When Nate Self -- a solidly built 31-year-old with a quiet, unassuming demeanor -- talks to people, he sometimes looks at them and envisions what they would look like dead. But he didn't always have this peculiar habit.
As a high schooler, Nate was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy, but planned on becoming an ophthalmologist. After West Point, he thought, he'd spend a few years of peacetime service in the Army and then go off to medical school.
Nate had no idea that God had put him on a path toward a deadly mountaintop battle in Afghanistan that would change his life and be the start of a different kind of mission.
In 1998 Nate graduated from West Point and began serving as an Army officer. He deployed to Germany and later was part of a peacekeeping force in Kosovo. A well-respected "soldier's soldier," by 2000 Nate was in charge of an elite Army Ranger outfit.
Then came the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the United States was at war.
Sent to Afghanistan
Less than 6 months later, Nate's unit was sent to Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were based. United States and coalition forces there launched Operation Anaconda, a ground and air assault intended to put the squeeze on the terrorist fighters and force them out of hiding. As a special operations unit, Nate's team would stand by, a quick-reaction force ready to go. They didn't have to wait long.
On March 4, 2002, Nate led a rescue mission to a snowy mountain peak that the Army later named Roberts Ridge. When their Chinook helicopter was shot down in an ambush, Nate led his men in a firefight while bleeding from a shrapnel wound to his leg. He led an assault on a high-caliber machine-gun bunker, eventually radioing for the use of a drone surveillance plane with attack capabilities to take out the bunker.
The battle cost the lives of 3 of his men -- but if not for Nate's clear-headed decisions, it is likely many more would have been lost. Nate earned a Silver Star for valor and a Purple Heart, and would later be President Bush's guest for his 2003 State of the Union speech.
But in some ways, the battle was just beginning.
Fighting a Different Battle
Nate developed post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition in which reactions to a traumatic or life-threatening event continually recur-or even intensify. His situation is not unusual: Nearly 1 in 5 returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, and less than 40 percent of these will seek help.
The main symptoms of PTSD include emotional detachment, nightmares and flashbacks, and avoidance of people, places or things associated with the traumatic event. The suicide rate among those with PTSD is almost twice the national average, and two out of three of their marriages fail.
Serving in Iraq on his next deployment in 2003, Nate's relationship with God grew cold. "I started to get scared for my future and my family's future," Nate says, "that I wasn't going to come home, that I was being too risky with my life. So fear itself completely pushed faith out of the way. I started to think that I needed to take control. And when I did that, I completely turned my back on God."
After he returned from Iraq, and to the surprise of those who knew his military record, Nate left the Army in late 2004. It was then that he went through a low point. The nightly gun battles of his subconscious translated into daily laundering of his sweat-soaked bed linens.
"I nearly destroyed my life and my family," he says. "I reached the point of almost losing everything, and I was completely broken."
"He seemed almost lost," says his wife, Julie. "He didn't really know where his place was in the civilian world. He was trying to be somebody he wasn't."
"I didn't think I could regain who I was," Nate says. "I thought about suicide."
Nate's tendency to visualize death in those around him was also present. Intrusive memories of death are a hallmark of battle-induced PTSD.
Like many soldiers suffering from PTSD, Nate didn't think about asking for help. But his concerned parents intervened anyway, praying with and counseling Nate and Julie, and guiding them to the support they needed.
Lt. Col. Nate Allen, an Army officer on the faculty at West Point, reached out to Nate. "He came alongside of me as a brother, even though I'd never met him in person," says Nate. Lt. Col. Allen told Nate he'd be there if he needed him, even offering to hop on a plane and be there within hours.
"He was uniquely positioned in that he wasn't so close to me that I felt embarrassed to talk to him about anything," explains Nate, "but he was close enough that I could trust him, and that comforted me."
Nate doesn't see any particular technique or event as facilitating the healing process for him: "It was just a combination of close family and close Christian brothers coming together and jumping right in the middle of it, and that really made a difference for me." But recovering from PTSD can be a slow process.
Three years later, Nate is still processing the events on Roberts Ridge, although he views that day as "a tremendous faith-building experience." The fact that God spared Nate that day is something Nate has long struggled with: "I wasn't killed. Why was that? To neglect the responsibility associated with that is to miss the point." Nate says he is alive today because God wants him to share the message of God's love and forgiveness, especially to current and former military personnel.
Nate is now trying to fulfill this God-given purpose -- in large part through Campus Crusade for Christ. As Campus Crusade's Military Ministry was looking to be more involved in a ministry centered around PTSD, Nate was invited to come to help them train New York City's Times Square Church in setting up a pilot program for a PTSD ministry.
The team gave the church's leadership an overview of PTSD and how to help people suffering from it. About a month later, they went back to train 500 people.
Nate is finding more and more opportunities to share his story through Bridges to Healing, the name for the new PTSD ministry. In November, he took part in a Houston event in which Bridges to Healing scaled up what they did at Times Square Church for a few hundred churches. Because of the logistics, they expanded their teaching techniques to include video capture and distributed training, and a large outdoor event on Veterans Day served as the culmination of a week's worth of activities.
Today, while the effects of PTSD still linger, Nate is doing much better. He works as a consultant on the development of officer-training materials for the Army and also is writing his memoirs, slated to be published in June by Tyndale House.
Nate spends a lot of time on the home front with Julie and their 3 children: 5-year-old Caleb, 2-year-old Noah, and Elliot, who was born last summer.
A lot of former soldiers talk about having served God and country. Nate truly stands out at both.