Zinn’s world came crashing down.
Two weeks before beginning her freshman year at Ohio State University, the then-Army ROTC Cadet received the shattering news that her older brother, Cameron, died by suicide. Overnight, Zinn went from extrovert to a shell of herself in a perpetual state of fight or flight, struggling to process the trauma.
This tragic event, one all too common in today’s Army and society, became the foundation for her career in medicine to “serve others at their most vulnerable.”
“I had such a traumatic, rough and rocky start to higher education,” Zinn said. “After all this hard work, after making it through all those really low-lows, this is what it was for. This is why it was worth it.”
Zinn laughs over childhood memories of growing up with Cameron in Ohio. It was the typical sibling power struggle.
Zinn’s mother, Julie, remembers her children being close, “but there was tension between them because they were young and that’s just what siblings do, they get on each other’s nerves.”
Zinn, the youngest of three, often clashed with her brother over toys or video games.
“I think Lizzy was the kind of personality that could kind of push your buttons but get away with it because she was so cute,” Julie said. “Cameron was like, ‘I don’t care how cute you are, you’re not playing my Nintendo.’”
“He was very protective of his toys, his LEGOs and his video games and I don’t blame him,” Zinn recalls. “Sometimes I would get away with it and he would play with me, but sometimes the switch would flip, and he would lose it.”
As they got older, one thing the siblings could always agree on was a love for the television show “Stargate SG-1.” This show, and specifically the character Colonel Samantha Carter, that made Zinn realize she wanted to be a leader.
“She was this bad-ass woman and I just absolutely looked up to her,” Zinn said. “I really kind of wanted to be her.”
As Zinn approached her freshman year of high school, she locked in on Grove City High School’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NJROTC) program.
“It was the closest thing that I could think of to emulate this character in this TV show,” she said.
Zinn threw herself into school and all the extracurriculars JROTC offered. She recalls an intangible feeling of being meant for something bigger.
Julie remembers seeing this intense determination in her daughter.
“She didn’t have small ambitions,” Julie said. “She doesn’t dream small, she’s always reached for the stars.”
When Zinn visited the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA) in 2015 for her great-uncle’s class reunion, she set her sights on a new goal.
“Seeing the camaraderie that all these people had with each other after 60 years, I wanted in,” Zinn said.
The determination intensified while researching diagnoses for a fictitious patient in her high school Anatomy and Physiology class.
“I remember being so enthralled in this whole process of putting the puzzle pieces of her symptoms and everything together to see one big picture of this fake patient, and that’s when I kind of knew,” Zinn said.
As Zinn pieced together her future, West Point became her answer.
On top of maintaining good grades and being involved in school and community activities, high school students who apply to USMA must also secure a nomination from a congressman, senator or the vice-president.
Zinn received her nomination, making her a viable candidate. Her confidence through the roof, she ecstatically accepted an invitation to a ceremony for USMA nominees. Zinn’s family showed up in support.
In a crowd of people dressed in professional attire, Cameron saw this as a moment to bring his sister back to reality.
He stretched his arm behind Zinn’s chair, looking around the room, and mockingly told his sister, “Yeah, all these people, they’re here for me.”
“He knew that would get under my skin because this whole event was quote-unquote ‘for me, recognizing people like me,’” Zinn said. “But that’s exactly what he did for me, he would just knock me down a couple steps.”
This “grounding,” as Julie calls it, is something Cameron did regularly for his sister. It’s one of her favorite things about their relationship.
“It’s not that he wasn’t happy for her, but no matter how much Lizzy excelled, Cameron always brought her feet back to the ground and reminded her she was still his little sister,” Julie said.
Zinn now waited for West Point to make their move.
“At that point it was West Point or bust,” she said. “All of my eggs were in one basket."
She didn’t get in.
“That hurt. They didn’t let me in and that hurt.
“How am I going to make this door that closes in my face an opportunity?” Zinn asked herself. “I know exactly what I want to do, I know exactly where I want to end up, I just need to find a different path to get there.”
Zinn applied for and received a four-year Army ROTC scholarship to Ohio State University—her plans were back on track.
As Zinn continued to navigate senior year, her relationship with Cameron changed.
Zinn’s parents had divorced her freshman year of high school. Zinn chose to live with their mom and Cameron with their dad. The siblings stayed connected through their love of video games.
That’s how my brother and I connected, and our relationship stuck through it even when he was being a jerk,” Zinn said. “We’d just pop on Mario Kart and work it out.”
