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.

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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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