Active duty US Army, Apache Pilot, Warrant Officer, two deployments
Editor’s Note: Nicolas is a white active duty soldier in his late-twenties. At the time of his interview in late 2012, he was living on Fort Hood with his wife their two children. As a Warrant Officer, he was in a position of leadership with other soldiers, and reflected on the changes he saw needed as a leader, as well as his own experiences with issues of physical and mental well-being in the military.
I’m a military brat. But I was born in Nevada, and I grew up overseas, and a couple different states of the United States.
I decided at a very young age…I’d say six or seven. I always wanted to be a pilot. And the best way to do that is the military.
I was hoping to get fully qualified as an aviator. I was hoping to get deployed. I was hoping to go to combat. I kind of wanted what my dad had. I wanted to go see the world, live in interesting, exotic places, kind of have that Band of Brothers, you know, dine-ins, dine-outs, barbecues. I wanted the family and I wanted the exotic locations. I wanted to see what I was made of.
It was personal challenge, camaraderie, and also a matter of convenience. I wanted to be a pilot, the best way to do that was the Army. Army or Air Force, they pay for everything. They’ve got the most powerful, interesting aircraft, and they pay you good money to do it.
…Aviation is kind of an odd bird, in the fact that it’s very small, and there is almost no recourse. There is essentially unlimited power and discretion given to battalion and brigade commanders. And the fact that everybody wants to fly, and all it takes is one word from them to ground you. They can ground you at their discretion, based on any number of factors. If you’re having issues at home, if you’re having any issues dealing with the tour, then they can just say, “You’re sitting for x-number of days.” And that’s gonna hurt you, because you’re not gonna get the flight hours, you’re not gonna get the combat time, it’s gonna be a write-up in your Airman IECF—I’m can’t remember the exact acronym, but it’s the file that has all the paperwork on how many hours you’ve flown, what kind of tests you’ve taken, what kind of training you have. Basically it’s a black mark on your record. So the accessibility is there, the clinics are there, there’s staff, there’s Chaplains, but if you go to them, you’re gonna get penalized. And especially if there’s anything that you seriously need help with, for example, medication. Medication has to go through the Flight Surgeon. The Flight Surgeon either has to approve or deny.
There were a few times when I was having difficulty with some of the things that had gone on, and what I did was I kind of went around the system. I found out who the mental health care providers were and just approached them offline. I would just go up to them, “Hey, I’m so-and-so. I was hoping I could buy you a cup of coffee. I’d like to talk to you, but the problem is, I can’t officially talk to you, ’cause I’ll get in trouble.” And they were very receptive to that. It was all counseling, no paperwork, all confidential. And that’s kind of how I went around the system.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas clarified that he does not know if others have dealt with their health care needs that way.
Because there’s no way that we would talk about it to each other. Because everybody could potentially dime you out. And there’s not a whole lot of trust among the pilots. It’s a very, very dog-eat-dog environment.
It’s exceptionally competitive, and everybody wants a few slots. Everybody wants to be an instructor pilot, everybody wants to be a maintenance test pilot, everybody wants to be a stands guy. But there’s probably one slot for every five guys who wants it, so if you can potentially black ball someone in some way, it increases your chances of getting what you want.
In a related subject, there’s a wait time for certain medications. In aviation, if you take such and such a medication, you have to be around for x-number of days to see if you’re going to have an adverse reaction to the medication. That’s perfectly normal, ’cause you don’t want somebody to have an adverse reaction like drowsiness or allergic reactions when they’re flying. But here’s the flipside of that coin: your chain of command can at any time decide that they’re not going to allow you to accept the medication because they can’t spare you.
An example for me was: under the auspice of smoking cessation they can prescribe you Wellbutrin. Wellbutrin is an antidepressant. There was a doctor that was at Shindand that I was speaking to about the difficulties I was having and things of that nature. PTSD is what he called it. I call it just a normal reaction to combat. I’m not trying to get weird on you, but when you are sent to go kill people and they’re trying to kill you and you’re trying to protect people on the ground and they’re getting killed under your protection, it’s a lot to think about and deal with. And you’re separated from your family, you’re living out of a tent. It’s a lot.
…Where he was saying, “Hey, you know, this is pretty clear-cut PTSD, combat stress reaction, whatever you want to call it.” He said, “What helps a lot of people is Wellbutrin.” He said, “I notice you smoke. I can sign you up for smoking cessation and I can get you Wellbutrin that way, and that way it never has to go down in your file as depression.”
If you come up on the Flight Surgeon’s book for depression, forget it. You are done. If you ever fly again—which you might not—you’re definitely not gonna be in the running for any of those good jobs. Depression holds such a negative stigma in aviation that you’re a whiner, you’re a cry-baby, there’s something wrong with you, you can’t be trusted, you can’t hang, et cetera. Which is total nonsense. I’m no medical professional, but trust me, walking around and dealing with some of these people, there’s plenty of depression going on in the aviation field. It’s just no one says anything.
