They were coming for him.
At first, Nicholas Cutter could only see their shadows flitting behind buildings in the distance. Then he could feel their bullets thwacking into the walls around him. Finally, he could see them — men with AKs and rocket-propelled grenades. Dozens of them. Descending like locusts out of the desert.
They crept closer until he could see a man's face, bearded and caked with dust. Then closer still, and he saw the man's eyes.
Dark eyes. Dark as the gun he raised. Dark as death.
"Get down!" Nick shouted. He clawed at the cotton sheets on top of him and rolled off the bed. Underneath his palms lay cold, hard linoleum. To him, however, it was hot sand and dirt. An A/C unit hummed innocuously, yet his ears were full of soldiers' screams. Nick was on the fifth floor of the Miami Veterans Affairs Hospital, but his mind was still in Samarra, Iraq.
He tore past three half-asleep roommates and into an empty, halogen-lighted hallway. Then he ducked into another room and shook awake a stocky man with a shaved head.
"Phil, they're here!" Nick said, slinking over to the window. Outside, the only signs of life were elderly vets chain-smoking in the thin 3 a.m. light. "They're all around us, Phil! Phil! You gotta get up or we're gonna die!"
Philip Nall flipped on the lights. His friend's eyes were wild, the pupils dilated. "Everything's OK, buddy," Phil said. And so began their ritual: The older soldier promised the younger one that the visions were just nightmares, that everything would be all right, that the war was over.
But Nick's war was not over. After 15 months in Iraq, Nick had brought his demons home with him. They visited him every night, every time he closed his eyes, every time he heard a car backfire. He fought them with pills and powder and, finally, the government programs and medications his doctors prescribed.
Instead of helping him, however, the VA only made his troubles worse. And on June 1, 2013 — four and a half years after escaping Iraq — Nick was found dead in his hospital bed.
Cutter's death would be buried, first by the VA and then by an avalanche of other headlines about the troubled health-care system. VA hospitals across the country had been keeping secret waiting lists, media revealed, and as many as 40 vets had died while waiting for care. Republicans blamed the deaths on President Obama, who had promised to fix the delays years ago. Now the president promised an investigation. Eric Shinseki, his secretary of veterans affairs, resigned in disgrace.
All the while, Nick's death slipped off the front pages. Instead of stoking South Florida's anger over the VA scandal, his demise became a mere blip on the debacle's radar screen, a footnote in senators' feigned outrage, another casualty in the hellish home front awaiting our returning soldiers.
But Nick should not be forgotten. His service sheds light on the horrors American soldiers endured during the "surge" in Iraq. His death, meanwhile, is a window into the deadly dysfunction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Documents obtained by New Times reveal how VA doctors plied him with pharmaceuticals, nurses ignored his drug addiction, and administrators lied to his family.
Cutter's story shows how America has abandoned its two million vets recently home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Half a million of them have returned with traumatic brain injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder, or drug addiction — only to be tossed into a VA health-care system that is underfunded and overwhelmed. As a result, roughly 22 veterans take their own lives every day in America. Countless others accidentally overdose or die of complications from drugs and PTSD.
"The system is failing us," Nall says. "Nick saved a lot of people in Iraq. But when he came home, he was thrown to the wolves."
Before Iraq, before the bullets, before the body bags and the brain damage and the nightmares and the drugs, there was just Princeton, Illinois, and a girl named Anna.
The town with the prestigious name was little more than an exit off Interstate 80. One Walmart. One high school. One movie theater. Every weekend the city of 7,000 swelled with pickup trucks from even smaller towns in western Illinois. Chicago — two hours to the east — might as well have been Paris.
Nicholas Todd Cutter was born in Princeton's only hospital on February 25, 1986. He was a small child with poor eyesight and none of his mother Mary's Mexican complexion. But the pale boy burned white hot with competitive spirit. He started karate before he started school. Maybe it was the trouble at home, where Todd Cutter's job as a truck driver often left Mary and Nick alone. Or maybe it was just how the hyperactive child was wired. Either way, little Nick loved slamming his bigger opponents onto the mat, each thud igniting a gap-toothed smile. He dragged his mother across the country to tournaments, twice returning home with national trophies taller than he was.
