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.