The care I received I would say was good overall, because they really went out of their way and kind of risked their necks a little bit to help me out. For example, he ended up prescribing me Wellbutrin, but I wasn’t allowed to take it for five months because they said, “Sorry, I need dual-seat-rated aviators, who are MVS and MTB qualified”–those are ratings, certificates, that I hold, and they needed those for the mission. “So sorry, we can’t spare you for five days.” ‘Cause there’s a mandatory five-day down period for this medication. So basically they told me just to tough it out—sorry, tough luck. And at the end of the deployment, if the feel like it, they can hook me up with five days of down-time to get me on this medication. Meanwhile, I’m sitting back just hating every day and really resenting the fact that you hear, every day, “Go get help! Go get help! No stigma! We’ll help you out. Your chain of command is receptive to this.” But in reality, they’re absolutely not. They’re quite the opposite, whatever the opposite of supportive is.
The propaganda out there on AFM, which is Armed Forces Network—you see all these vignettes and shows and every poster you see in the hallway, in the hangar, says, “Go get help. It takes strength and courage to go seek help.” But if you do, you’re done for. If you’re trying to complete the mission and deal with some of the issues you’re having, the command is 100% unsupportive of that. In addition to the fact that you couldn’t possibly find the time. And if they did find out about it, you’d be in trouble. And if they find out that you’re talking to somebody off the books, you’re gonna be in trouble for that too because you’re supposed to go through your Flight Surgeon for everything. So you can’t win.
…I’m taking Wellbutrin under the pretense that it’s for smoking cessation. I’ve specifically avoided a diagnosis…[and] I do not have a profile.
There’s been a couple times when I probably really should have been allowed to sit [and not fly], but wasn’t. That’s another thing with profiles, that’s in your permanent record, that’s nothing you want.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas was asked if this stigma results in a more dangerous work environment.
Absolutely. And let me give you an example. This was my very first engagement and I’m gonna give you the declassified version of it. It was down on a place called Shewan Garrison, South of Shindand. We went down there because two platoons were trapped, completely pinned down under heavy fire from three directions by RPG, PKM, grenades and AKs. PKM is a belted machine gun. AKs are small arms or whatever kind of AKs they were, there’s multiple variants. They were in knife fights and I’m having difficulty trying to sort out civilian versus Afghan police, versus insurgents because, as you can imagine, there’s no insurgent uniform. And the ANA sometimes just completely disregard uniform standards. And it is very, very difficult to see at four thousand feet, going 120 knots.
So, long story short, we go in there, end up putting a bunch of fire down. We pacify the threat, we get them taken care of, and the QRF, the Quick Reaction Force, came in, scooped up their guys, and started to ground evac them out. We did a BHO, battle hand-over, with another ship. And later on after we’d already departed, our two-ship formation had what we call a bad shoot. They misidentified ANA for insurgents—which, to be perfectly honest, they could have been insurgents and Afghan National Army. You’ve heard of green on blue? They ended up servicing this target that ended up being Afghan National Army. This is the first time I’d ever taken life. And no one ever wanted to talk about it, it completely did not happen. You’re supposed to get a thing called Combat Action Badge. If you ever go forth and get shot at and shoot at people, you’re supposed to get a Combat Action Badge. I wasn’t awarded one of those.
Nobody wanted to talk about it. We were not permitted to talk about it in the pilot’s office. The battalion commander never recognized that me and my crews had done anything down there. They didn’t want word getting out that this bad shoot had happened. They didn’t want the negative publicity of their superiors coming down and getting them in trouble, I was just left out to hang. It’s very difficult to explain, when you come back, and it’s like nothing happened. How should I feel? Am I a hero? Did I do something right? Did I do something wrong? Tell me something, just don’t ignore it. It’s so confusing. That probably messed me up worse than anything. There was no reaction. You need that affirmation from somebody.
Especially when it’s like it never happened. This was a very, very big deal—it’s my very first engagement, first time I’ve been shot at, first time I shot anybody. And we come home, and it’s as if, “That, forget that. Never happened. Don’t talk about it. I don’t want to hear about it.” There’s no paperwork on it. Freakin’—that never happened.
I talked to some of my platoon leaders, and they said, “Hey, total BS. Don’t worry. Next time around we’ll take care of you.” This is gonna sound maybe conceited or like self-aggrandizement, but we did a really, really good job down there. We put a lot of very heavy, accurate fires, we put a lot of danger close. Danger close is when you’re shooting in very close proximity to American or friendly forces. It’s a difficult shot, there’s a lot of stress involved, because the potential is good that you could hit your own guy. We did a great job down there. Air Medals and Distinguished Flying Crosses have been handed out to other crews for considerably less than we did. If anybody says they deserve a medal, they probably don’t. But at the same time, I have seen where other crews who have done less than we did were rewarded with at least an Air Medal. We didn’t even get a Combat Action Badge. There was no—forget about it. Never happened.
