Seth Nickell describes himself as a husband, a father, a combat veteran, and a man of God. I interviewed Seth in Stanwood, Washington at a retreat for Project Sanctuary, a nonprofit that helps reconnect returning soldiers to civilian and family life. We talked about his decision to serve, the challenges of finding help for his PTSD and the things he’s learned about himself along the way.
“I joined the Air Force in 1999, right out of high school. I decided that I wanted to be Air Force security forces, so kind of like military police. As it turned out, I didn’t like it. Good people, just not my cup of tea. I didn’t like the security forces job. I spent a lot of time out counting rivets on aircraft wings, providing security for them because I was so bored.
But, as soon as September 11th happened, that was obviously a monumental shift in the United States military from a peacetime military to a wartime military. My third deployment, right after September 11th, and I was guarding people’s equipment that they were leaving behind as they were jumping off into Afghanistan. To me, that wasn’t okay. I couldn’t sit and watch people taking risk for me, while I sat there and just made sure their stuff was there when they got back.
I wanted to be in it. If I was going to be in the military during wartime, then I wanted to make the most difference that I could. So I retrained into tactical air control party, whose job is to coordinate with ground forces and to provide close air support or air strikes and was able to deploy in 2004 to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain Division. I worked with Marine units there. This was my first combat deployment. Then I came back, got married, three months later, I volunteered to go to Iraq for my second combat deployment. Three months after we got married.
The pastor—before we got married—sat down with me a couple days prior and he’s like, “Is there anything earth shaking that you have not told Amy that would be a deal breaker?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve volunteered to go to Iraq already.”
I hadn’t told her. And our pastor was a Vietnam Marine. He goes, “Yeah, that can probably wait till after the wedding.” So after the wedding, I did tell her, “Hey, I’m being deployed again.” And I told her I asked for this. This is not the fault of the Air Force.
I had friends going and I couldn’t imagine not being there with them. So three months after getting married, I was off to Iraq for 2004 into 2005. I was 23, 24.
I got back home and probably three months later got out of the military. That was always the plan, to go in for six years to be able to serve, kind of do my part, mature, maybe learn some skills and then to get out and do something else.
The combat experience is so far beyond the realm of anything that we’re ever prepared for. It is such a foreign experience. I mean, my combat time was ground shaking. It changed the course of my life, for sure. I learned a lot about how strong I can be. I learned a lot about how compassionate I can be. And I learned a lot about how violent I can be, all in the same breath. It’s like learning all sorts of truths about yourself compressed into months instead of over the course of a lifetime.
I was definitely proud of just showing up. Just being there. You know, it’s easy to say as a young man, “I want to deploy. I wanna be in combat.” It’s quite another thing to show up and do it. It made me proud of who I was, that I could follow through with that. One of the things I was most proud of in that process was just stepping up. Doing what was hard, when things were beyond difficult and beyond hard, to where they were agonizing, both emotionally and physically. Pushing through and doing what I needed to do for my country and for my brothers and sisters that were there with me.
Also, I did get to see providing better qualities of life for people in those countries. Some of the atrocities that they had experienced before we were there had at least lessened. Hearing the stories from the people, that that was no longer happening as frequently, made me very proud to be a part of that process, of improving lives somehow, some way, for people.
There were a lot of challenges. And a lot of things surprised me about myself. Again, like how compassionate I could be and how cold and violent I could be really struck me. I was surprised too, at how much certain things affected me, or even an intuition that, I can’t deal with this emotionally right now, but I’m going to have to in the future.
It never went away. Seeing the worst of what humanity can do, the worst of what a man and woman’s mind can come up with. You know, terrorism and indiscriminate killings and torture of people by insurgents. Just the nature and savagery of what warfare is…war doesn’t care. As much as we try to protect people, people get hurt and killed. Especially with women and children, it doesn’t compute. As an American, coming from a good upbringing in a rural area like I was, that stuff has definitely stuck with me. And I just had to push it aside at the time because I couldn’t deal with it as it was happening and still expect to go on that next mission later in the day or tomorrow, and be able to do it again.
