A former soldier who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Afghanistan says that instead of being supported by the U.S. Army, he was punished for behavior caused by the treatment of his condition.
The Epoch Times spoke to Nathaniel Cruz, 24, who joined the U.S. Army in February 2020 with aspirations of being part of the medical community.
“The medical field was always something I had always had my sights on, and I was hoping the military would be a good experience to get started,” he said. Knowing he would one day administer emergency medical treatment to casualties on a battlefield, he said, “I got what I wanted,” referring to the opportunity to become a combat medic.
After learning the skills he needed to perform his job at Advanced Individual Training in September 2020, he arrived at his first duty station: New York’s Fort Drum. The excitement of finally reaching his goal was quickly quelled by a month-long COVID-19 quarantine. “Once I finally got introduced to my unit [in September 2020], it was like boom, a week later you’re getting deployed to Afghanistan,” he said.
On a base outside of Kabul in November 2020, Mr. Cruz was “freshly new to the unit” and the only medic assigned to the installation. “It was a lot of responsibility to shoulder,” he said. “On top of managing a whole entire aid station for the base, I felt like I was thrown into something crazy, as I also began working with the Special Forces and conversing with [the local Afghan community] to keep good relations.”
“We would perform these basic patrols [in the region], often using the same routes every week,” Mr. Cruz said. Each patrol would frequently cross paths with children and non-hostile civilians. “We’d offer the kids stuff and we’d talk to them a little bit, and I got use to regularly seeing them.”
For Mr. Cruz, “It always felt normal until, one day, I had got like a sixth sense and knew something wasn’t right.” He described the feeling as “something creeping up from my stomach, to my back, to the back of my head.”
On this fateful day in December 2020, Mr. Cruz’s patrol took enemy fire.
The Battle Followed Him HomeThe Epoch Times spoke to Robert Alvarez, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group, an organization that advocates for injured service members.
Mr. Cruz volunteered for military service and would have freely offered his life to the country should it be required, Mr. Alvarez said.
“Even with this mindset, not everybody can withstand the horrors of war, and some people break down,” he said, adding there is “no shame” for what lay ahead for Mr. Cruz.
After the deadly incident outside of Kabul, Mr. Cruz returned stateside in February 2021 as troops began to drawdown from Afghanistan. But his mental battles were just beginning.
“I tried to manage as best as I could, trying to convince myself that I was doing okay, but in the end, I was actually lying to myself,” Mr. Cruz said. “I was getting bad, having nightmares so often that I would literally avoid sleeping.”
Nightmares and hallucinations were plagued by seeing the deceased child, asking him: “Why didn’t you save me?” Because of this, Mr. Cruz admitted that he often went three to five nights at a time without sleep. On other nights, he would “survive off” of two to three hours. This went on for a year until he reached “a breaking point,” he said.
With prescribed medication, Mr. Cruz began to cope with the images that were haunting his mind. But the relief was short-lived, as his time in the Army took an unexpected turn.
“Once I first got put on meds, I started having issues with my chain of command,” he said. “With a new platoon sergeant in place, I started getting in trouble for the most ridiculous things.”
Mr. Cruz was prescribed several medications to assist with “severe insomnia” and PTSD, according to his medical records viewed by The Epoch Times. He experienced several side effects from the medication, including weight gain, confusion, dizziness, and lethargy, he said.
His immediate command used this array of side effects to target Mr. Cruz. “They said he was 'not being a good soldier, was being disrespectful, failing to follow orders, and being late to formation,'” Mr. Alvarez said.
According to Mr. Alvarez, “[Mr. Cruz] was punished [for minor infractions associated] with his insomnia and nightmares by being given extra duty late at night, depriving him of the one thing he needed most: sleep.”
A doctor’s recommendation for Mr. Cruz to receive eight hours of sleep per night was ignored, according to Mr. Alvarez.
While taking sleep medication, there were times where he would be a few seconds late to a day’s assignment. “I could be a half second late, not 15 minutes or anything, and I would get written up for behavioral issues,” Mr. Cruz said. He became afraid to take sleep medication for fear of oversleeping and missing formation or being late.
“They took away his sleep," Mr. Alvarez said, likening the treating to what he has seen “straight out of the pages of the U.S. Army interrogation handbook, where sleep deprivation is used to break somebody down.”
Minor infractions “stacked up” for Mr. Cruz in 2022, and he continued to be punished for each of them.
“I left my belt on the counter in my room one day and received a counseling that said my room was dirty,” Mr. Cruz said. “I was also told that my room was [expletive] disgusting and it was completely destroyed thereafter.”
“I was escorted everywhere, from my barracks to everywhere I went off base,” he said. “I couldn’t sweep or mop the floor without someone standing over my shoulder and telling me how to sweep and mop it.” While Mr. Cruz received multiple Article 15s, a form of nonjudicial punishment, he said no one else in the platoon was given the same treatment for minor infractions. Eventually, as part of the punishment, his rank was reduced from specialist to private.
Mr. Alvarez said that “everything Cruz was displaying and being punished for was a symptom of his medications and his [psychological] injuries—and rather than offering supervision and support, he was tortured.”
In 17 years of working with injured or abused service members, Mr. Alvarez said, “I don't think I've seen a worse case than what they did to Nathaniel Cruz.”
“They were intentionally trying to break this man, and I've never seen a better effort to force somebody to hurt themselves or to break down and lose it,” Mr. Alvarez said.
Mr. Cruz said, “All things considered, I was doing the best I could.” He sought medical retirement, but it appears the Army was attempting to “chapter him out” instead, he said. A chapter is an enlisted administrative separation that often results in a discharge void of an honorable characterization. Instead of being medically discharged as was recommended by behavioral health specialists, Mr. Cruz said he was “being treated like a prisoner.”
Mr. Alvarez agreed, saying, “They kept [Mr. Cruz] around for months, holding up his Medical Evaluation Board.” As part of his punishment, “they flagged him,” Mr. Alvarez said, referring to administrative action taken to prevent him from moving forward the process to seek medical retirement.
Seeking AccountabilityUSJAG came to the defense of Mr. Cruz, outlining his medical issues and seeking an alternative to separating him from the Army. Mr.
“A comprehensive forensic report outlining Nathaniel‘s injuries and how they played out in his behavior, along with the adverse interactions of medication, was given to his battalion commander, and the commanding general,” said Mr. Alvarez.
Mr. Alvarez said it wasn’t until January that a new commanding general was in place and “had the courage to do the right thing,” giving Mr. Cruz the break he needed. “
Rather than kicking him out with an other than honorable discharge, which would have stripped him of much need medical care and benefits, he would be put out of the Army with a medical retirement,” he said.
While he still suffers from the experience, Mr. Cruz was able to leave the U.S. Army on May 5.
“Although he medically retired with full benefits,” Mr. Alvarez said, “I want to keep his story alive because no one has ever been held accountable for their actions.” According to him, “they almost took this kid’s life as if the war wasn’t enough, they tried to finish him off here at home.”
It’s a case that warrants further investigation, Mr. Alvarez said. “What they did to this soldier is sick and demented, and the men who did this to him should not be able to move on as if it never happened.”
The Army did not return an inquiry from The Epoch Times.