[The medal] is something to point to. This is more of a cultural environment, but if you don’t have anything to point to…it’s like the phrase, “Pictures or it didn’t happen.” That’s kind of how it is in aviation. It’s Air Medals or it didn’t happen. Another unit will say, “Hey, we got in a total knife fight, and we were putting down all this danger close, blah blah” —“Oh yeah? So what’d you get for it?” “Oh, we didn’t get anything for it.” “Uh huh.”
I do not know any pilots that have a profile for any sort of TBI, PTSD, et cetera. For physical injuries, yeah. There’s an individual in my unit, he was a prior Tanker, drove tanks. And he has a no-running profile for some of the injuries that he sustained on Haifa Street in Iraq. It was an IED, rocket, and RPG.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas was asked if that soldier, or others that he knows, are under pressure to violate their profiles.
Every day. He has a walking profile. Every time he walks, people are giving him crap for it. Like, “Oh, a shammer. You can fly, but you can’t run?”
He gets stigmatized for it. They can’t make him run. They can’t say, “Hey you, run.” But the problem with that is, then you’re placed in a position to disobey your commander. And you can imagine how that works out for you. Even if you’re right, they won’t forgive you. You’ll never be forgiven for that.
We’re familiar that profiles are not supposed to be violated. I don’t think that anybody would know what regulation it is. But everybody knows you’re not supposed to violate a profile. I personally have violated profiles. I was on a no-fly profile [after] I sprang the heck out of my ankle in Iraq. I was supposed to be down for two weeks and I went down for four days. I had to get helped in and out of the aircraft by my Crew Chief. But because that pressure is so strong of, “You need to be up and flying,” I was willing to fly injured, as opposed to take the rest that my ankle was supposed to get. Now that was a personal choice. I take responsibility for that. I succumbed to the pressure. But at the same time, especially with the new guys—I was the new guy in the unit at that time—it’s, “You gonna be a team player or are you not?” If you’re a team player, you get back up.
…And by repercussions I mean, you’d be considered a non-team player, and non-team players don’t get ahead. If it’s between me and somebody else, and let’s say I wanted to go to the Maintenance Test Pilot course. Let’s say I’ve got 700 hours and this guy’s got 700 hours, and both fly about the same, we got very similar records. But if this guy’s viewed as a team player, and I have gone and set myself apart by saying, “No, I’ve got a profile, sorry. Can’t do this.” Guess who’s gonna get the school.
I was re-evaluated by the doctor [before it expired]. I just basically lied my way through the interview. “How’s your ankle?” “Perfectly good.” “Any swelling?” “Nope.” “Hurt to walk on?” “Sure doesn’t.”
The Flight Surgeon [issued the profile], about October of 2009. It was DNF, “Duties not to include flying,” for 10 days.
The pressure [to violate it] came from mainly the instructor pilots, specifically the guy called the Standardization Pilot. He’s the head instructor pilot. They make the flight schedule. And basically they have a list of men and a list of missions, and they have to match enough bodies and aircraft to support all the missions. You take one body away from them and that makes their life much more difficult.
So they just come at me every day and said, “Hey, when you getting up? When you getting up, Shammer?” Instead of being on bed-rest like I was supposed to be, they’re saying, “No no no no. You’re going into the Pilot’s Office, buddy. You need to be studying.” So basically I had to sit at a table for eight hours a day. And sitting there was a bad place for my ankle, because they wanted to make it uncomfortable for me. I wasn’t allowed to stay in my room and lay in bed and read. They said, “You’re gonna walk yourself up and you’re gonna hang out here until the day’s over.”
At least when I was flying…[it was] pretty comfortable… It wasn’t mind-numbingly boring. You didn’t have people kicking you in the teeth all day and hassling you about spraining your ankle. It’s not like I wanted a sprained ankle. Like I went out and hit my ankle with a sledgehammer or something? I said, “You think I want this?”
I’m a Chief Warrant Officer. It’s above enlisted, but below Officer. The Army and the Marine Corps have them. It’s a silver bar with square dots… I’m a CW-2, Chief Warrant Officer II. I’m in charge of three lower enlisted, but just for additional duties. I’m not their first line supervisor.
I think that [care for trauma] is available, but no one’s taking it. I don’t think that the Army is failing in the fact that there are tons of resources available. But no one’s willing to reach up and dig into that cookie jar. That’s the problem. It’s not that there isn’t high-quality care available, it’s not that there’s not enough providers available. It’s that access to it is restricted by chain of command and culture.
Editor’s Note: As someone in a leadership position with other soldiers, Nicolas reflected on what kinds of programs or policies would help leadership support soldier well-being.
…I mean, it’s just as easy as, let them go. I don’t think that there needs to be any new programs. You just have to remove that stigma, and actually remove it. They can stand up in front of the group all day long and say, “No pressure, no stigma, you know, you get help and you’ll be just as good as before.” But you know, until somebody actually goes, gets help, comes back, and really does not suffer for it, then you’re just gonna have the same problem. No one’s gonna go. I mean, it’s one thing to say it, but it’s not true.
