VA Scandal, Part 1: Before Dying From Neglect in Miami, Nick Cutter Survived Iraq

VA Scandal, Part 1: Before Dying From Neglect in Miami, Nick Cutter Survived Iraq
Illustration by Pete Ryan

They were coming for him.

Bullets hit the walls like rain on a windshield. Nick fired his .50-cal at anything that looked like a man.

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.

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frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

..................... the existence of an industrial military complex is to enlarge the DADDY WARBUCKs scheme whereas a very few get wealthy and many get killed or wounded


CHENEY was given a $100,ooo,ooo bonus from HALIBURTON 


CHENEY was given seven deferments from the draft


CHENEY was given the best immediate medical attention on ALL of his heart conditions



for CHENEY it certainly was "mission accomplished"

Gina Rose
Gina Rose

This is a powerful story about how this VA crisis impacts us in south florida! I was on Capitol Hill last week asking our senators and congressmen in FL to call the VA and demand professional counselors be hired immediately. As a profession we have been kept out of the va yet academically we are just as prepared as the other mental health professions, and are the only ones who are specially trained in substance abuse also. Although it's too late to help here we can not allow this to continue! Call your legislative representatives, share your story, and demand changes be made!

tlaurent123
tlaurent123

be dammed nice if our politicians would protect our vets wether there in our service our out of service instead of useing them as a political  prop fund the VA instead of makeing excuses   you hear me republicons!!!!!!!  yes this means you,,,,,,,

smeeveo
smeeveo

Part 1 is very nicely written. I look forward to the next episode. BUT . . . there's more going on than the unfortunate death of one veteran at one VA hospital.  The VA is broken, but while the problem manifests at the street level, the cause and the fault is at the highest level,  particularly a Congress that underfunds, micromanages  programs over which it has insufficient information, and most especially  gets our young men and women into harm's way on false premises.  


Before Iraq the American public had no particular knowledge or interest in PTSD.  Only after abolishing the draft and creating a "professional" military has that syndrome come to everyone's attention.  We throw a lot of money, therapy and way too much drugs at the problem.


Consider how we handled WWI, WWII, Korea etc.  A drafted military stayed in uniform, in theatre, as long as it took to win the war.  My parents and especially my father-in-law served in WWII. My in-law was in Africa, Italy and elsewhere in Europe for 5+ years.  He experienced as much or more horror than the young man in this story.  He survived,  but never spoke of his in-combat experience.


My point is NOT to downgrade any current vet's experiences.  It is to bring a bit more perspective to what is going on now.  If  you really care about veterans,  you will elect a Congress that truly cares about our military personnel,  not making war contractors rich or cheap-siding the VA budget for caregivers of our broken soldiers.

Kantzler
Kantzler

The tragic story of Nick Cutter and other vets who have suffered neglect and loss on the VA front is not representative of the vast majority who benefit from the VA care they receive.  The reporting of uncovered incidents within the VA has gone too far in causing a negative reflection upon the total service the VA provides to tens of thousands of vets.  While incidents like Nick's and recent events concerning the scheduling manipulations by administrative personnel at some facilities point to problems that affect some aspects of managing the administration of care, the medical side of the coin is not the major factor in these incidents.

I am one among many, many vets who are thankful for the dedicated care that has been our experience at VA facilities, which comprise one of the largest medical-services networks in the world, one which, for the most part, has been effectively managed by the government.

I have received care at Miami's VA facility and at Cincinnati's VA Medical Center, where the combined efforts of the doctors, nurses and technicians have saved my life, examining, diagnosing, and successfully treating malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, fatal more than 60 percent of the time.  And I, as well as all other vets, continue to receive excellent and punctual follow-up treatment for this cancer.

It is a mistake to believe that any system as large and widely distributed as the VA health-care system will be free of errors or even abuses in some aspects of its operations, especially under circumstances where the consequences of wars were not a factor in the poor decisions of the Bush administration to engage in Iraq and focus there instead upon ending the defensive response in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, heaping upon the VA health system a responsibility, grown over ten long years, which they were not prepared to accept, but for which they have since largely risen to face.

But make no mistake, even in VA facilities where administrative abuses have been uncovered, there are hundreds of dedicated healthcare professionals, thousands system-wide, whose priority is to provide the best possible care to the veterans they serve, and there are many vets who, like myself, are thankful for the work they have done and will continue to do for us.

Luiz Felix
Luiz Felix

War is something to make a few richer than they are. Fcuk the one s fighting them.

Dereal Nostasio
Dereal Nostasio

The greed and the envy shows in their eyes long after the war was over. Now its time for us Americans to distance or selves from the ignorance of our own people with our heads held high and our souls full of true pride, but never the less humbled by what we have witnessed and thank God every day that we still have breath to share our stories with our children.

Susan Werb
Susan Werb

absolute proof war is a racket for private interests using nationalist propaganda to recruit idealistic, ignorant, desperate, aimless, lost, unquestioning or low-educated recruits with more machismo than enough intelligence to think for themselves

 
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