The scene will play out many times across Idaho throughout September: cheers, well-wishes and tears of joy as more than 1,500 members of the 116th Cavalry Brigade come home, following nearly a year in Iraq. But long after the sheet cakes, yellow ribbons and balloons have disappeared, the memories of 10 intense months in a combat zone will remain.
"A returning soldier will get three different questions from three different people: a friend, a family member and himself," said Col. David Sutherland. "When you return, a friend will ask you, 'What did you do in the war?' Your family will ask you, 'How do you feel about what you did in the war?' And we ask ourselves, 'What did I accomplish in this war?'"
Sutherland, a veteran of both Iraq wars, has been shot at and bombed. He also witnessed a suicide bomber kill 20 people less than 10 feet away. Eight days after returning from one of his numerous deployments to an Iraq combat zone, Sutherland was driving his family car along a remote highway in Killeen, Texas. His wife Bonnie sat next to him, their two sons in the backseat.
"I stared out on the highway and said, 'Look. All of the telephone polls are standing.'"
After an uncomfortably long pause, Bonnie Sutherland gently put her hand in her husband's palm and looked into his eyes.
"Honey," she said. "You're nuts. What you're saying doesn't make any sense."
Sutherland remembers the conversation as if it were yesterday.
"If I had made the same statement to my fellow soldiers in Iraq, they would have said, 'Yes sir. The telephone polls are indeed standing and the street lights are working, too.'"
Sutherland readily admits to having post-traumatic stress and mild traumatic brain injury.
"But I'm not worried about my career or what people may think," he said.
In fact, Sutherland, one of the most decorated American soldiers of the last 20 years, whose honors include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, reports directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as a special assistant with principle focus on Warrior and Family Support.
"I'm an advocate and mentor of more than 2.2 million men and women who serve our nation today," Sutherland said on Aug. 9, addressing an invitation-only meeting of Idaho law enforcement, elected officials and representatives from Veterans Affairs and Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare. A select handful of veterans were also at the gathering, held at the offices of the Idaho National Guard at Boise's Gowen Field.
"He's a soldier's soldier," whispered one of the veterans to another.
Sutherland's message was sobering and timely. In anticipation of the imminent return of the more than 1,500 members of the Idaho 116th after nearly a year in Iraq, the Gem State needed to be better prepared.
As part of his presentation, Sutherland revealed the following:
• A returning soldier is more likely to struggle with substance abuse.
• Veterans are more likely to be homeless.
• Veterans are twice as likely to divorce.
• In 2009, America lost more soldiers and veterans to suicide than were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Forty percent of Iraq veterans are more likely to have mental-health issues.
"Our military is known the world over for our honor, courage and kindness," Sutherland told the crowd. "That's what we see in return from you. You need to know that we fight for you. We don't fight for the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs. We fight for you."
Ultimately Sutherland's message was that too many returning soldiers will share his mental-health challenge.
"The signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," he said.
George Nickel Jr. sat several feet away listening to Sutherland. He knew all too well what the colonel was talking about. In spite of being a decorated war hero, it was a minor miracle that Nickel was alive. He survived two wars--one in Iraq, another in Boise.
Guilt of Survival
At the Aug. 9 meeting, Nickel, dressed in a well-tailored tan blazer, shirt and tie, was sitting next to Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson. A little more than two years ago, Masterson's department had used what is technically known as "deadly force," firing 12 rounds at Nickel after he faced them down outside his Bench neighborhood apartment complex.
The call came in at 10:50 p.m. on July 28, 2009.
"I need the police," shouted a woman to the 911 operator. "There is someone pounding on my door, and he has a gun."
Nickel later told police that he hadn't slept for three days. "So I thought a beer would help," he said, estimating that he might have drank close to a full case of beer that day.
"My brain was telling me that someone had taken my dog," said Nickel, a soft-spoken man who makes solid eye contact while talking. "And I was angry and I had to get my dog back."
What Nickel did next was something he had done hundreds of time before--he put on a tactical vest, holstered a handgun and grabbed an AR-15 rifle and 90 rounds of ammunition. The problem, of course, was that this time he was on the streets of Boise.
Nickel is a war hero. He survived the deadliest attack on Idaho soldiers in the history of the Iraq War on Feb. 9, 2007.
"I was in the point vehicle. We were North of Fallujah," Nickel recalled but conceded his memories fade in and out. Following a blast, which killed 22-year-old Spec. Ross Clevenger, 22-year-old Sgt. James Holtom and 22-year-old Pfc. Raymond Werner, Nickel was pulled from the mess of blood and metal. Medics stabilized him in nearby Baghdad, followed by more treatment in Germany before his admittance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, outside of Washington, D.C.
"I suffered breaks to my right ankle, right knee, shoulder blade and my cheekbone," said Nickel. "And they told me later I had a moderate brain injury. They tried to explain the details of the blast weeks later, but I just wasn't processing stuff at that time."
Months turned into years. The awarding of a Purple Heart, thank yous and congratulations had come and gone. Nickel returned to a job as a guard for the Idaho Department of Corrections, but he wanted one thing: to get back to Iraq.
"If I could redeploy, it would fix everything," he said. "I had been in the military since I was 18."
But on a particularly hot July night in 2009, something went terribly wrong. Nickel, fully armed, tried to shoot the locks off of two different doors in his apartment complex. Within minutes following the 911 call, Boise police were staring at Nickel, who was holding a handgun with a flashlight attached. Boise police fired 12 rounds but none hit his body. Nickel didn't shoot back and surrendered. He was instantly cuffed and charged with six felony counts: four counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, unlawful discharge of a gun into an inhabited building and use of a gun in the commission of a felony.
"Jail was a long, unreal time for me," said Nickel, referring to his time at the Ada County lockup. "I spent eight months in a single cell. Just you and your thoughts."
For all intents and purposes, Nickel said his life was over. He may have survived a blast in Iraq and gunfire from Boise Police, but he would be held hostage by his "guilt of survival" for the rest of his days.