There are more than 18 million living veterans in the U.S. Each returns home after a different experience to begin a new life. Some have a great deal of difficulty adjusting. Former special operations pilot Nolan Peterson plucks at this emotional dilemma in his new book: “Why Soldiers Miss War.”
Nolan Peterson: My previous profession was as an air force special operations pilot.And when I left the military I ended up embarking on a career in conflict journalism. And in 2014 when the war in Ukraine began, I moved to Ukraine full time to report on the conflict and over the years I've also been to Iraq and Afghanistan, aboard a U S aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria. I've even trekked through the Himalayas, trekking down Tibetan freedom fighters, so I've certainly had a very interesting, adventurous transition after I left the military.
Sharyl: Before we get into the topic of your book, since you spent so much time covering Ukraine, it's important to ask, I think, what you think is not being covered now that ought to be here in the United States?
Nolan Peterson: I think my major takeaway from living in Ukraine for the last almost six years is that I've had the privilege to witness the birth of a democracy. In 2014 when Russia invaded, it was everyday Ukrainians who went out and took up arms and stopped the Russian advance in the Eastern part of the country. It was a grassroots war effort and showing a country that did not need to be prodded into war by propaganda. And I think that Americans should look to that story and be inspired by it because it truly is a country fighting for what are essentially American values.
Sharyl: But they're still fighting today. Is that right?
Nolan Peterson: That's true. And for me, after reporting on the war for so long, it's sad in some respects that there's an ongoing land war in Europe and people just don't seem to be aware of that or seem to be willing to pay much attention to that fact.
Sharyl: What gave you the idea for your book?
Nolan Peterson: So when I left the military, I experienced something which I think is very common among veterans, particularly combat veterans. And that's what I was searching for, a sense of purpose and meaning in my life and for me, my search to recreate that sense of purpose. After leaving the military, it led me to become a combat journalist and I ended up going off and going into some pretty dangerous places around the world from Iraq.
Sharyl: You call it a sense of purpose, but in some cases, do you think it's veterans who are addicted to that sense of excitement that comes with fighting or is it more purpose?
Nolan Peterson: I think when you're in a war zone, you experience the spectrum of emotions, which far exceeds what you would view a normal life. And so for many veterans, when they come back from war or when they returned to civilian life after the military, they feel like civilian life just doesn't cut it. It's just not, it just doesn't give them the sense of feeling like they're truly alive. And so it makes it really hard when soldiers come back from war to find meaning in life and to also feel that sense of community and tribe that they likely felt while they are in the military.
Sharyl: When did you come to a realization that this is what had happened to you? That you left a war only to then find yourself seeking something similar?
Nolan Peterson: Yes, and it was, to be honest, it was sort of a downward spiral for me in a sense that I kept taking greater and greater risks. I was going out on the front lines in Iraq with the Kurds against Islamic state and I, I'm pretty sure that I probably would have ended up being killed at some point. I've lost friends over the years, including James Foley was the American journalist killed by Islamic state. So for me, I know that this search for purpose as a combat journalist was likely ending to sort of a bad conclusion for me. It was when I met my wife, Ukrainian woman named Lily. I fell in love with her and it was through falling in love with my wife, that I finally was able to rediscover that sense of purpose that I thought I had lost when I left the military.
Sharyl: What do you recommend for other people? Maybe they are not going to have a spouse or have a, have a new sense of purpose that comes to them in that way. What advice is in your book for them?
Nolan Peterson: I think that what veterans go through when they leave the military when they come back from war is a lot of ways, representative of what we all are seeking. We're seeking meaning in life. So I encourage people to look to the stories of veterans like myself who have been able to move on after war because I think that story is a universal story and it represents something that we all go through.
Nolan says if you ask most combat veterans to name the worst experience and the best experience in their lives— they’ll say the war in answer to both.