I couldn’t talk about what was happening because I couldn’t acknowledge it with people that I was vulnerable with, like my parents and my wife. It was too much. To be able to do those things that you do in combat over and over, you can’t sit there and dwell on it too much. And look at the repercussions or how you feel about it, especially if you’re being expected to do it again. So combat veterans, while they’re in, they’re like, “Man, this stuff doesn’t bother me. This stuff doesn’t bother me.” And as soon as they get out and they’re not expected to do it anymore, well then, you know, maybe some of this stuff does bother me.
[Re-entry] was rough. I was obviously elated to be home. But it was definitely difficult. I knew I had issues. Stuff was not making sense. I was acting in ways that were not normal to me and I knew I had what people call PTSD—like a little bit maybe—but I didn’t have any idea how bad. I spent all my energies putting on like a good face, like nothing’s wrong, everything’s great. The boy’s all right.
But things really started going downhill rapidly, having all sorts of flashbacks and intrusive thoughts that I didn’t want. Trains of thinking that I didn’t want. I was depressed. I was super angry at nothing. Not being able to sleep. All these things were happening and it didn’t take very long for me to say, “I need help,” because this is not me. I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I don’t want this.
My wife was definitely able to see, like, you’re different since you got back, and you’re doing these behaviors or these things that are definitely not normal to how you were, or definitely seem out of place. I was kind of the first one of my core group in the military to get out in 2005, so I didn’t really know any resources when I got out to be able to deal with things. I decided I had to go to the VA. Things were going downhill rapidly and things were getting dark. I needed help. So I went to the VA clinic in a city next to my hometown.
I said, “I need help. I’m a combat veteran from Afghanistan, and Iraq. And I need help. I was the first Iraq or Afghanistan veteran that they’d had at that VA clinic. And they gave me an array of papers and said, “Okay, you need to fill these out and submit them. And then, if you qualify for services from the VA, then somebody will get ahold of you.” So I signed the papers and submitted them. And things were still going downhill. I was exhausted from just trying to keep so many symptoms in check. And so I would call the clinic a month later and say, “Hey, I really need help.” And they said, “Well, it’s gonna take some time Mr. Nickell. We will process your paperwork.” I’d go in every two weeks and say, “I need help. I need help. I need help.” Until finally, they’re like “Mr. Nickell, you need to be patient.”
I was beyond being able to be patient anymore. Things were getting dangerous for me as far as depression and just all these feelings and things that were coming up. And so I said something super drastic, to the point of like, “If I don’t see a doctor today, I’m gonna hurt everyone here,” to which they’re like, “Okay, we will let you see a doctor right now.” And a doctor came out and took me in his office and said, “How you doing?” I was like, “I’m struggling.” And he said, “Do you really feel like hurting everyone here?” And I was like, “Not at all.” And he’s like, “I get it. Don’t worry about it.”
But that’s how I had to get my foot in the door seeking help at that time, in 2005.
A lot of times, guys and gals coming out with combat trauma and stuff like that, they’ll ask for help once. And if they’re told no or not getting help, you’ll never see them again.
[I was] stubborn, a lot of being stubborn. And then just knowing things are not right. Like, I’m not sure why I’m acting these ways. I’m not sure why I’m feeling these things, and I want to get back to being the person that I am. I didn’t know if that was ever gonna happen again. But I at least wanted to try to not be the way I was, and that was a good enough motivator. And then my faith and my family. Newly married, not even a year married, you know, my wife, those are huge motivators.
Relationships with people do mean something. Throughout16 years of trying to get help and dealing with severe PTSD, and all the things that come with that, one of the things that was consistent, even in the super pitch black dark times in my life was my relationships. Everything else could fall by the wayside, but those special relationships wouldn’t let me quit.
