Written by Scott Johnson and Originally Published on Buzzfeed on May 30, 2013
Around 11:45 on the morning of Saturday, April 23, 2011, a young man wearing sunglasses and a blue hoodie walked into a U.S. Bank in Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. His name was Nicholas Walker, and in his right hand he carried a green Hi-Point .45 pistol. Walker approached one of the teller windows, jostling to the side a woman who was already being helped, and pointed the weapon briefly at Rosa Foster, a bank employee facing him from the other side of a bulletproof glass wall. A video camera captured the moment. Foster, who was pregnant at the time, later told the Lyndhurst police that the robber said, “You know what this is,” before demanding that she hand over the cash from her register, which she promptly did, passing bundles of bills in $100, $50, and $20 denominations, $7,426 in total. Walker stuffed the money into a white plastic bag. Then he ran out through the same door he had entered.
Outside he climbed into a black Ford F-150. In the space behind the cab were several old items of clothing — a few unwashed sweatshirts and T-shirts, some hats and baseball caps. Walker tossed the money and the pistol into a grocery bag on the passenger seat and pulled out of the parking lot. He turned south on Richmond Road. Then he tuned into his favorite station, AM 850 — The Jim Rome Show, a nationally syndicated sports talk program. As he drove, Walker tried to change his clothing. He reached into the backseat and grabbed for another shirt. He took off one hat, revealing a mop of recently dyed jet-black hair, and placed another on his head. The pickup was a mess — cigarette butts, drink containers, and food littered the floor. Walker himself was a mess. As he changed, he noticed once again the burn marks on his arms where he had stubbed out cigarettes.
Walker heard the sirens before he saw the patrol cars, so he sped up. He was pretty sure he’d been identified, but he wanted to make it home anyway — maybe he’d have time to buy some drugs and off himself. Still on Richmond, he drove past gas stations, chain restaurants, and parking lots, weaving back and forth across lanes to increase his distance from his pursuers. Pretty soon the howl of the sirens had all but vanished and Nicholas Walker floated in an eerie but familiar kind of calm — the sort of calm he had only ever felt in Iraq, right after a bomb exploded, or just before he kicked down a door and burst into a living room. In those precious few moments, the world seemed like a peaceful, almost acceptable kind of place. In that way, a bank robbery was a lot like the war: The worse things got, the easier it was somehow to cope. The tension that had been building all morning had now been released.
And then he hit traffic. At the corner of Richmond and Cedar, Walker came to a stop. He sped westbound on Cedar and bumped into a car. Then he swerved to the side, scraping along another car. Now the police were catching up. He swerved violently into oncoming traffic and then back again, running a red light at the entrance to the Legacy Village mall and then hurtling over the edge of the road and into a Burger King parking lot, which he sped across, dropping off a 5-foot embankment. Police caught up, and Walker found himself on the opposite end of a gun. Sirens wailed, and more police cars pulled up quickly.
He heard a voice say, “Get on the fucking ground.”
More voices joined in, and soon he was engulfed in a chorus of obscenities: “Scumbag.” “Fuck.” “Asshole.” Officers threw him facedown against the vehicle. More policemen than he could count had their pistols trained on him. An excruciating pain raced up his spine from the car wreck — he’d broken his back.
Do not fucking cry, Walker thought to himself, as police cuffed him, read him his rights, and bundled him into an ambulance. Whatever you do, do not cry.
Nicholas Walker, Nico to his friends and family, is a U.S. Army veteran with an exemplary record of service as a medic during the very worst years, and in the very worst areas, of the war in Iraq. He is also a convicted bank robber — and not just the garden variety; in only four months, Walker managed to rob nearly 10 banks (an 11th attempt was aborted), making him one of the most prolific individual bank robbers in Ohio. “It’s definitely in my top two, in terms of robberies by one individual,” said Art Hernandez, a federal prosecutor who helped send Walker to prison for 11 years in 2012. “It’s one of the most unusual [cases] I’ve ever prosecuted.”
For his service in Iraq, Walker received seven medals and commendations for valor. A former comrade in arms named John Endsley wrote in a letter to the court, “Doc Walker [was] the epitome of what it means to be honorable.” I met Walker recently for several hours over two days at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, a minimum-security facility where he is currently serving his sentence. He was almost 6 feet tall, slight with delicate hands, blue eyes, and blond hair molded in a prison-issue crew cut. We sat in the prison’s visiting room under the gaze of two guards who had been told to keep a close eye on both of us.
Walker fidgeted often and had a twitch in his left eye that wasn’t there before the war. For the last several months he had been taking Prozac, which helped calm his anxiety and lift his depression. Nevertheless, he moved nervously, wringing his hands and repeatedly rubbing one thumb back and forth over the other. At times he kept my gaze for long periods, while at others he couldn’t seem to look at me at all for more than a second or two. He was unfailingly polite and articulate, and though I knew it was difficult for him, he did his best to put words to the traumas of his experiences in Iraq, and the devastating consequences after he returned.