On Zinn’s birthday, Destiny only brought them closer.
Not fate, but rather, the video game, “Destiny.”
“For my birthday he just shows up at my mom’s with this big fat box, and he says, ‘Lizzy, I’ve got a surprise for you,’” she said. “I look in and there are two brand new Xbox Ones and two brand new copies of ‘Destiny.’”
Cameron’s generosity astonished his family.
“He really surprised Lizzy with that gift,” Julie said. “I think collectively the family jaw dropped open. It was just an unexpected gift toward Lizzy, and there was a real shift in their relationship.”
Cameron had always been sensitive and bright; he often struggled to express his feelings and stay focused in school where he felt limited by the pace of learning.
He was intuitive, but rarely cared what people thought.
“When he went through high school, it was challenging to keep him in the game. He thought it was stupid,” Julie said.
“He was sensitive, but he was very guarded,” she adds. “I think this is true of boys in general. They’re trained by cultural expectations and society to be tough on the outside and it was hard for Cameron to express himself sometimes.”
Zinn knew about Cameron’s struggle with depression. He’d been on medication to try to relieve his symptoms. He’d struggled throughout high school and admitted to having suicidal ideations.
“The family surrounded him and supported him, and we worked through it and moved past it,” Zinn said. “It got to the point where he was able to go off of his medication and he was eating healthy and he was losing weight, exercising and really taking care of himself and his mental health.”
After high school, Cameron started a job working in construction and appeared to be thriving.
“That year right before he passed, Cameron was really starting to come into his own,” Julie said. “I felt like he had a good measure of confidence in what he was doing, and he was taking joy in doing good work.”
As worries over Cameron calmed, Zinn planned a graduation trip to New Zealand with her father.
“I remember a conversation I had with Cameron right before I left because I knew that he had struggled with depression and mental illness. I knew this is going to be maybe his first time living at home by himself for longer than a few days and like a good younger sister, I was like, ‘Cameron are you going to be OK? We’re going to be gone, are you going to be OK?’
“And he said, ‘Yes,’” Zinn recalls. “I made him promise me that he was going to be OK, and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Halfway across the world, the day before Zinn was set to return home and begin preparing for her freshman year of college, her phone rang.
“I just remember immediately seeing both my mom and my sister on the video. They both had tears in their eyes, they were all red and I immediately knew who was missing,” she said.
“It took me 10 to 15 seconds to realize what had happened. At that point I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know the details, but something just clicked and I knew he was gone.”
Cameron Zinn died on August 9, 2017. He was 20 years old.
“I think that he didn’t know what he wanted from life,” Julie said. “You’ve got to give boys a chance to develop and get their heads screwed on straight, and he just checked out before he had a chance.”
“You try to piece the whole thing together and wrap your brain around this horrific event,” Zinn said. “It sounds cliché, but it felt like a dream. I felt numb.”
Zinn and her father immediately flew home to grieve with family and plan Cameron’s funeral.
Zinn set the tone for how her family would speak about Cameron’s suicide. Julie remembers her daughter’s passion for confronting the reality of Cameron’s death.
“She was the one who said we’re not going to hide this,” Julie said. “This is what Cameron chose to do, but we’re not going to hide because of a stigma. We’re going to open up the conversation.”
Zinn felt compelled to be honest.
“It’s true, he died unexpectedly, none of us were expecting this, but that is not what happened,” Zinn said. “People who die in a car crash, die unexpectedly. People who have an accident, die unexpectedly. Yes, this is unexpected, but Cameron died by suicide.”
Zinn searched for answers – a reason why.
“In the midst of all these other feelings, I felt incredibly betrayed by him because he promised me that he was going to be OK,” she said. “There were no pieces that we could put together and say, ‘Ah yes, this all makes sense now, there were so many red flags we should have picked up on.’ There was nothing.
“Sometimes people just act rashly, and you don’t have any control over what they do and their actions. Sometimes there are just no red flags leading up to it, and you just have to be OK with knowing that you’re never going to understand why or how.”
At the lowest and most vulnerable moment in Zinn’s life, classes were beginning at OSU.
“I was going to my brother’s funeral and visitation hours, and then a week later I was starting classes,” she recalls.
Managing new expectations and adjusting to a reality without Cameron shocked Zinn’s system.
“The first two years of undergrad I was in a stage of fight or flight and that’s the damn truth,” Zinn said. “All of these really heavy, heavy feelings and thoughts and then trying to go to class and learn General Chemistry and Biology and show up to PT [physical training] at 5:15 in the morning.”