None of Nick's karate holds was capable of keeping his parents together, however, and they split when he was a toddler. Mary met another man a few years later, and she soon gave birth to a girl named Rainy. Nick would come to love his half-sister intensely. But it would be a bond forged by their mother's absence.
Mary Zielinski was an oddity in the Midwest: Half-Mexican, half-German, she had dark, frizzy hair, sharp features, and skin like autumn wheat. But her beauty hid a history of abuse. And when the man who had abused her as a child came back to Princeton, her mind began to unravel. A psychiatrist recommended she move somewhere warm and sunny before she snapped. She was in no state to take her children. "I was so sick I had to do something before I hurt myself," she says. "I told my kids that they could either visit me in Florida or visit my grave."
Rainy was still a toddler, but Nick was old enough to feel abandoned. The 11-year-old refused to even drive to Florida with his mother. He quit karate — the sport Mary had watched him perform — and took up soccer. And he grew closer to his stepdad, a veteran named Chuck Hopper with a kind face and an ever-present buzzcut. The older Nick grew, the more he talked to Hopper about joining the military. The idea seemed inevitable. For a boy in a flyover state like Illinois, the Army was the most realistic ticket to seeing the rest of the world.
Nick was particularly suited for the position, however. He was fiercely loyal to those closest to him — especially Rainy — and would go to any lengths to protect them. Once, a bully threw broken glass at his 6-year-old sister's face. "Nick went right up to that kid and punched him right in the face," Rainy remembers. "When he came home, all he said was: 'I took care of it.'"
When she was sick, he stayed up all night playing Uno with her. And whenever they flew to Florida to see their mother, he always boarded the plane first to make sure it was safe. When a stranger made fun of Rainy on a flight, 14-year-old Nick threatened to kick the grown man's ass.
He was like that at school too, at least on the rare occasions he attended. With his powerful sprints and prescription rec specs, Nick became the star striker for the Princeton High Tigers soccer team. But he couldn't care less for class. He would do a month's worth of homework in one night and then skip school for weeks at a time.
"It wasn't fast enough for him," Rainy remembers. "He needed in-your-face, manly competition. He needed six-mile runs. He was all boy."
Nick was a freshman in high school on September 11, 2001, when hijackers flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center. And he was just old enough to enlist when President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. Nick watched as Baghdad burned on television. He saw troops topple statues of Saddam Hussein. And he wanted in. The only thing that kept him out of the Army was his girlfriend Anna, a whisper-thin woman with blue eyes and blond hair. She begged Nick not to go to war. So he lived with her after graduation, working at Wendy's or on occasional construction jobs, covering his pale skin with dark tribal tattoos, and wondering what to do with his life.
In the end, Anna would decide for him. She wanted a family. He wanted to fight. When she dumped him two years later, Nick was abandoned again. In Iraq, bouquets of flowers and "Mission Accomplished" banners had given way to bombs and shrapnel. So when an Army recruiter knocked on his father's door in Missouri, where Nick was staying after the breakup, the 20-year-old no longer had any reason not to enlist. His country needed him, the recruiter said. And Nick needed an out.
"The war isn't going well," Todd Cutter told his son. "You've got to understand that there's every likelihood that you'll end up in the Middle East."
Nick was counting on it. Soon he was knocking out pushups at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Six months later, he was patrolling the streets of Samarra atop an armored Humvee. Heavy metal blared from the speakers as the vehicle rattled past mosques, piles of trash, and kids playing soccer in the desert sand.
It was an alien world, strange and new and terrifying. Nick was now Specialist Cutter in the 232nd Engineer Company. Here, only one thing hinted at his past back in Princeton. A single word scrawled in black marker on his .50-caliber machine gun.
Dawn in Samarra was a sonic event. Before the sun began to bleach the eastern sky, the muezzin sang the call to morning prayer. "Allahu akbar," he always began. "God is greatest."
From atop the walls of Patrol Base Olson, Nicholas Cutter watched lights flick on inside cinder-block homes. One by one, Samarrans emerged onto the street, greeting one another on the way to the mosque. Then, suddenly, they all disappeared.
Nick rubbed his eyes. He had been up for 24 hours, keeping watch for platoon mates who were sick or injured. Was he seeing things? Samarra should be coming to life right about now. Instead, it was a ghost town.
"Hasten to worship," the muezzin sang. "Hasten to success."