For a great example, there’s a staff sergeant, who was in charge of a shop. And he was having a hard time with his wife, he was battling depression. So, you know, he came to me and he said, “I’m thinking about going to a counselor, blah blah blah.” And I was like, “Hey, you know, they said no repercussions, you know. You’re not taking time off work. I think you should, man. Go talk to somebody.” Like, “Well, I don’t want to be a weakling.” That’s not the word he used. But I was like, “Look, man, counseling’s counseling. You know, what’s the difference between talking to me and talking to some counselor? You know, at least they’re professional. You want to talk about helicopters? You come talk to me. You want to talk about marriage problems? Go talk to someone who knows about it.”
So he goes, seeks counseling, gets a referral. One of the doctors says, “Oh, I believe that you’re Bipolar,” and puts him on medication for that. The second he got put on meds, they took his squad away, he was supposed to get a job—he was up for a promotion, he was supposed to get the Brigade retention position, which is a great job, great resume, it gets you in a position to meet people who can help get you ahead. And he didn’t get that, he got his squad taken away, they put him on the do-not-deploy list, and then they tried to Med Board him out, because he wasn’t deploying. He said, “Hey, I’m willing to deploy.” They’re like, “Nope, sorry. On that medication you’re not deployable, and since you’re not deployable, you are no longer of any use to us, we’re going to Med Board you out.”
Fortunately, he went to—I don’t remember if it was the inspector general or if it was the brigade commander, but he basically went to one of those two individuals and said, “Hey, this is nonsense, you can’t do this to me. I’m willing to deploy, I’ll stop taking this medication right now. This is—you can’t do this.” But the problem is, he had not gone through the unit commander, which by the way, that’s another scary proposition, because he’s either gonna help you out, or you’re going to be screwed forever. So…
Editor’s Note: Nicolas was asked to reflect on what the perception is generally of soldiers on profile, and what consequences they face.
They’re dirtbags…they’re shamming, they’re faking… Two days ago, the people who weren’t going on a division run—you know, people on profile fall out. The entire formation is [yelling], “Hackers! This is bullshit! Ugh!” “You can run! Fatty!” et cetera. And that’s, you know, in front of God and everybody. Commander’s standing right there, doesn’t say a word about it. I didn’t say a word about it either, ’cause you know, it’s that bully talk. I hate to say it, but it’s just not worth it. ‘Cause for a while I was trying to improve the climate and the culture. One person isn’t gonna do it, and you’re just making your life harder. You know, it’s not gonna change anything, and then you’re gonna be on the outs too. So it’s just not worth it.
…[For it to change] it would need to be at least the battalion commander. And not just, you know, lip service. It would have to be a battalion commander with an ingrained, intrinsic belief that this is a temporary problem that can be fixed, by counseling, medication, whatever. Whatever it is that soldier needs, they need to stop viewing it as, “Once you’re depressed, you’re gonna be depressed forever.” Or, “If you’ve got PTSD, you’re broken forever, you’re gonna be having flashbacks ’til you’re 60 or something.”
And the reason I say the battalion commander is that he has the authority and the ability to push things through. Like, let’s use me as an example. If I came up, and you know, I said, “Hey, I’m having trouble getting to sleep, you know, I’m having auditory flashbacks every now and again, that’s sort of thing. You know, I’m getting angry all the time, for no reason, you know, all these things. I need a week off, I need some counseling, I need to go on a trip with my wife, we need to reconnect. You know, I need some time and I need some help.” And if I got the time and the help, and then when I came back, I still got the things that I need for my career, then I think other people would do it.
Because if I went and did that now, the battalion commander would probably say, “Yep, no problem. Go for it.” And right now I’m up for what’s called pilot in command. I’m starting my pilot in command progression, so that if I go take this help, and then come back, as of right now I guarantee you I wouldn’t be up for my pilot in command, and there’s no way in hell they’d be sending me to Tac Op school in March, like I’m supposed to be going. So I mean, that’s now. Now, if the Battalion commander said, “Yep, go get that time, go get that help,” and when I came back, I immediately re-started my pilot in command progression, and I still got my school in March, that would send the message right there. “Hey, you can take this help and still get what you want.” But the only person who could make that happen is gonna be the battalion commander, because anything lower than that, there’s just too many chiefs, there’s too many people that can mess it up for you.
[SRP] is a long, painful series of stations. It gets the job done, but it’s so inefficient, as to just boggle the mind… I haven’t heard of anybody [being pushed through]…not to my knowledge. If you’re broken, and you make a big deal of it in SRP, you’re probably gonna get Rear D. But if you get Rear D, get ready for that Med Board… The unofficial name for Rear D is ‘Cowards and Cripples.’ And I’ve heard many other units refer to Rear D as, ‘the Cowards and Cripples.’
