UCLA senior Andrew Nicholls served eight years in the U.S. Army, including a year in Iraq. Now, he's sharing his firsthand perspectives about the military and combat in a UCLA psychology course he's teaching this quarter called "Fast Cars and Battle Scars: Understanding the Modern Combat Veteran and PTSD."
"We'll discuss the entire process, from who chooses to serve in the military, what it's like to be trained to kill somebody and how that affects you, to things that happen in combat, as well as military culture and civilian life when you leave the military," said Nicholls, a 29-year-old psychology major who will graduate in June. "I thought undergraduates who never served in the military should have some idea what it's like … so that as future voters and perhaps policymakers, they can think about veterans' issues in a more nuanced way."
Nicholls is teaching the course through the UCLA Undergraduate Student Initiated Education Program, which enables outstanding juniors and seniors in the College of Letters and Science to develop and teach a one-unit seminar, under faculty supervision.
Inspired to join the Army Reserve by the 9/11 attacks, Nicholls served in a civil affairs unit that helped rebuild communities, serving as a liaison between the military and the local populace on issues like infrastructure, jobs programs, rebuilding schools and hospitals, training the military and the police — "all the good things you don't hear about on the nightly news," he said.
"We would advise the commander on the local population and his moral obligations," Nicholls said. "We'd say, 'If you drive through this guy's field chasing an insurgent, you need to pay him for the crops you destroy.' We helped a lot of people as we tried to figure out what they needed in their neighborhoods. It was very rewarding."
Although the work in Tikrit, Iraq, offered personal satisfaction, danger was never far away. "It got pretty horrendous pretty quick," he said. "There were a few months when I didn't have to set an alarm because at about 6 a.m. each day, a car bomb was going off in a city near the base."
'I'm already dead'
How hard was it for Nicholls to get through that year? "Before I left for Iraq, my game plan was to tell myself, 'I'm already dead and I will not come home from this,'" Nicholls said. "Some of the older guys said if you worry about dying, you'll freeze up and not react, so I walked through that year like a dead man. Every morning I woke up thinking, 'Today could be the day, but don't worry about it. Just keep going.'"
When he came to UCLA in 2010, Nicholls quickly understood why acclimating to civilian life can be difficult for veterans. "In combat, there's a lot of numbness," he said. "You push everybody else aside emotionally except the people you're deployed with. Combat is simple — life or death, black and white. Then you return to the grayness of everyday life and many veterans think, 'I don't want to deal with this — I'd rather be back in Iraq.'"
Like many of his fellow veterans, Nicholls was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He suffered one panic attack in a shopping mall food court. "I couldn’t watch all of the exits," he said. "I couldn't watch all of the people. I didn't trust the people I was with. I was getting freaked out."
Another adjustment was living without the daily emotional surge of war — which prompted Nicholls to choose "Fast Cars and Battle Scars" as the name of his course.
"You've been on an adrenaline rush the entire time," Nicholls said, "Then you get home to a mundane life, and a lot of guys start racing motorcycles, skydiving and finding other thrill-seeking activities."
With his outlook better now — and his depression mostly gone — Nicholls feels a responsibility to give civilians a realistic view of PTSD and the other psychological scars of war. The son of a Vietnam veteran who rarely spoke about his experiences, Nicholls hopes his UCLA class will help break the silence.
The class also will cover the experience of basic training, unique issues facing female veterans and how military training prepares prospective soldiers to kill.
"Andrew is a uniquely talented and mature student whose experiences in the army are educational to our campus community," said Chris Dunkel Schetter, a UCLA professor of psychology who is mentoring Nicholls. "We are lucky he has decided to share them. Most of us don't understand the military very well. Andrew uses data and examples from personal experience to share what he has seen and learned and in the process. Those who know him here are much the wiser."
'We can all play a part'
After graduation, Nicholls plans to become a therapist working with veterans who have PTSD and substance abuse issues. Already, he and an Army friend founded a nonprofit organization, the KIA WIA Foundation (for "Killed In Action, Wounded In Action"), which aims to raise awareness of the sacrifices of men and women who have been killed or wounded during the war on terror.
"We can all play a part in making the future for the military better in many ways," Dunkel Schetter said. "Andrew brings a perspective on how people change when we teach them to kill and what they need as they return to civilian life, and much more."
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block recently launched the UCLA Veterans Initiative to increase awareness of the challenges and opportunities that come with the return of veterans to our communities, as well as highlight the many research projects, programs and services UCLA offers to support veterans. As part of the initiative, UCLA is hosting a half-day forum, "How Are Veterans Changing America?", on April 27 at 1 p.m. at UCLA. Visit the event's website for more information and to register.
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of more than 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer 337 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Six alumni and six faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.