Nothing stirred but dust.
Cutter's radio crackled to life. A supply convoy had just been ambushed a few clicks away, the coms man warned. Sixty insurgents, armed with AKs and RPGs, were bearing down on the base — a base with only two dozen soldiers.
Nick grabbed smoke canisters, hand grenades, and M16 clips. Then he hauled as many .50-cal rounds — each one nearly as long as a beer bottle — as he could carry up onto the walls. Known as Hescos, the barriers were little more than reinforced dirt.
"God is greatest," the muezzin moaned. "There is no deity but God."
Then the singing stopped and the shooting began.
Bullets hit the Hescos like rain on a windshield. Nick fired his .50-cal at anything that looked like a man in the dim morning light. But there were too many shapes scurrying in the darkness and too many incoming rounds. Soldiers screamed around him as slugs shattered their body armor and shredded their flesh. Nick tried to stem a buddy's bleeding wound. When he returned to his post, the gunmen were only a few dozen yards away.
One of them peered from behind a building. He had dark eyes atop a dense beard. He raised his rifle. Nick aimed his M16 and fired. The man's head snapped back with a spray of crimson. Nick kept firing and firing and firing until Anna burned in his hands.
The shootout seemed to last for hours. In reality, it was only minutes before reinforcements in armored trucks rumbled around the street corner like rolling thunder. The insurgents fled in a flurry of Kalashnikov fire. When the last bullet had buried itself into a Hesco, the soldiers surveyed the damage. Fifteen members of Cutter's platoon had been injured, and the base had nearly been overrun. But almost a dozen insurgents lay dead outside the walls. One of them was the man Cutter had shot.
"It was as if I hit a switch that I can never turn back off again," Nick later wrote of his first kill.
In fact, the assault was just one of many terrifying moments during 15 hellish months in Iraq that would wound Cutter physically, psychologically, and emotionally. He would watch his friends die. He would kill Iraqis until their blood drenched his dreams. He would grow angry, then numb, then suicidal. His switch had been flipped. And then it had broken.
Nick landed in the worst part of Iraq during the worst phase of the war. It was October 2007, nine months after President Bush's decision to increase troop levels in Iraq. "The surge," as the strategy was known, had not begun well. American deaths had immediately jumped 25 percent, yet in September, when asked how the surge was going, Bush said simply: "We're kicking ass."
In reality, American soldiers were paying for the progress with their lives and limbs. Samarra, Nick's new home, was the epicenter of the uprising against the Americans. It was smack in the middle of the "Sunni Triangle," a 200-square-mile stretch of staunch support for Saddam Hussein.
Life here was equal parts tedium and terror. Cutter slept surrounded by sandbags, woke up to the smell of raw sewage, and spent hours atop Patrol Base Olson's walls with nothing but energy drinks and dirty banter to keep him awake. At the same time, every moment outside the base was potentially deadly. Improvised explosive devices — IEDs — were hidden everywhere: in trash piles, underneath the road, even inside dead animals.
Sure enough, Cutter's first foray off base ended with an explosion. Before heading to Samarra, the 232nd Engineer Company was stationed at Camp Speicher, near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The outgoing company commander wanted to show the 232nd how to handle things. Nick suited up in his body armor and strapped into his gunner's harness.
Ten minutes into the tour, the afternoon suddenly seemed to tear in two. A fireball erupted beneath one of the vehicles in the convoy. For Maurice Jermon, an older soldier from Chicago, the world instantly went white and silent. When sensation returned, it was the smell of smoke, the ringing of his ears, and the taste of blood.
"Cutter was the first one to pull me out of my vehicle when we took a blast," Jermon says. "He was the gunner on another truck. Everybody else was stunned."
It would be Nick's time soon enough. A few months later, his vehicle was hit by an IED. The explosion shook his skull against his helmet so hard that it damaged his brain — an injury that wouldn't be diagnosed until years later. Twice more Nick would survive bomb blasts seemingly unscathed, at least compared to the soldiers who lost feet, legs, eyes, or hands to IEDs.
There were other close calls. Once, when Cutter was clearing a building, an insurgent jumped out of hiding and stabbed him. But his body armor took the brunt of the blow and Nick shot the man in the head, he later told his mother over the phone.