…There was a helicopter crash [on deployment] that was a direct result of inattention to detail and fatigue, and I have not read the report, so this should be taken with a grain of salt. But speaking to one of the NCOs who was in charge of this individual, the tail rudder—the bolts that hold the shanks on the tail rudder, were not secure. They were basically finger-tight. So that aircraft took off, the tail rudder slowly worked its way off, and then both pilots survived, but the aircraft was a total write-off. And come and talk to one of the NCOs, he’s like, “Yeah, specialist so-and-so was having a hard time, his wife’s running around on him, you know, he’s in a bad way,” et cetera, et cetera. You know, they’re running him ragged.
…Basically, [R-SRP is] same as SRP, except people care even less, and will say anything to get out of there quicker.
Editor’s Note: When asked if he thought soldiers generally answer questions honestly in R-SRP, Nicolas replied emphatically.
Not at all. And I have a suggestion for that—don’t make it all day for two to three days, a day or two after you get back. My experience was, we get off a plane, we had the rest of that day, which is like four hours ’til midnight. You know, we got back late, late, late. So we had the rest of that day, and then the whole next day off. And then we reported to SRP. Well, hey, I got what, three hours with my family, then I gotta go to sleep. I am jet-lagged. You sleep 14 hours, you know. You’re on completely reversed now. So I gotta spend maybe seven or eight hours with my family, total, and then I’m right back into the freakin’ Army square, taking accountability. And now I got two to three days of stations ahead of me? If they just took it where they were like, “Hey, you know, take some time” —there is not a single thing that they do in Reverse-SRP that is so critical that you couldn’t do it after like, a week of leave.
And another thing is, you know, PTSD is normal over there. It’s just, that’s the norm. People are like, “Yeah, we didn’t notice.” Yeah, that’s ’cause that’s how everyone’s acting. Everyone’s angry all the time. You know, everyone’s having trouble sleeping, et cetera. So you know, when you get home, you’re in that halcyon period of, “Yay, I’m back with my family,” I mean, a lot of that is gonna override. Plus, you know, the drinking. Hey, man, everybody parties down when you get back from a deployment. How do you determine an alcohol program, versus somebody who’s binge drinking after being dry for a year? So…
Basically, some uninterested doctor asked me, “Did you ever get in a blast?” “No.” “Do you have PTSD?” “No.” “Okay, you’re free to go.”
I did not . And you cannot have PTSD as a pilot. I mean, kiss your career goodbye. You’re done.
And here’s the other thing—hypothetically, and this is not me, but let’s say, you get home, empty house, wife took the kids. I know people like this, where you know, they get home, there’s nothing for them. Mom and dad don’t have the money to fly out to Texas, wife took the kids and the house and every other dang thing, there’s no one there to pick them up. You know, that kid is a huge suicide risk. However, that kid also wants to go out and experience the freedom of being able to go places and drink, and eat good food, and et cetera, et cetera. If he says he’s a suicide risk, they’re gonna lock him down, give him an escort, send him to mandatory counseling. I mean, it’s so painful, no one would ever say yes to that. You know, because the Army’s gonna do what the Army has to do to protect itself. I personally don’t believe that the Army gives a dang one way or the other if somebody smokes themself, other than the financial and political ramifications.
…You see [PTSD] briefings ad nauseam. And they always make the main character look like a total weakling, to where even I’m unsympathetic to this individual. It’s just so corny. You know, I’ve had reactions to combat, but watching that screen, I’m like, “Oh, come on, Sally! You know, grab your balls and get on with it.”
…I think a big part of the whole PTSD thing is advertising. And here’s why: all you see all over the walls, PTSD. “Do you have PTSD?” And you turn on the television, AFN’s on, every other commercial’s about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then you go to briefings, every other briefing is having something to do with PTSD. And by that I’m saying, Coca-Cola does a lot of advertising. When you’re thirsty, you reach for a Coke, right? If all you ever hear about is PTSD, you know, you’re feeling angry, you’re a little down in the dumps, “Oh! I must have PTSD.” I’ve seen this get pushed to me, and advertised, and advertised, and advertised, to the point that I think anybody who has any of the super-vague symptoms that the Army puts out for PTSD, you know, they’re just gonna jump to that, because that’s just been rammed down their throats.
An example…a neighbor of mine in California was a bomber pilot, World War II. And after 15 missions, they were so fried, they had so many stress issues, they would send them to a chateau in France, and all they did was eat and sleep and do nothing. Listen to the radio, whatever. And I think that’s something we could use. You know, it’s always go, go go. And a lot of these quote-unquote programs to relieve your stress, are stressful. Like, “Oh, I have PTSD.” “Oh, better send you to go hang out in a counselor’s office for three hours, have somebody ask a bunch of really personal, invasive questions. Oh, and have your chain of command breathe down your neck.” You know, just send them someplace with a pool and a martini. Give them three days off, and see if they don’t come back without combat stress.
[Screenings for PTSD were] just questionnaires. Somebody asks you, “Do you have PTSD,” you say no, and then you get to go home. It’s typically at SRP or R-SRP.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas was asked if he has ever experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and whether they have affected his personal life or work.