I could give up on myself 10,000 times a day, and that was easy for me, but I couldn’t give up on my wife. I couldn’t give up on my dog. I couldn’t give up on my parents. I couldn’t give up on my best friend. And a lot of times that’s what kept me going, just at a very basic survival level was the relationships I had. And then I started figuring out that the more time and energy that I’m putting into my relationships, the more rewarding that felt to me.
My turning point is when I really 100% started being invested in my own treatment. I could sit there and talk about things on the surface and I could BS a mental health practitioner. So then I could check the box and say, “I’m doing counseling.”
My wife sat down with me one day and I was being kind of moody. Just in a bad spot. And she said, “You know, you went overseas to fight, to provide better lives for people.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And she’s like, “Including your brothers and sisters that were over there.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, for sure.” And she’s like, “And you would put your life on the line to make things better for other people.” And I was like, ‘Oh yeah.” She said, “Well, when are you gonna start fighting this hard for you?”
That was the ultimate kick in the gut. She was right. Like, when am I going to stop dancing around the thought of being a better person that I want to be and actually start doing that. And that was my turning point. I am worth doing the work. The person that I want to be, and the way I wanna live is just as important as the ultimate dedication that I had to laying down my life for my brothers and sisters. And so that was probably the biggest turning point.
I had to make the decision that I was worth something. That the work I was doing was benefiting somebody who deserved it. I had a lot of grief. A lot of guilt coming out of my combat deployments. Even just to make it through my combat deployments, I had to convince myself that I was already dead. I wasn’t coming home from this deployment. I’m not coming home from this mission. And so I may as well put everything out there on the line and try to make the best impact as I can cause I’m not coming home. And that perpetuated for years…like, I’m already dead. The best thing that I can do is to live for others. And sometimes that was going to therapy and checking the box so that others knew I was going to therapy. It wasn’t until my wife confronted me and I kind of bought in that I’m not dead. That I deserve to live for me because me living for me lets me live for others in even better and richer ways.
I think peace might be just contentment with yourself, contentment with your neighbor, contentment with your family, with your thoughts. You know, peace doesn’t have to be perfect. The little things in life, like my kids, that’s, that’s peace. Getting to see strangers helping each other, that’s peace. It can be little things throughout your day that you see peace in. And the more that I worked on myself and decided that I deserved the work, the more peace I was seeing around me.
One of the things I started doing, when everything was just so dark and black and everything was negative, is that I started counting wins throughout the day. And so, I mean, I got out of bed today. That’s a win. Start small. Took a shower and got dressed. That’s a win. I fed myself. That’s a win. And it’s hard when you start doing things like that to look back and be like, everything sucks.
And then once you get past those wins, you’re like, “Oh, I communicated with this person today that I was thinking about, that’s a win. I was able to give attention in a meaningful way to my spouse or my kids, that’s a win.” And those things start adding up.
One of the things that’s dawned on me the last year—it just seems like it’s so true—and maybe my combat experiences demonstrated to me—that life is incredibly fragile and it can be taken in a moment. So why would I risk not telling somebody how I feel about them for even a second? Like if I really appreciated the waiter at a restaurant just being kind to me, why would I not tell them, why would I not tell a family member or a best friend how they make me feel? Why would I wait to say something?
You can’t. I did and never got the chance to say it again. So why would I wait now? And that’s never backfired on me to just say how I feel about somebody and tell them. I’m not this big lovey dovey guy, but I can tell people how I feel about them and it’s never, ever blown up in my face.
Being on the receiving end, like that goes in the win column again. Right? And that can be a really huge win for your day. So why not share it with somebody and let that be even a small win in their day too?
-Have you, or someone close to you served in the military? Talk about it.
-What was your response to 9/11?
-Is there an experience that changed the course of your life? What was it?
-When have you learned the most about yourself?
-What have you sacrificed for others?
-When have you needed to ask for help?
-When have you needed to fiercely advocate for your own needs?
-Are there times you have packed away difficult experiences because you’ve had to keep moving forward?
-What keeps you going in your most difficult moments?
-What are the small wins that sustain you?
-When have you most recently told someone that you care about them?