For the most part, however, his parents had no idea what he was going through — no idea of the night missions where tracer bullets lit up the sky like the Fourth of July, no idea of the pedestrian bridge near Tikrit that soldiers called either the "stairway to Heaven" or the "stairway to Hell" because so many IEDs were hidden nearby, and no idea what it was like to go on patrol in the morning and find a pile of Iraqi teenagers in soccer jerseys, their limbs chopped off and their eyeballs bursting from beneath mops of curly black hair.
"People don't understand," Jermon says. "We went through hell together."
Nick decided he'd had enough after just three months. That's when he took his 30 days of R&R, even though it meant he'd have to serve a year straight when he returned to Iraq. "I don't think he expected it to be that shocking," Todd Cutter says of his son. Nick spent the month with his mother in Florida, where he slept a lot and spoke little about what he had seen.
The horrors resumed as soon as he touched down again in Samarra. One day, Nick was guarding a convoy while other soldiers searched for IEDs. A gray sedan appeared in the distance. When it disobeyed signals to stop, the soldiers fired a warning flare. The car kept coming. Nick fired in front of the vehicle, but it only accelerated. He buried a bullet in the engine block. Nothing. Finally, when the car was only 40 yards away, Nick unleashed a barrage of .50-cals into the driver. The car swerved and crashed. Inside, soldiers found the man's head split in half and his brain on the passenger-side floorboard. Plastic explosives were strapped to his chest, stashed under the seats, and packed into the trunk.
"He would have killed everybody in the convoy if Nick hadn't hit him," Jermon says.
By military standards, Nick was an excellent soldier, but his mind began to slip. His calls home became less cordial and more cynical. "There are a lot of people over here who are on the base and never leave," he complained to his father. "They never go outside the wire. They never have to do the dirty work. They might get shelled every once in a while, but we're out there risking our lives every day.
"Sometimes I wonder what we're even doing over here," he said, his voice somehow sounding even farther away than the 7,000 miles between Samarra and Greenwood, Missouri. "It's obvious that the minute we leave, they are going to go back to the same thing they have always done. What's the point?"
The next time Nick called home, he was distraught. His platoon had been searching a house for weapons, he said, when a girl began shouting and reached under her abaya. Nick thought she was about to detonate a suicide vest, and in an instant he put a burst of M16 bullets into her. When the soldiers searched underneath the abaya, however, all they found was a dress dyed scarlet with blood.
"Dad, it was like having to shoot my sister," Nick sobbed. "I can't believe what I've done."
His father and fellow soldiers tried to console him. After all, some Iraqi schoolgirls were used as suicide bombers. She didn't follow instructions. He was just doing his job.
Nick nodded but didn't seem to listen. He stopped eating but kept working out in the base's sweltering gym, as if every lost pound was a punishment he deserved. He became lean, then ripped, then gaunt. The 22-year-old who earlier in the war had moonwalked to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" on top of a tank, had giddily posed for photos with Saddam's gold-plated AK-47s, and had rapped over the radio to keep his comrades awake was now withdrawn.
Less than a month before the end of his tour, Nick's platoon returned from patrol to find the base on lockdown. The commanding officer had ordered a communications blackout, which meant only one thing: another casualty. That night Nick learned it had been a close friend of his who had been promoted and transferred to another platoon. They had just made plans to meet up back in the States. Then his friend's Humvee had hit an IED.
A few weeks later, Mary saw her son step off an airplane and onto another, more domestic battlefield. He looked thin and tired, his fatigues hanging off his now-slender frame. Mary and Rainy held up a homemade sign that said "WELCOME HOME NICK!" in red, white, and blue glitter.
Nick walked over slowly. But just before he reached them, a stranger intervened. She was short and blond — and angry. She screamed something at him about war crimes, her face so close to his that spittle flecked his face and uniform.
Rainy watched the big brother who had once broken a boy's nose for her now wipe his face and keep walking.
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That's not like him, Rainy thought. Something is wrong.
But she had no idea how badly broken her brother was. No idea of the nightmares and the drugs and the death wishes to come. And no idea Nick could survive insurgents set on killing him but not the doctors paid to save him.
Nick had become like the bomb-strewn streets of Samarra: Beneath a seemingly ordinary surface lay terrible violence. With enough time and pressure, he would explode.
To be continued in next week's issue.