Yes, I have. It was really difficult to fly, for a while. Because the problem is, you’re worried about yourself, like, “What’s wrong with me?” …It’s almost like you’re repeating lines out of a movie. I called my wife, I have a very supportive wife. And I called her, and I’m like, “Hey, I’m having these auditory flashbacks. And you know, I’m having these anxiety issues, at certain times and places. Do you think I should sit?” And she’s like, “Well, you know, it sounds pretty normal. If you’re comfortable flying, I wouldn’t worry, it doesn’t sound like anything’s wrong with you. I would just, you know, pretend.”
…A lot of it is not necessarily post-traumatic stress, so much as it is just the prolonged, motivational exhaustion that’s accompanied with a year deployed, a year home. Like, this last year that I had home between Afghanistan and Iraq, I was only actually in my house for nine months of that. I was at an Alpha II training course for a month. I was at the ATA extra training exercise for a week, I was at another school for a month. I was in the field for gunnery for two weeks. And if you add up all this time, I spent a year away from my family, then I had a very rigorous training schedule, in which I only spent nine months in my house, and then I was right back into the grinder.
And I have a nine year-old girl, and a two year-old boy.
One of the most helpful things that I’ve taken advantage of, is Military OneSource has absolutely anonymous, absolutely free counseling. The wife and I—you know, we were just bickering, it was just over nothing. We would get into huge fights over who drank the last Diet Coke. And we both realized that was ridiculous. So I called Military OneSource, I talked to them by myself once, and then we had two or three couples counseling sessions, and it’s been good to go after that. She really, really helped. They picked up the phone right away. They’re falling all over themselves to get you an appointment when it’s convenient for you, and they help.
That was on base. If it’s a referral, then you have to do paperwork. Anonymous stuff, you just call in and, “Hey, my name is Nick.” “Okay Nick, what can I help you with?” And that’s it.
…I cannot overstate that this unit at this point is pretty much just combat-ineffective. We did a 15-month rotation in Iraq, spent a year home, did a 12-month rotation in Iraq, spent a year home, did a 12-month rotation in Afghanistan. That’s where we’re at right now, in the deployment cycle. And those quote-unquote ‘years home,’ were anywhere from seven to nine months, depending on your job. So in the last four years, I’ve spent more time in combat than I have at home.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas continued to reflect on what he sees as the long-term effects of multiple deployments on soldiers and families.
I personally have horrible anxiety. I never had problems with it before, I was very confident. I’m a nervous creature at this point. Especially in this, you know, nonlinear battlefield, where I’m forced to operate with these Afghans, who every month they kill four or five dudes, so I’m having to sit there and shake hands with them, hang out with these guys with loaded guns, who half of them want to see me dead. And then there’s all the indirect fire, and the suicide bombings, and just everything. You get wound up so tight, and you’re constantly on guard, to where when you get home, it just doesn’t go away. You’re still just on guard. Like, anything could set you off. You just have this real anxiety.
…And we’re forced to play nice. Another thing, and this is politically incorrect, but I’m gonna say it anyway… Humanizing the enemy, essentially, talking about the enemy’s hopes, dreams, feeling, families, et cetera, really I think has a detrimental effect on those people who actually have to go out and kill them. And I’m just not gonna mince words here, I hope I’m not making myself sound like a monster. But for me personally, the first brief I get in country is what a wonderful people the Muslims are, and how peaceful they really are, and it’s just a couple of bad eggs that are really messing everything up for everybody. And, you know, I’m not allowed to use any derogatory or pejorative terms for either the insurgents, Muslims, anything. I have to respect their culture. I’m not allowed to touch a Quran, but they can burn American flags and Bibles, and that’s fine. And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I get rammed down, and I get in trouble, for saying anything derogatory about their culture?! And then, later on that afternoon, “Alright Addison, go kill ’em.” …”I thought these were our buddies.” “No, no, no. No, go kill ’em.” “What?!” In every other war, you dehumanize and you vilify the enemy. In this war, we’ve done the exact opposite. You know, “These are our buddies. These are our partners. These are our friends.” And then, well, what happens when your ‘friends’ kill you? What happens when your ‘friends’ are supporting the insurgency? What happens when you have to kill your ‘friend?’
These are big Army policies. And when I use the term ‘big Army,’ I mean from the national policy level, down. The doctrinal policy…it is mandatory that I receive a cultural brief. It is mandatory that I go to training to teach me about their customs and courtesies and culture. These are mandatory briefings. These are standardized slides that are shown to everybody, and they’re shown over and over and over again, in addition to all of the policies put out by ISAF, International Security Assistance Forces. For example, after the Quran burning, you’re not allowed to touch a Quran. Not like I was going to anyway, but you know, the double-standard. They are burning Bibles, burning flags, and I’m not allowed to touch a book?
I’m sorry, I know it’s a religious text. At the same time, that’s ridiculous. You’re telling me that I’m not allowed to touch a physical object because it might offend the enemy? It’s frustrating, and that’s another thing I’d like to bring up, is they place more emphasis, more validity on the culture of the insurgents, than they do on our culture. And they are absolutely at odds. You can’t say we’re here for freedom and then support policy where women are property, and are oppressed. That’s not freedom. You can’t say, “Oh, well, this is the Afghan government’s way. They can marginalize this portion of society,” women, children. I can’t pronounce, but there’s certain ethnicities that are not considered worthwhile. And we’re supporting this. You can’t tell me that that’s right. So basically, I’m being forced to go risk my neck, and kill people—I mean, you know, risking your neck is bad enough, but when you’re gonna risk your neck and kill people, et cetera—and for what? We’re placed in handcuffs.
A great example, I was flying around and I saw people that were setting up an ambush. Like, “Hey, permission to get these guys?” “Well” —and I can’t get into the ROE because it’s classified, but because of several things, that were complete nonsense, I was not allowed to engage that target. To me, I’m flying around, and I’m like, “Great. Just let the dude who’s about to kill my friend go.” ‘Cause what do you suppose they’re gonna do? They’re out to kill Americans and NATO. You know, so I had to let them go! Do you know how many bad guys I’ve had to let go because of ISAF policy? That I can tell you, it’s about 25, 30. I’ve had to let about 25, 30 murderers go. Because of nonsense rules.
I believe that we need to address the threat of Islamic extremism; we need to address the threat of countries that support and harbor terrorism. However, we are going about it in such an ineffective and counterproductive way, that in all seriousness I think this war actually helps terrorism. And we could table talk this all day, but basically, instead of just going in, using a punitive action, like, “You have done these things, we’re gonna destroy your material, personnel, et cetera. We’re going to take away the ability for you to project your” —you know, forced rejection, for their forces to injure Americans. And then leave. Instead, we’ve gone in, we did that at first, and then we set up and we just basically let them take shots at us, and we’re not doing anything back. So it’s basically, “Okay Addison, your turn to go stand and let them throw rocks at you. Hopefully you don’t get hit.” “Well, can I throw rocks back?” “No. Sorry. That would offend people, and probably piss some Muslims off, so no.”
Editor’s Note: Nicolas clarified that if US troops are not deployed to act punitively toward people who are supposed terrorists or insurgents, he thinks the troops should be withdrawn.
It’s one of those where we are not a police force. We are a doctrinal, conventional, mechanized Army. That’s a hammer. A hammer’s not a scalpel. The Army and the Air Force, we are a hammer. If you want something just destroyed, no problem. But if you’re trying to just get the little cancer that’s eating away at a society out, that’s not our job. That’s not what we do. We can’t do it. We’re not equipped for it, we’re not trained for it, there’s no doctrine for it. It can’t be done. So we need to just get out. We need to find other counter-measures to prevent the spread of terrorism.
…I think that a couple of things are the most feasible [to address soldiers’ trauma]. Number one would be to effect the policy of how the war is being fought. It’s very traumatic. Soldiers expect a fair shake. It is not fair to say the insurgency can use anything at their disposal to kill you, but you must operate within very, very strict guidelines, in order to engage the insurgency. So that’s number one. We have to go away from this sort of schizophrenic policy of, “They’re our friends, but kill them.” I think that’s very traumatic to soldiers.
I’ve read a statistic that, percentage-wise, people in World War II were not coming down with as much PTSD as these veterans. Because when they came home they were heroes, everybody high-fived them. You know, it was ‘kill them at any cost,’ however you want to do it. So that’s the objective, it’s horrible, but people knew what they were doing, it was a fair shake, and everybody knew what the rules were. So that’s number one. We need to address the policies that are causing soldiers to have these…philosophical questions, “Is what I’m doing right?”
And then, number two is we need to get better R&R policies. If you really did have some time to decompress and just relax, without five thousand regulations on you, then I think that would really help.
[The TBI briefings] are actually pretty good. They sit you down, there’s a card that they hand out, I’d have to go get my wallet, but it basically says, “Hey, these are the things that cause TBI, these are the symptoms of TBI, here’s what you do if one of your soldiers gets it.” And then it just lays out a couple policies, for example, “If they get TBI, mandatory three days of nothing,” which I agree with. They’re likening it to a sports injury. All of these super-type A personalities can understand a sports injury. “Oh, Addison got hit by an IED. He’s got a concussion, he’s got TBI. Okay. Sit him for three days. He’s got a sports injury. I can understand and respect that.” So I think they’re doing a much better job with TBI than they are with anything else…
Yes, I did [take the ANAM]. We took those before deployment… I was not [exposed to blast pressure].
In aviation, you really don’t see [TBI]. If you get TBI in a helicopter, you’re probably going to die.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas was asked to reflect on sexual assault and harassment trainings he had received in the military.