During the 11 months in 2005 and 2006 that Walker spent in Iraq, he participated in roughly 250 combat missions, a high number even for trained infantry soldiers, to say nothing of a medic. Walker became so accustomed to combat, in fact, and so good at it, that the infantry soldiers from two separate platoons specifically requested his presence on their most perilous missions virtually every day for over a year. And Walker, who told me he joined the military in the first place because he wanted in the most fundamental way “to help people,” obliged them — over and over again.
“Before you go to war, you want stories, you know — that’s the really tragic thing,” he told me, “because this is that story, and there are no good guys, and no bad guys. And looking back, you think to yourself: What did you think was going to happen? Death or glory? And then you feel bad because this is exactly what you wanted. It’s real easy to get into, and it’s real hard to get out of.”
Many veterans of America’s wars never do get out. A 2010 estimate found that every day as many as 22 veterans kill themselves, many of whom suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. More U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide in 2012, in fact, than all U.S. military personnel killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in the same time frame. And yet for all that, veterans continue to face extreme challenges getting help when they return. Veterans Affairs offices across the country have been the subject of repeated and damning exposés detailing the shortcomings soldiers face upon returning home, including drastic time lags in receiving care, no follow-ups, and misdiagnoses. PTSD has been called by many the “signature wound” of America’s wars.
Despite its ubiquity, every case of PTSD is different. Nick Walker, instead of retreating quietly into a life of physical or emotional abuse, or simply killing himself, chose to cope by lashing out in a unique and mystifying way. It was a decision that baffled his family and friends, and even, eventually, Walker himself. It was no less confounding for the experts brought in to examine him afterward. Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist who testified on Walker’s behalf, said his was “one of the worst cases of PTSD I’ve ever seen.”
Nick Walker had never experienced anything even remotely like Iraq. The younger of two sons, he was raised in a well-to-do family with two loving parents who provided everything the young boy desired. When Walker’s musical talents began to emerge at an early age, his parents bought him several guitars and, later, a Steinway baby grand piano. In Atlanta, Las Vegas, and finally Cleveland, his parents always chose neighborhoods with the best schools, usually Catholic and always private. He grew up sheltered, privileged, and also, for the most part, happy.
As a boy, he had been close to his maternal grandfather, an infantryman during World War II. In his first year of college, dissatisfied with his cloistered life in Cleveland and upset by the stories coming out of Iraq of maimed and wounded young men — men who looked just like him — Walker decided to enlist, to his parent’s horror and stupefaction. Before leaving, he and his girlfriend Kara quietly eloped. Then he shipped off to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, in February 2005. On Nov. 28, Walker left for Kuwait, and two weeks later he arrived in Iraq. He was 19 years old.
The soldiers of the 167th Armored Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, calling themselves “The Death Dealers,” had driven north from a rear base in Kuwait largely without incident. By Christmas they were camped at a forward operating base right outside the town of Iskandariya, 40 miles south of Baghdad. The Death Dealers arrived in Iraq just as the Sunni insurgency was getting underway. In Baghdad, Shia militiamen from the Mehdi Army were terrorizing entire neighborhoods, running death squads and executing Sunnis with impunity. Sunnis, in turn, were blowing up buses and markets — anywhere crowds gathered. But few places in Iraq were worse than the area south of Baghdad that came to be known as the “Triangle of Death.” Rich farmland cut through with irrigation ditches, the territory ran through several towns and was home to a massive power plant. It was here that the myriad forces of the war took their most malevolent expression. It would become Nick Walker’s home for the next year.
Walker arrived expecting a lot more small-arms fire, the sort of warfare his beloved grandfather had experienced during World War II. But from the start, his unit’s primary mission was to discover and neutralize homemade roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Up and down the major arteries that cut through the Triangle of Death — Route Paddy, Route Martinez — bombs were going off multiple times every day. And while there were small-arms engagements from time to time, bombs accounted for the vast majority of the casualties Walker was beginning to see.
Very often, there was nothing he could do as a medic except load what remained of his dead friends into body bags. In February another medic was wounded and sent home, leaving Walker as the sole medic for two platoons: roughly 100 men. The military was by then providing armored Humvees, but even these were no match for Iranian-made bombs, called EFPs, that were increasingly appearing in their area of operations.
Walker was soon going on missions — “leaving the wire” — up to three times a day. Sometimes he would leave the base and stay out for up to a week at a time, conducting reconnaissance missions, kicking in doors, raiding houses. There seemed to be a never-ending supply of IEDs — hundreds of them. He started to pay attention to the different sounds each made. If a bomb exploded to the side of a vehicle, or just in front or behind, missing its target, it made a loud cracking noise, like a giant fireworks display. But when they scored a direct hit, the bombs made a very distinct, thuggish and sinister whoomp sound, as the wind and air got sucked up into the bottom of the vehicle, as metal and bodies absorbed the destruction. And the enemy was good at bombs. Sometimes a unit would clear a road only to return an hour or two later and get hit. The bombers seemed both ever-present and invisible. It was infuriating.