Zinn went through the motions as much as she could. Afflicted with PTSD, she struggled with panic attacks and insomnia.
“I don’t think Lizzy knew how to breathe. It was like she was holding her breath,” Julie said.
Zinn felt vulnerable and alone in her grief and thoughts – unaware that many of her peers might be able to connect to her experience.
“I think she was completely disoriented and didn’t know which way was up,” Julie said.
“With her previous personality, had things been different, she would have gone and made friends with 100 people. She couldn’t even do that because she couldn’t even talk,” Julie adds. “She wanted to tell the world about Cameron, but she didn’t feel like she could do that, and so she felt like she had nothing else to talk about. She couldn’t make friends; she didn’t want to talk to her professors. She was really in survival mode.”
Even Zinn’s professors and Army ROTC instructors knew almost nothing about what she was going through.
“[Sophomore year] I would say she was very quiet,” said Maj. Matthew Rosebaugh, an assistant professor of military science at OSU for Lizzy’s sophomore and junior years.
“She would participate, she would do really well, but she was just so quiet. I was not aware about Cameron until the first semester of her MS3 [junior] year,” he said.
With Cameron’s death occurring at a transitional moment in Zinn’s life, Julie made herself available to her daughter. She would pick Zinn up from school on Fridays and bring her home on the weekends to process. Sunday nights became known as “the Sunday Terrors.”
“She’d sit in the car and say, ‘I can’t even get out of the car, I can’t go back to school, I can’t even walk to the dorm. I can’t go to ROTC tomorrow, I can’t go to PT,’” Julie recalls. “She would freeze in the car and turn to me and say, ‘I don’t know how to live without him.’”
Julie assured her daughter it was OK to not show up, to talk to someone, to take a break.
“Overall, I didn’t really listen to her,” said Zinn, who stubbornly continued attending classes in silence.
As Zinn and her mother talked about Cameron and his death, they sorted through their thoughts and emotions, slowly beginning to heal.
“I put things on hold because I wanted to make sure that my kids were OK, but Lizzy helped me too because in helping her process, she helped me process,” Julie said. “It definitely went both ways.”
For Zinn, she remembered a shift around the second anniversary of Cameron’s suicide.
To that point, Zinn felt like she’d been living her life in black and white. Feelings of joy would be quickly overtaken by the memories of Cameron’s death.
“At some point you come out the other side and things kind of get a little more color to them,” Zinn said. “It doesn’t happen overnight—it’s very slow and very gradual—and you almost don’t notice it, but the world gets a little bit more color and you have a little bit more joy and you go and enjoy things that you might not have been able to before.
“It’s not that you are forgetting that it happened – I think it’s important to differentiate that – I’m not forgetting, I’m not pretending that this didn’t happen, but at some point, I have to keep living again.”
Zinn felt purpose edge back into her life as she began sharing her story and connecting with others. She and her mother are active members of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation. She travels to different events, speaking to crowds about her heartache and perseverance.
She’s also started a podcast called “Redefining the Narrative,” to talk with people who have lived with suicide either directly or indirectly. They share their experiences, hoping to have a positive impact.
“I’m an open book. I am vulnerable,” Zinn said. “I have no issues building that bridge out, but because of the stigmas surrounding suicide, mental health and mental illness in general, a lot of people are very fearful—and with good reason—of opening that door in the first place.”
“It makes me so frustrated. What a huge strength that is, being vulnerable, but we see it as weak or soft. It is the complete opposite,” she adds. “You build such strong, trusting, and lasting relationships.”
Zinn graduated from OSU and commissioned in the spring of 2021. She was accepted to Wright University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, and just began her second year.
“She wanted to go to medical school to take in as much as possible, so that when she was presented with a puzzle, she could put together the picture very quickly to help people overcome whatever might be in their way,” Maj. Rosenbaugh said. “She wanted to be the person that could put those pieces together to help people in that most vulnerable time of need.”
Zinn is absolutely thrilled, diligently working toward an Army career in emergency and critical care.
“What a privilege to be able to care for like-minded individuals,” Zinn said. “Everybody joins the military for different reasons, but there’s this camaraderie, this teamwork.
“To be able to tap into that shared energy and provide an extra layer of care, to serve them at their most vulnerable, I can’t imagine doing anything more important with my life than that.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active-duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.
Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn