Iraq Veteran Nick Cutter's Death Exposes Neglect Scandal at Miami VA Hospital
The man eating breakfast certainly looked like Nicholas Cutter. He had the same pale skin. The same shaved head. The same technicolor tattoos peeking from beneath his T-shirt like graffiti on a whitewashed wall.
Illustration by Pete Ryan
Yet, from across the kitchen table, his sister Rainy saw a stranger. Once an extroverted older brother, Nick was now buried inside himself. His goofy, jack-o'-lantern grin had hardened into a grimace. His eyes were clouded, as if the former soldier were still lost in an Iraqi sandstorm. He sat shoveling cereal into his mouth, staring into the past -- into the perpetual war raging inside his head.
Suddenly the doorknob on the Boynton Beach ranch house began to rattle. Nick's eyes rekindled. The knob rattled again, and he rose from his seat.
"Someone is trying to break in," Rainy said. She reached for her phone to call 911, but Nick was already walking toward his bedroom. When he emerged a few seconds later, he was carrying the biggest weapon his sister had ever seen.
"Go into your room and lock it," he said. Then Nick slipped the safety off the massive rifle and strolled toward the silhouette at the back door.
"Oh, I'll open up for you," he bellowed to the intruder, pointing the barrel toward the door, "because you're gonna want to meet what's on the other side."
The rattling stopped. A shadow disappeared into the shady suburban backyard. Nick slumped back into his seat at the table and started spooning cereal into his mouth. From the doorway of her room, Rainy wondered, Who has my brother become?
Specialist Nicholas Cutter had stepped off an Army supply plane only a few weeks earlier, ending 15 months of mayhem in Samarra, Iraq -- an ordeal told in New Times last week in Part 1 of this story. His family considered him lucky. Though several of Nick's friends had died in combat, the 22-year-old appeared to have escaped unharmed. But Rainy could now see that something inside him had cracked. No one -- not even his family -- knew how to repair it. Or if it could even be repaired.
"It didn't even phase him," Rainy says of the attempted break-in in early 2009. "If that guy came in the house, he was ready to kill him."
Nick's war had ended, but his battle was just beginning. Over the next year, the model soldier and protective big brother would descend into violence, depression, and drug addiction. He would steal from his family and spurn his own sister. Then he would turn his anger on himself.
Cutter's story sheds light on the tortured experiences of millions of American veterans. But his demise is also a window into something even darker: the VA scandal consuming newspapers around the country. The same negligence that would cost Nick his life in Miami is now being blamed for scores of deaths across the United States.
In Washington, D.C., politicians have expressed outrage, top officials have resigned, and new legislation has been proposed. In Miami, however, very little has changed. Nick's story is at risk of being forgotten.
"My brother was not a number. He was not a social security check," Rainy says. "He was a person. He was a patient. And someone needs to be held accountable for his death."
Nicholas Cutter drained his glass and ordered another. Around him swirled the lazy energy of a Wednesday night at the Blue Boar Tavern in West Palm Beach. This was the America that Nick had dreamed of during his 15 months in Iraq -- the simple fantasies of real food, real music, and real women that he and his fellow soldiers had shared over ready-to-eat meals. Now many of those soldiers were dead or missing limbs, and this hard-fought fantasy suddenly felt cheap. Nick downed his drink, shakily stood up, and told his girlfriend, Danielle Watson, it was time to go.
"Nick, you've had too many to drive," said Danielle's friend, Jenna Uram. When her boyfriend offered to call the couple a cab, Nick became enraged. He pulled a .32-caliber Kel-Tec handgun from his pocket and pointed it at Angel Rodriguez. The laid-back Wednesday night had become electric.
"He has a gun!" Danielle screamed. Angel reached for the weapon, and the two men went tumbling to the bar floor. A bouncer and bartender helped hold Nick down until the cops arrived.
The August 26, 2010 incident at the Blue Boar was just the beginning of Nick's downward spiral. Welcome-home parties soon gave way to something sinister. As his paranoia devolved into full-blown posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the lines between South Florida and Samarra began to blur dangerously. Nick would turn to drugs to blunt his pain, and he'd fall further than his family could have imagined.
Perhaps if Nick had been sent to prison for the bar brawl, his life would have progressed differently. Instead, a judge took pity on the recently discharged soldier with PTSD and dropped the charges. His girlfriend, however, was terrified. Danielle dumped him, leaving only his mother, Mary Zielinski, to notice the worrying changes in her son.
At first, Mary thought God had given her a second chance at motherhood. She had given birth to Nick when she was only 20 years old and then left him and his sister after suffering a mental breakdown. Now her oldest child had returned from the war and needed her help. "I finally had the time and the money to take care of him," she says. "He was my plan."