On April 22, 2006, Walker was out with a unit conducting a census mission. By now he had been on more operations than he could count. Nearby, Walker heard the familiar whoomp and felt his stomach tighten. A moment later, burls of thick black smoke began curdling up over the horizon. Walker and six other men called in a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) over the radio, and then headed to the scene. They swam through a sewage canal and then commandeered a truck. By the time they arrived at the site of the bombing, the vehicle that had been hit was engulfed in flames. Fire extinguisher in hand, Walker ran toward the truck, only to find an officer named Brown, who shook his head.
“They’re all fucking dead,” Brown said.
What had started as a courageous rescue mission had suddenly morphed into a horrendous and demoralizing cleanup operation. The men tried to douse the flames. Rounds were cooking off. Walker used his helmet to scoop sewage water onto the fire. It then fell to Walker to remove the bodies of the dead. The smell of people burning permeated everything, and he struggled to breathe without vomiting. All that was left of the first body Walker recovered was a single eye and eyebrow, staring at him. The second body was still so hot that when he touched a protruding intestine with a latex glove, it melted away instantly. Faces and skin were gone. Only bone and muscle remained. The third body was slumped forward, intestines intact. The sight of it made Walker feel as if he had been hit over the head. The last body was burned almost beyond recognition. There were strips of fat glued to the seat, and he balled them up and threw them in the nearby sewage canal. All of the men’s penises had been burned off. Covered in blood, soot, sewage, and human body parts, Walker turned and staggered down the road away from the wreck, a vision that had “walked straight out of hell,” he said. By the end of that month there were seven casualties in Bravo company. There were 22 in the battalion between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
“That was about as bad as it gets,” he said, looking at the floor and rubbing his temples. “You can’t imagine anything so horrible, looking at a man’s face without a face. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing that for a long, long time. You couldn’t anticipate anything like that. It’s so sudden and pointless and just meaningless. It’s moral anti-gravity.” Walker understood very quickly that he would likely die in Iraq. In June 2006, partway through his deployment, he returned home for a brief visit. His mother, Liliana, noticed the change in her son immediately. He was withdrawn and serious, and though he tried to put on a good show for his parents, she could see that six months in Iraq had already changed him profoundly. One day Walker took his father, Timothy, aside. “Listen,” he said, “I might not make it back from there. It’s really bad.” Walker then told his father where he wanted to be buried. Unsure of exactly how to respond, Timothy Walker, a straight-talking Atlanta native who made a small fortune supplying parts to the nuclear industry, told his son what any father might. “Follow your training,” he said. “You’re going to be OK.” Privately, he agonized. For the year of their son’s absence, Timothy and Liliana kept televisions on and tuned into the news in three separate rooms of their sprawling house in Hunting Valley, a series of leafy, well-groomed estates on the outskirts of Cleveland. And they waited for Nico to come home.
Back in the Triangle of Death, Walker and his fellow soldiers were simply trying to survive. Insurgents mortared Walker’s forward operating base constantly — so often, in fact, that he would just pull the covers over his head and go back to sleep. Frustrated and angry about the constant bombs and the relentless death toll, Walker’s feelings about the war itself were also changing. “We were trying to do two things,” he said. “Be their friends and murder them at the same time. I just wanted to do my job and not fuck it up.”
The confusion that lay at the root of their mission came to a head one early morning in June when Walker found himself in a field. His unit had been watching and waiting all night, on the lookout for IED teams that were thought to be in the area. Just before 4 a.m., a man appeared, saw Walker’s unit, and started running away. The rules of engagement at the time gave the soldiers permission to shoot anyone out after dark. So that’s what they did. The man fell, brought down by a .556 round from one of their M16s.
Walker immediately began tending to the injured Iraqi. He placed a bandage over the wound, monitored his heart rate, and examined him for other injuries. He worried the man might have a sucking chest wound. For a while it looked like the Iraqi might be OK — he was moaning, but his vitals seemed stable. Yet a moment later they weren’t; the man was sucking and wheezing, and a frothy white substance flowed from his lips. Walker did what he could, but within minutes, the Iraqi was dead. And now they had a problem: They needed to transport him back to base, but the QRF team refused to come until daylight, which wasn’t for another hour. So, with the dead man at their feet, they waited until dawn.
When the light did finally hit, a woman appeared from a nearby house. The soldiers asked her if she knew the man, and she said no. When the QRF team eventually arrived and Walker began loading the body into the bag, the woman lost it. Screaming, she rushed to the body, throwing dirt on it and trying to wrestle it back from the soldiers. Then a second woman, followed by two kids, appeared. And suddenly, Walker’s unit was being fired upon. AK-47 rounds rained down on them from nearby. In the melee, Walker saw a cow and let loose with a clatter of fire, slaughtering it on the spot. “I throw a smoke grenade and I’m running to the body, I have two guys with me, providing covering fire, and I’m dragging the body back, and I’m just floating,” Walker told me. “I had a mental image of my wife’s face and my head, and I was just waiting to get shot, but I never did.”