Just ad nauseam. Any excuse they possibly can, to make me sit through another “Don’t rape your buddy” class, they will. This is going to be politically incorrect too, but for example, consent without all involved, or some of the nonverbal signs that your partner might not be open to a sexual experience, that I can understand. That’s not necessarily common sense. But to just continue to hit people over the head with the book of like, “Don’t rape your buddies,” it’s ridiculous. You know it’s wrong, either you’re gonna do it or you’re not gonna do it. Those who are not gonna rape somebody, a class ain’t gonna help. And those who are gonna rape somebody, a class ain’t gonna help either.
It’s what we refer to as ‘death by PowerPoint.’ It’s just slide after slide after slide, in an auditorium with 500 people. And another thing that I thinks turns a lot of people off, again, the vast majority of the people in the military is male. That’s the primary demographic. You’re gonna see a lot more males, particularly white males, than anybody else in the military. And a lot of the training is almost accusatory. Anytime there’s a vignette, it’s always a male aggressor, which—don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure that is the norm for sexual assault, I don’t really know the statistics—but it’s always a white male, who is displaying wildly inappropriate behavior, that nobody would do, or if they did, I would hope that somebody would correct them. And it’s just over and over and over again, just basically indirectly calling us all rapists…
I do [think sexual harassment is common], but I kind of disagree with the military policy on what quote-unquote ‘harassment’ is. The official Army policy on harassment is it varies from person to person. Essentially, if I say the word ‘chick.’ In California, that’s a very common word, it’s not considered pejorative, I’ll say, ‘This chick.’ That’s sexual harassment, right there. That sexual harassment is the same as if I made an inappropriate comment about somebody’s physical appearance or endowments. So it’s just…you can’t address the policy of sexual harassment when there is no line.
I don’t know where you’d put the line anyway, but… I personally, I do see that somewhat in the culture, but you get the problem where some of the women in the military—I personally go way out of my way not to say anything around them. ‘Cause it doesn’t matter, she could be saying x, y, or z, or talking about suggestive subjects, and that’s fine. I couldn’t say anything—I mean, if you go up to your chain of command, you’re gonna get laughed at. “Oh, she was? Go away.” You know, “She was talking about sex,” or, “She was talking about pornography, or whatever.” And you bring that up? Like, “Okay, well, whatever. Were you offended? Really? You were? As a dude? Get out of here.” If it’s the other way around, you can be hammered. So there’s a double standard there…
I’m guessing here, but I think [MST] is probably less [prevalent] than in the civilian population. Harassment I would say is definitely much higher. The typical topics in a military smoke-stack break room et cetera, are definitely what could fall under the category of harassment. Pretty much all the time.
There’s some [women in the unit]. And I think they feel a lot of pressure to fit in. You come into the unit there as a female pilot, no one’s glad to see you, myself included. I’m sorry to say that. The problem is…I don’t want to say they cause problems, but problems always arise from having a female in the unit. And the reason is, and I’m not saying that this is their fault, it’s just how it is… How it is is, they come in, and it might not even be their fault, but someone will say something that we as guys say all the time, she gets offended, and then we all get in trouble. Or, you know, she’ll come in, and then now we have no more peeing on the T-wall barriers ’cause bathrooms are not easily accommodated… You know, no more pictures of girls on the wall, et cetera.
Editor’s Note: Nicolas spoke about an incident of sexual harassment, and how he responded as someone in a leadership position.
…It was a specialist that worked for me, indirectly. She’s one of our radio transmitter operators. She came up to me and she said, “Hey, Mr. Addison, you know, so-and-so has kind of been bothering me. I don’t want to make a big deal of it, I don’t want anybody to think I’m a twist, or whatever”—that’s somebody who causes problems for their own amusement. “Could you maybe go do something about this?” So I pulled the kid aside, and I was like, “Hey, I’m not getting on you, I’m not gonna report you, but this has to stop now. This kind of behavior’s inappropriate. If she didn’t answer to you the first three times, she’s not gonna answer to you the next six, okay? You’re lucky she came to me. If she’d just reported you, it’d have been your ass.” I just counseled him on his behavior, and the behavior stopped.
I personally don’t [know of other incidents], and I wouldn’t tolerate that. If there’s someone in my unit that has assaulted another person, I want them gone. Period.
I don’t know a single person that thinks [sexual assault] is okay. I realize the position that [victims] are put in, but you know, let’s say he’s a colonel, and colonels are scary. Generals are scarier. Go to the first general, he’ll see you right away. You get that dude hammered.
…It’s one of those things where it’s typically a younger victim, they’re impressionable, they’re in a regimented system. [Assailants] use that intimidation to get themselves off the hook. But hey guess what? His boss does not care how scary he is to you. His boss is going to crucify him for this. So you need to go to his boss.
…What do they say, three out of four aren’t reported? …That’s unfortunate, but based on what I’ve seen in the military, I would say that those who do step forward, I’d say that it’s taken seriously once they actually do file an unrestricted report.
I think that, just speaking only from my unit, if [sexual assault] happened, I would say absolutely, that person would be insulated and applauded for helping us get the scumbag out of the unit.