Vet struggles with demons, finds solace in ‘my beautiful babies’
CHICO, Calif. — As Nick Wright was pulled through the twists and turns of losing his mother at 15, a failed marriage, war, a severe brain injury and the ravages of post-traumatic stress disorder, he never lost touch with his sense of honor.
Wright joined the Marines at 18, and went on to volunteer for three frontline tours in Iraq.
With three children by his first wife while still in the service, Wright has had two more since getting remarried nearly three years ago. He is a devoted father and has made his family the center of his universe.
Struggling to regain his footing, Wright’s moral compass keeps him looking inward for the answers to his emotional problems from PTSD. “I blame no one but myself for what has happened,” he says.
Now the decorated combat soldier from Chico is adding his voice to “American Homecomings.” The experience is likely to expose the scars he desperately wants to keep from the outside world, but it’s one he’s willing to endure if it helps other veterans.
Wright, 29, left the battlefield five years ago with a traumatic brain injury and plenty of emotional baggage. Several months later he was back home.
Finding work was tough. “It seemed like there was an actual conspiracy against veterans,” he recalled.
A call to serve
Married with a child on the way shortly after high school graduation, Wright decided the military was the best way to support his family. He said he wanted to go to Iraq for humanitarian reasons.
“Some said it (the war) was about oil, but I went because I wanted to help people,” Wright said. “I honestly thought that the situation needed to be taken care of.”
Wright said he made an effort to learn something about the religious traditions and culture of the Iraqi people.
“Otherwise, I was afraid I might wind up harming someone for the wrong reason,” he said.
A combat injury midway through Wright’s third tour suddenly ended his battlefield career.
“We were riding in an LDS (a light armored vehicle) and we hit an improvised explosive device,” Wright recalled. “My driver and I were blown out the doors, then found ourselves in a two-hour firefight.”
Injuries from the explosion left Wright with a traumatic brain injury, and shrapnel in his body doctors decided not to remove.
After a brief hospital recovery, Wright said he opted to remain in Iraq and serve out his third tour.
“I was stubborn,” he said. “I felt I was still needed over there.”
Wright was given permission to recruit some fellow Marines and set up a shop at a forward base that specialized in changing tires on combat vehicles because nobody else was responsible for doing so.
The sense of honor that accompanied Wright on the battlefield followed him back home to Chico. Like a lot of combat veterans, Wright soon learned that much of society didn’t share his sense of altruism, nor appreciate the sacrifices of U.S. combat troops in conflicts that seemed almost irrelevant to their daily lives.
“What we’ve become is a very narcissistic society,” he said. “It’s all about me, me, me, and, of course, money.”
While still in Iraq, Wright said he felt his anger grow. “At the time I thought I knew exactly why,” he said.
“You’re constantly pissed because dirt bags out there are trying to kill you or blow you up. Of course you’re going to be freakin’ angry.”
His anger is just as palpable today and perhaps even more disturbing to him, because Wright knows he is largely reacting to the enemy within himself.
“Sometimes, I’m just sitting there, and I really get ticked off,” Wright said. “I get really loud. My reaction to some things is ridiculous and uncalled for.”
Injuries from the explosion sent Wright’s PTSD symptoms into overdrive, but he didn’t realize how severe the emotional wounds were until he got back home. Like so many soldiers serving in combat zones, he said, he simply “manned up” and tried to shake off the doubt and depression.
“When I was first diagnosed, I honestly didn’t think there was anything wrong with me,” he said. “I went to battle, I came back, and I know a little bit can change, but maybe a lot changed and I just didn’t notice it.”
While a lot of his postwar dreams ended with PTSD and his brain injury, Wright said one remains especially painful.
“My father was a cop in Redwood City for 30 years, and a homicide detective for 15,” Wright said. “Yes, I wanted to go into some kind of law enforcement, maybe even be a guard at Susanville (state prison). But when PTSD comes up in an interview about a job where you’re required to carry an automatic weapon, it’s over.”
Wright said his life for the last five years has had him “bunkering down” at home to avoid situations that may send his PTSD symptoms raging.
“Unless you have a good sense of discipline, that’s what usually happens,” Wright said. “You either wind up in jail, or beat the crap out of somebody because they looked at you wrong.
“I have a punching bag downstairs, and I have my beautiful babies. That keeps me pretty much in check.”
After months of looking for work in fields from retail to manufacturing to truck driving, Wright finally caught a break and landed a good job in late March with a respected Chico company molding plastic parts.
It was his first job offer in two years.