In the confusion, the old woman was killed. As he ran, dragging the body behind him, Walker could feel the man’s head bumping along on the ground. He pulled him through a sewage canal and out again. Sewage water was running down his face and into his shirt.
”I’m completely out of my mind at that point,” Walker told me. “I got back to the Bradlee, but no one wants to ride in the back of a Bradlee with a corpse, so we draped the guy on the hood of the Bradlee, like a fucking deer or something.”
Walker was shaking as he told me this story, rubbing his hands together furiously. For so much of his deployment, Walker had seen the detritus of roadside bombs after they had occurred, and while the deaths had been gruesome and visceral, they had also been somewhat abstract. Body parts were often smeared along the roadsides — blood and intestines, maybe a hand, a foot — but the transition from life to death was sudden and brutal, almost devoid of the element of human time. But this had been different, he explained.
“That was the most intimate thing, just watching that slow transition from life to death,” Walker told me. “It was very up close and slow, vomiting and broken ribs and screaming children and the old lady shot, and it was really hard for me to deal with. The thing that really gives me a lot of trouble is that I wonder if he ran because he was scared or because he was somebody. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about him, whether or not we should have killed him, whether it was right. He was unarmed.”
And then in the fall of 2006, Walker returned home for good. Many fellow soldiers and friends from his time in Iraq were dead, others were wounded, maimed, and damaged. For the next four months he remained in Texas, finishing his military obligation, and then in March he returned to Ohio. He went to school, played in a rock band called Safari, and grew his hair out. He would have liked to forget many details about the war, but he remembered everything. He made few plans, and those he did make often fell flat or failed to evolve much. He and Kara divorced upon his return to Ohio in March, and Kara left to go traveling. Days turned into weeks and then years, and Nick Walker drifted along in a state of near constant paralysis. To say he survived his return might even be overstating the case; more than anything, Nick Walker simply existed. And sometimes even that was in doubt.
The U.S military had sent the Walkers a two-page memorandum called Homecoming After Deployment: Tips for Reunion. It included such tips as, “Be prepared to make some adjustments” and “Go easy on partying.” It also warned soldiers: “You may miss the excitement of the deployment for a while” and “You may have changed in your outlook and priorities in life.” Liliana had read the memo and found it useless. That same night Walker returned from Texas, she bought two books on PTSD.
Walker found it impossible to fall asleep naturally. Ever. When he closed his eyes, images of Iraq immediately crowded his vision. Over and over again, he saw the man who had appeared in the field, saw him falling, watched him die a slow and agonizing death, a death followed by more deaths, and the unraveling of a mission into slaughter and grotesque absurdity. He often drank himself to sleep, or at least into a stupor resembling sleep. When he did manage to sleep, he was plagued by nightmares. One involved finding himself and a friend from high school captured by insurgents. In the nightmare, both men are on one knee. The insurgents shoot and kill the friend, and then kill Walker. Most of us wake up when, or before, we die in a dream; Walker did not, and the rest of the dream featured a dead Walker crawling back to the forward operating base on his hands and knees.
During one period, Walker recalls going without sleep for 21 days. When he did, he woke drenched in sweat, tortured by images that followed him into wakefulness and back into his dreams again. By the summer of 2007, Walker had started taking Oxycontin to help him sleep. But during the day, he began to try to piece his life together again. He enrolled in classes at Cleveland State University. And he worked on songs for Safari with his childhood friend Chris Hoke. By 2008, Kara had returned from her travels, and she and Walker had reconciled somewhat. He often thrashed around at night, hitting Kara and screaming.
But even as he tried to leave the war behind, it intruded constantly into almost every moment of his life, awake or asleep. He was haunted, for instance, by the memory of a sweet 19-year-old kid from Wyoming who, just two months into his first deployment, came to him one morning complaining of a bloody nose. Walker, who was consumed with other tasks, told the kid to quit bothering him with such trivialities. That afternoon, the kid stepped on a 155 mortar round, losing two legs and an arm instantly, then bled out and died on the spot. “It had gotten so bad, these kids go and just die instantly,” he told me, “And the last time I saw him, I was a dick.”
At the time of his return, Walker wasn’t aware that he might be suffering from PTSD. He felt bad, but also felt ashamed for feeling bad, and didn’t know what to do about it. “I think it was going from everyday living, breathing, being at the center of it all, and then going to Cleveland, living in an apartment, drinking, taking painkillers, and just trying to find some way to not feel bad all the time,” he told me. “Every time you go into a room, you’re formulating some plan to kill everybody in that room; that’s the way you think. The thing I’m most proud of is that Americans went out of their way not to kill people. But eventually emotions take over, people are dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it — and then you start killing people and wanting to kill people.”
