By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It was impossible to keep track of it all. Gray had to accept the fact that he was living in a world where essentially anything could kill him.
He could tell that these assignments were taking a toll. Sometimes in the middle of a mission, childhood memories would flash through his mind — memories he'd never recalled before. He'd experienced weird mental snapshots in the past, but he'd always written them off. Now, though, the memories were too vivid, too real, to ignore.
He realized what he'd been suppressing: He'd been sexually abused as a child for years.
Watch an interview with Nic Gray here.
Gray kept the discovery to himself; this wasn't the time or place to deal with such things. But he couldn't stop the nightmares. One night he watched as an enemy bullet blew through his skull. Another night an assault rifle snaked through the window of his Humvee and rested against his inner thigh, the coldness of its nozzle pressing into his skin.
He returned from Iraq to Fort Riley, Kansas, in September 2007. Two months later, having wrapped up his three-and-a-half-year enlistment, he was out of the Army. Gray received an honorable discharge, just as he'd planned, and a post-combat health screening determined that he was as fit as could be.
He didn't feel that way, however — not even after he moved to Colorado Springs, a place he'd always liked, one where he had friends. He felt numb and disconnected, conditions that weren't helped by the fact that he was afraid to sleep. To distract himself, he plunged into the business he'd launched: a franchise brokerage company called NG Enterprises that specialized in helping veterans.
One day, though, he lost control. Waiting in the checkout line at Walmart, Gray became so annoyed by the customers around him that he screamed "What the fuck?!" and stomped out of the store without buying anything.
"Iraq changed Nic, definitely," says his mother. "There's been a serious, big difference."
Gray scheduled an appointment with the local VA medical clinic, where he learned he was suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression. Now it all made sense: the repressed childhood memories, the dreams of Iraq, the breakdown. The doctors told him that people who grew up with trauma like sexual abuse were predisposed to develop PTSD later in life after experiencing other kinds of trauma, such as being in a war zone.
The diagnosis spurred Gray to action. He began confronting his childhood memories, keeping a log of his obtrusive thoughts and a journal about his upsetting dreams. He told his friends and family about what had happened to him as a child. And he made the most of his VA therapy sessions — even when, after the first few months, the most the overburdened clinic could offer was a single one-hour session every other month. He'd been a model soldier; now he'd be a model veteran, too.
Gray's efforts seemed to pay off. By this past summer, the bad dreams were dissipating — and NG Enterprises was on a roll. In the fall, he created a new arm of his company: Operation Warrior Entrepreneur, a fundraising venture that would provide thousands of dollars to veterans who wanted to start their own businesses.
On October 15, Gray launched Project OWE at a Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce event at Sky Sox Stadium. Dressed in a suit and tie, he explained to the crowd what it was like to come back from war and re-enter the civilian world. "The transition wasn't easy and was filled with pain, anger and confusion, some of which still exists today," he said. "Personally, I feel lucky, though. Some never got the chance to return home, and the ones that did are left with the mental and physical scars to deal with for life."
A week later, stressed out from work, Gray went home early. Later that night, he called an Army friend he hadn't spoken with in a while. Sipping a glass of wine, Gray reminisced about Iraq, good times and bad — and admitted that he still got jumpy sometimes.
That's the last thing Gray remembers of October 21. The rest of the night is a blank.
Over the past two years, 22 veterans courts have opened across the country, in places ranging from Orange County, California, to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Thirty-nine more are expected to start up in 2010, and still more could be on the way: In 2008, U.S. senators John Kerry and Lisa Murkowski introduced the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act, a proposal that would fund additional veterans courts and similar programs.
While each court is different, the basic principle remains the same: The defendants' military histories and psychological issues are considered alongside the specifics of their crimes, and sentences are tied to personalized treatment programs, not just incarceration.
Last October, Judge John L. Kane, a senior U.S. district judge in Denver, testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that he'd like to see alternative sentencing options for military personnel. State representative Marsha Looper, a Republican from Calhan, is working on a bill to introduce veterans courts statewide. "It's so we can provide essential services for our service members who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," says Looper of her bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the Colorado House Judiciary Committee on February 8.