Menus Subscribe Search
(ILLUSTRATION: MÁGOZ)

(ILLUSTRATION: MÁGOZ)

Saving Sergeant Nickel

• March 18, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: MÁGOZ)

They survived Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the challenge is keeping traumatized vets out of jail.

George Nickel was on the last can of a case of beer when it dawned on him that his dachshund was missing. He’d been drinking a lot since coming back from the military hospital to his home in Boise, Idaho. That was understandable. His tour in Iraq as a U.S. Army combat engineer had ended with a roadside bomb attack that killed the rest of the crew on his armored vehicle and landed him in the hospital for 11 months. To top it off, his wife, an army sergeant, was away in Texas awaiting her own deployment to Iraq. Nickel insisted to his friends that he was fine, but he knew he wasn’t. By that July night in 2009, he hadn’t slept in three days.

He had to go find his dog, he decided. Through the slurry of his thoughts, his army experience kicked in. Nickel suited up like he had for all those patrols in Falluja and Ramadi. He slipped on his tactical vest, holstered his pistol, and slung on his AR-15 rifle.

Nickel climbed the stairs to the apartment above his, shot two bullets into the lock, and kicked in the door. No one was inside. Across the hall, he heard a woman screaming.

“I want my dog back,” yelled Nickel.

“I don’t have your dog,” the woman shrieked.

Nickel shot the woman’s door lock off. But before he could move inside, he heard shouting and saw lights from the parking lot below. He stepped onto the landing to see 11 men piling out of their cars. Nickel drew his pistol and pointed the flashlight attached to its frame at them, hoping to see them better.

Big mistake. The men in the parking lot were cops, and they opened fire. Nickel dove for cover as at least a dozen bullets slammed into the wall where he had just been standing. It was only at that moment, he says, that he realized the men were police.

U.S. serviceman George Nickel

U.S. serviceman George Nickel

Nickel surrendered. After months in jail, he wound up in a Veterans Health Administration hospital, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from the blast in Iraq.

Dramatic as it was, Nickel’s arrest was far from an isolated case. As American soldiers stream back from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them are running into serious troubles with police. The FBI is called in to about 20 hostage situations involving veterans each year, and police report many more dangerous confrontations. As many as 20 percent of America’s hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets may be, like Nickel, battling PTSD, brain injuries, or other mental health problems. Many also struggle with unemployment and substance abuse issues. Those factors make legal problems more likely. A recent survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of 1,388 Iraq and Afghanistan vets found that those with PTSD and high irritability were more than twice as likely to have been arrested as other veterans; those abusing substances were more than three times as likely.

Vietnam taught us how often soldiers traumatized by conflict overseas can wind up in trouble with the law back home. As of 1988, almost half of all male Vietnam War combat veterans with PTSD had been arrested or jailed at least once, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This time around, though, a growing array of police, court, and correctional officials are trying to help. The federal government has hired more than 200 outreach workers to help connect veterans with legal services, and has doled out over $20 million in grants to special courts and other programs helping veterans in the criminal justice system.

The Department of Justice is also funding a program to train police in 15 towns and cities in veterans’ issues. In Maine, after four fatal standoffs between police and veterans, a county sheriff launched a de-escalation seminar open to any cop in the state.

“It’s so different from Vietnam, when we all got drafted. Now, many officers haven’t served,” says Wayne Shellum, a retired police chief who is leading the Justice Department–funded training sessions. Treating a traumatized vet the same way you’d treat any other troublemaker, says Shellum, “could cost you your life.”

But many law enforcement officials don’t think such special treatment is warranted. In California, bills to create veterans’ courts statewide have been defeated several times in recent years.

“There are a lot of defendants who will use PTSD as a defense. Does it matter what caused the PTSD? I’m not sure it does to the victims,” says Scott Thorpe, head of the California District Attorneys Association, which lobbied against the bills. California, he adds, already has “too many specialty courts. It draws unfairly on the resources of the criminal justice system.”

Nickel was eventually put on probation that included substance abuse and mental health counseling. “All this has made me realize how crazy it was that I told myself to suck up my problems and drive on” after returning from Iraq, he says.

Now, he volunteers with the local veterans’ court. He has also worked with Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson to help teach officers how to de-escalate conflicts with troubled veterans. Masterson says that training has helped save lives in dozens of incidents already.

“If we don’t take care of these folks,” says Masterson, “what message does it send when we ask the next generation to go to war?”

Kristina Shevory
Kristina Shevory is a longtime freelance writer who served in the U.S. Army for eight years.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.