Six months after he returned, Walker finally sought medical help at the Cleveland Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. There, a doctor prescribed Walker some anti-depressant medication and told him to return if things got worse. The doctor did not, it seems, suggest ongoing counseling for PTSD, nor schedule a definite follow-up appointment.
By the fall of 2007, Walker had gone to see a doctor again and received a diagnosis of anxiety disorder, but it wasn’t helping. None of the doctors urged intensive counseling for PTSD. One came close — suggesting that Walker should not return to active duty because it might trigger a “more serious illness, like PTSD.” Years later, Pablo Stewart, the forensic psychiatrist, would write that this oversight was a “grave clinical error that was very damaging to Nicholas in the long run.” Instead, Walker’s PTSD remained untreated, and he was left to self-medicate.
By day, he was increasingly detached from simple day-to-day functioning. He would drive to school and then sit in his car in the parking lot for up to five hours doing nothing. Sometimes, on impulse, he would grab a Winston Red from his mouth and extinguish it on his arm. He often drove deliberately down the wrong side of the road, as he so often had in Iraq, where the military disobeyed ordinary traffic rules. He sped through red lights on purpose or, if he was stopped at one and nobody was around, simply drove on through, racing down roads at 120 mph. The idea that anyone might care, that people could get hurt, felt somehow buried within Walker’s consciousness, an irrelevant and inconsequential detail. That fall, Walker injected himself with heroin for the first time.
Liliana and Tim Walker had been told to be patient, calm and loving, but it wasn’t enough. In September of 2008, Liliana decided to take Nico on a road trip to Washington, D.C. It was her birthday, and she wanted to celebrate with her son. She also thought that perhaps the time together would prompt him to open up to her. As they sipped their gin and tonics at dinner one night, a Marine walked into the bar and began boasting about how he had come back recently from Iraq, how he had been wounded. “Nico was literally shaking with rage,” Liliana recalled, “And I just grabbed his arm and said let’s get out of here.”
Back in Cleveland, Walker would fly into rages over seemingly trivial details — a referee’s bad call during a Browns game, a slow driver, a bad joke. Playing at a local bar called The Happy Dog with Safari one night, Walker became aggressive, throwing things and yelling at the manager. “He was pretty much blacked out, totally out of bounds and out of control,” said Hoke. “That was definitely a warning sign.” One by one, his friends from a previous life — what Walker describes as a “granola hipster, latte-drinking” crowd — began to drop away as Walker drifted further and further into his own isolation and the hardcore life of a junkie. His relationship with Kara, legally terminated, was also faltering as the two tried, and failed, to deal with their collective pain.
By late 2008, Walker’s heroin use had become chronic and his coping mechanisms more violent. Sometimes he would just haul off and punch himself in the face so he could feel something. Safari had broken up — the other members, including Hoke, thought Walker was too unstable to continue. “He was good, too good,” Hoke told me recently. “I’m really happy that he’s in jail and not dead. He had all the brains and talent that anyone can hope for. All these bullshit promises these Army recruiters make worked, and then they pulled the rug out from under him and he was totally fucked.”
In spring 2010, Liliana and Tim took their two sons on a family vacation to a remote mountainside villa in the Italian countryside. Liliana had been planning it for over a year, a dream vacation away from the tedium of home and, she hoped, a chance for Nico to perhaps emerge a little bit from his shell. What she got, instead, was a nightmare of her own. One night Liliana awoke to the sound of Nico screaming. She rushed into his room and found him sweating and delirious.
“What’s wrong?” she cried.
“There’s fucking Asians everywhere!” he shouted.
Hallucinating and delirious, Walker had been watching in terror as hordes of Filipino pirates carrying knives advanced on him. Liliana held her terrified son, who, crying, confessed to her that he was addicted to heroin. The hallucinations, he told her, were part of his withdrawal. That night, Liliana cradled her son in the bathtub while he convulsed through waves of nausea. The idyllic Italian vacation was not to be, replaced by an impromptu rehab and family intervention session. Walker’s parents and brother tended to him during long crying jags and sweat-drenched nights.
Back home, Liliana was more determined than ever to get help for her son. A trusted Cleveland doctor referred Walker to a psychiatrist, who specialized in bipolar disorder. During their first meeting in July 2010, he noted that Walker showed signs of PTSD. He referred Walker to a psychotherapist, whom Walker saw only that day. The next month, in August, Walker went to see a substance abuse specialist at the University of Ohio, which by all accounts went very badly.
Five months later, on Nov. 1, 2010, the psychiatrist wrote in his medical notes of “continued evidence of the mixed phase of bipolar 1 disorder accompanied by severe depression, severe generalized anxiety, continued intravenous dependence on oxycontin and alcohol abuse.” Nowhere in any previous diagnosis was there any mention of bipolar disorder. Gone, it seems, was any thought of PTSD.
A month later, on Nov. 30, his psychiatrist wrote this:
“The entire session was spent confirming history suggestive of the above diagnoses and helping [Walker] to learn about each. Additional time was spent talking about the diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, generalised anxity [sic] disorder, and substance use disorders. He is gradually surrendering to the notion that he has all of these disorders and that he needs treatment for each of them.”
The psychiatrist recommended that Walker begin a treatment of lithium. When I asked Walker about his encounters with this doctor, Walker said that he didn’t talk to him, but instead just asked questions that he then checked off on a list. When Walker said he wanted to talk, he claims the psychiatrist told him to be quiet. When he learned of the bipolar diagnosis, Walker called his mother and broke down over the telephone, sobbing that his life “was over.” He felt like a failure.
He was spending hours watching YouTube videos about the war — memorials to dead friends, combat videos, anything that took him back. One day he sat in front of a TV with a pistol in his hand watching a reality show called Don’t Forget the Lyrics, out of his mind on heroin, wanting more than anything to put a bullet in his head. He watched the news — report after report about frauds and bailouts. And then, on Dec. 10, 2010, exactly 10 days after the psychiatrist noted that Walker had “surrendered” to the bipolar diagnosis, Walker felt clarity.
“I woke up that morning and knew that I was going to rob a bank,” he told me. “It wouldn’t have taken much to discourage me, but I just felt like I had been pushed into doing it. I was self-involved, bitter, and angry. I just didn’t want to take any shit anymore.”
Robbing a bank, he realized, was something he was uniquely qualified to do. It was high-stress and scary, but he was used to that. He couldn’t do anything else, he reasoned, but he knew he could rob a bank. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody, I’m not a violent person,” he said. “Was it a good outlet for my anger? Yeah, it was great. Those banks are pretty smug, aren’t they? I thought, They robbed me a few times, now I’m gonna rob them.”
So he dropped Kara off at school, then drove straight to the Huntington Bank wearing a hat and a hoodie. He didn’t know how he was going to do it, only that he would. He was losing his ability to control his own behavior. He waited in line for a while, and then pretended to write something on a deposit slip. Then it was his turn at the teller. He passed the note across: “This is a robbery. Put the money from the drawer on the counter. I am armed with a gun.” The teller handed over $1,998.00.
As Walker made his first getaway, he felt a rush of satisfaction.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d been happy, but it was the first time I’d been giddy,” he said. “It put a smile on my face.”
Over the next four months, Walker successfully robbed nine more banks. They were mostly small, community banks where tellers and managers knew their customers and treated them with the same Midwestern friendliness they expected from their neighbors. Liliana banked at one of them. Tim conducted business with another. A few, like Chase and U.S. Bank, were national. All were nestled comfortably within strip malls, next to restaurants and hair salons, straddling busy intersections in the kind of sprawling suburban landscapes that surround most American cities.
The first robbery had been done almost on pure impulse, impromptu self-medication, as were subsequent ones. Once, while waiting to pick up Kara from Cleveland State University, Walker told FBI investigators, he robbed a bank as a way “to kill time.” In another instance, he was getting gas and made the decision to rob a nearby bank; within 30 minutes he had. But as time went on, and Walker sank deeper into the orbit of the drug dealers from whom he was getting his heroin, he began to take on accomplices. Five of the robberies Walker committed were done with various other criminals from Cleveland’s underworld. They started out peacefully enough, with Walker passing notes and asking politely for cash — in one case he told a teller, “It’s not personal” before leaving — but culminated in two armed robberies, during which he carried a pistol. According to court documents, during a robbery on March 2, Walker got testy with one of the tellers, saying, “Faster before I have to come back there and do it myself.” The teller eventually handed over nearly $5,000 in cash. Later that month, at a Charter One Bank, Walker walked in and yelled, “Robbery, robbery, this is a robbery,” but got nervous and left without any money at all.
In Iraq, Walker had grown accustomed to using weapons on a daily basis. He had kicked in doors, invaded people’s homes, shot them, and trashed their houses virtually every day. For someone who tended to see things in stark terms, this moral ambiguity was utterly confounding. “Do I appreciate the wrongfulness of brandishing a gun in front of someone?” he asked me. “I don’t know… for someone who hasn’t been through what I’ve seen, I guess. But just because the world is terrible doesn’t mean you stop trying to be good.”
He gave away most of the nearly $40,000 he’d stolen — to friends, dealers and other addicts. Some of it he burned, holding it over his kitchen sink and lighting it on fire, the way he once saw it done in a movie.
It wasn’t until he was caught, and doctors had a chance to examine him, that the full measure of Walker’s condition began to emerge. In a 36-page report, Pablo Stewart wrote that Walker not only had PTSD but that it was, in his view, a “particularly severe and devastating” case. Stewart argued that Walker’s case was exacerbated by his heroism. “PTSD often occurs in individuals returning home from war, and war heroes are particularly vulnerable to the disorder, because the same bravery and willingness to fight that makes them heroic also frequently results in their exposure to significantly more combat and combat-related trauma than other soldiers.”
Stewart, who served as a captain in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam era, also challenged Walker’s psychiatrist’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. That psychiatrist “failed to rule out or even explore the possibility that Nicholas was suffering from PTSD,” he wrote, “Once again, an opportunity to properly identify and treat Nick’s severe, chronic PTSD was missed, and Nick’s problems continued to deepen and indeed to spiral out of control.” (“If I thought it’d make a difference, I’d sue the son of a bitch,” Tim Walker told me one night as we sat by the pool in their backyard.)
Another physician, John Matthew Fabian, who also interviewed Walker after his arrest and whose report was submitted as part of Walker’s defense, gave Walker a test called the Clinician Administered PTSD Score (CAPS). Walker scored a 101, far higher than the 65 that is the clinical threshold for PTSD. In several other tests, his results indicated extreme and chronic signs of PTSD. Furthermore, Fabian posited that Walker had suffered significant damage to his “neuropsychological functioning” and “neurocircuitry,” which qualified him as suffering from a “severe mental disease.”
As Walker related these stories to me, I looked around us in the prison’s waiting room. Walker had tried to get help when he sensed a problem brewing within himself, but was unable to find it. The VA had twice denied him benefits, only to eventually back down, but by then the PTSD was already well-advanced. And now he was here, at Ashland, home, he told me, to a large number of child sex offenders and various low-risk white-collar criminals of various sorts. After initially being refused treatment for his injured back, he eventually was given a brace. Prison had changed him, he told me, made him more sympathetic to people whose habits in his former life would have been unthinkable. His predicament also made him question himself in new ways. When he heard about mass shootings, like in Aurora, Colorado or Newtown, Connecticut, he suddenly wondered: Am I like those killers? And with these thoughts in mind, his heroism in Iraq began to seem like an illusion and a farce.
His fellow soldiers felt differently. In a letter to the court, Spc. David Weinthaler wrote, “I guarantee Walker went on more missions than any other person in my battalion. Which I think says a lot being that he wasn’t even infantry. He’s the only medic I ever knew that carried an M16 (as opposed to an M9). When he wasn’t on patrol he was constantly helping other soldiers with everything from bullet holes to venereal diseases.” Walker’s platoon leader, Sgt. Anthony Doll, wrote in a letter to the court that Walker “pushed aside any thoughts of self-preservation and subjected himself to the mortal dangers of combat. His unhesitant self-motivation resulted in the continued lives of many young men. I was witness to this.”
Walker didn’t share that generous assessment. “All those things just happened to me,” he told me. “I didn’t karate-chop [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi. I’m no fucking hero, I just showed up. I didn’t even have a very good success rate for a medic. When I had a chance to save somebody’s life, like this guy in the fields, I fucking blew it. And then when people tell you you’re some fucking hero it drives you crazy because you feel like some fucking fraud.”
In Iraq, a tension would build up before and during each of those missions Walker went on. Most often, these operations would result in violence, always starting with a sudden burst — a roadside bomb, a shot fired, an ambush — the spark that lit the engagement with the enemy. And once that initial symbolic “bang” occurred, tension melted away and was replaced by a rush of calm acceptance, a sort of peace that flooded into every vein of his body. And in that moment, the fear of death and of pain, the rush of nostalgia, and the longing for one’s family and friends seemed to wash away as tranquility took over and pure action kicked in. It was incredibly high-stress, but he was accustomed to it, thrived on it, felt comfortable, competent.
I asked him what the equivalent moment was, during a robbery, of the “bang” that occurred in a war. He didn’t hesitate: “Passing the note,” he said. “During a robbery, passing the note is the ‘bang.’ Then the die is cast. After that initial contact, there’s peace, and you could die then and it doesn’t even matter.”
He felt, he said, a kind of kinship with the man in the field. Prior to this, I hadn’t really understood why this particular event, of all the horrors Walker had seen, had been so painful. “You know, I can relate to him a little. He ran from the police — us — and we killed him. I ran from the police, and now I’m doing 11 years in a federal prison.”
Stewart and the other psychiatrists had noted repeatedly that Walker had suffered severe cognitive impairment as a result of his time in Iraq. And precisely because of the heroic nature of Walker’s service, his high levels of exposure to violence, his subsequent PTSD was more pronounced and severe than other cases. Upon his return, the world simply didn’t make sense in some fundamental way. In Iraq, when Walker would go to dangerous areas, he told me “the ground felt different, it’s like you’re standing on the ground but it’s like you’re on a rock wall or a ladder, or slightly above it.” This was language that described dissociative behavior, as Stewart and others had pointed out. Walker’s brain was still developing during the time he experienced the worst of the war. And Walker had felt that dissociation over and over again until, one day, the chemical and brain changes it engendered were stripped away and Walker was left naked, alone and without a clue as to how to make sense of the world. “It’s not that I thought I was doing something wrong — only that I wasn’t doing anything worse than what else I had done and seen,” he told me. “It was a moral gray area. No good, no bad, or right or wrong, just degrees of shit.”
Walker and his legal and medical team considered pursuing an insanity defense. Stewart, for one, had concluded in his report that Walker was not responsible for his actions because of the severe nature of his PTSD. And while Art Hernandez had come around to the idea that Walker was indeed more damaged than he had at first believed, the prosecutor was adamant that Walker would lose if he pursued his insanity defense in court. The fact that he had used a gun during two robberies complicated things further; laws in Ohio meant that Walker faced a 32-year mandatory minimum if he were convicted. So he decided to enter a plea bargain. On June 1, 2012, a federal judge in Cleveland convened Walker for sentencing.
Walker was given a chance to speak. “I would like to apologize to the to the bank tellers, the bank workers, the drivers, passengers that I endangered and who I intimidated and frightened,” he told the court. “I also would like to apologize to my family and loved ones, who have suffered so much throughout this ordeal.”
He continued, talking about the robberies themselves: “They were not organized or thought out, they were acts of desperation. In the shape that I was in, I couldn’t really imagine how I could continue living like I was, but at the same time, I was afraid of addressing the issues and exposing myself because I was ashamed of the state that I was in and just how far gone I was at the time.”
Then the judge addressed Walker: “Even in the state that you were in, what was the catalyst or the motivation to rob a bank?”
In his somewhat rambling answer, Walker repeated, “I don’t know” many times, finally saying, “I have been very desensitized to things like this, and I am not trying to be insolent at all, but at the time, it just didn’t seem like that extraordinary, you know, such a terrible thing to do, which it is, and I realize that now, but at the time, for some reason, I thought it was not normal but not as insane as it looks in retrospect.”
The judge gave Walker an 11-year sentence, almost a year less than the 12–15 range that had been agreed upon between the government and Walker’s attorneys, “because the defendant accepted responsibility” for his crimes.
After the sentencing, Hernandez went to see Walker in prison. Hernandez was himself a Marine who had also served in Iraq as an aviation logistics officer, but with no combat exposure whatsoever. Hernandez declined to confirm the meeting, but according to Walker and Walker’s lawyer, Angelo Lonardo, who was also present, Hernandez said he wanted to talk to Walker “soldier to soldier.”
“He gave me some real good encouraging words,” Walker recalled, “He said, ‘I deal with a lot of people who aren’t very kind people, who don’t feel remorse, and I can tell you’re a good guy. I know you feel bad, your life’s not over. You can go on and heal yourself.’”
The first book Walker read when he arrived in prison was War and Peace. These days, he spends a lot of time studying Latin and listening to classical music. In Latin he finds enjoyment in the puzzle-like quality of verb conjugation and tense agreement. The classical music brings him peace and tranquility. He speaks to his parents by phone all the time, and they come for monthly visits.
Many of Walker’s fellow soldiers have also gone through rough times. One of them was court martialed. Some committed suicide. As close as he was to them during the war, Walker has no lasting desire to be in regular touch with them anymore. “I wouldn’t expect anything of anyone,” he told me. “A lot of people had a lot of issues.”
Tim and Liliana Walker left Ohio recently, sold their Hunting Valley home, and moved to Amelia Island, Florida, a wealthy suburb of Jacksonville on a stretch of pristine white sand beaches, golf courses, and mansions. John Grisham is rumored to have a home under construction nearby. The Walkers live in a tasteful gray new Victorian home situated between the first and ninth holes of the Amelia Island Golf Course, across the street from the Ritz Carlton. One evening recently, I sat with them on their back patio. It was a pleasant Southern evening. In the shadows of the golf course, huge live oaks stood like sentries, and from their branches hung giant clumps of Spanish moss. They both started to say something, then paused, and went quiet.
Eventually Tim got up and retrieved a CD from inside the house and slipped it into his computer. A moment later the gravelly voice of Nico Walker — son, artist, singer, soldier, bank robber, prisoner, man — crooned on alone into the deep Florida night.
“One, two, three, four,” he started:
Busted lip and a ball of string
Love is a sad, inevitable thing
You grow up, and you go down
And you get caught in a rusted town
Where the kids don’t play and phones don’t ring
And the sky’s never blue and the birds won’t sing
And the trash piles up on the kitchen floor
And the trash piles up on the kitchen floor
And every time it does You get turned around
And every time it does You get turned around
For the wasted years, the wasted years, the wasted years, the wasted years.
Liliana looked up, crying. Tim had also teared up and was looking off into the distance, a gentle smile quivering on his face. “I’m proud of my son,” Tim managed to say, and Liliana nodded. “My bank-robbing son.”