The Reaper Speaks: Army Sniper Nicholas Irving on Battlefield Kills, PTSD, and Light at the End of the Tunnel
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME
Nicholas Irving is better known as The Reaper, an Army Ranger sniper and machine gunner with 33 kills in a single deployment and an unconfirmed kill total that could easily be into triple digits. But Irving, now 30 and retired from the military, has been haunted by nightmares from the day of his first kill. Since then, his life has been a roller coaster of alcoholism, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts, including one failed attempt. He says there is light at the end of the tunnel now; in November of 2016, his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child and he has been clean and sober since. But every night, his enemies still rise from the dead to haunt his dreams.
BY MATT TUTHILL
The nightmare is always the same. The first man that Nicholas Irving ever killed appears as a ceiling fan above his bed. The man’s head becomes the center of the fan; his arms and legs are the blades. Irving is pinned down and can’t move. The fan spins faster and faster and descends toward Irving. Eventually, it flies out of control and explodes in a spray of blood that covers him and everything else in the room.
“It’s guaranteed that I have that same exact dream once a year,” Irving says.
The first time he had this nightmare it was the night after that very first kill. Irving was a newly minted Ranger at the time, part of the 3rd Ranger Battalion out of the Army’s 75th Regiment, an 18-year-old machine-gunner serving in Tikrit in 2004. He was an expert in variety of heavy guns, and that day he worked behind the iron sights of a .50-caliber. For the uninitiated, the 50-cal is designed to take down vehicles, strong enough to chew through tank armor and mangle the treads. Its effect on a flesh-and-blood human burned images into Irving’s head that he’ll never forget.
“He turned to jelly, mist… and just… weird looking,” Irving says. “He just disintegrated, evaporated in his vehicle.”
Over the next seven years, Irving deployed a total of six times; three as a machine gunner, three as a sniper. He killed at least another 59 men, including 33 confirmed in a single tour as a sniper. The latter figure earned him the nickname The Reaper, and in 2015 he released a biography of the same name. The Weinstein Company is currently developing a miniseries based on Irving’s experiences for NBC. It is expected to release later in 2017, and actors Sterling K. Brown, Michael B. Jordan, and Ludacris have all been considered for the lead role.
Irving will never know the actual number of enemy combatants that he killed in action, which could climb higher than 100 men. That’s because he was involved in several hellacious firefights like a 2007 battle in Mosul which he refers to as “the hotel party.”
“It was a multi-story hotel. It was… a hornets’ nest full of bad guys,” Irving says.
Irving and his teammates used every weapon system at their disposal. By the end of the firefight, the Army had dropped 500- and 1,000-pound bombs on the enemy position. Helicopters providing air support depleted all of their machine gun and rocket ammunition, and began firing handheld weapons out of their windows. Irving emptied canister after canister of 50-cal ammunition into the building—going window-by-window in a process he likened to Whack-a-Mole. At the end of the day, every man in Irving’s unit was out of ammo.
“That was a good day,” Irving says.
He still talks excitedly about his exploits and compares the adrenaline rush of combat to playing in the Super Bowl. His ability to speak so openly about his experiences, and his keen recollection of specific, often gory details makes him almost as much of an anomaly in the veteran community as his prodigious battlefield statistics.
But the price Irving paid was a high one. Besides the fact that his first ever kill comes back as an annual nightmare, the other 364 nights of the year are filled with even worse terrors. He only ever dreams of one thing—that the men he killed are coming back for him. But in his dreams, Irving’s bullets are useless. The dead march straight through his line of fire and chop him to bits with hatchets, axes, or broken bottles.
“I want to say they’ve gotten better,” Irving says. “The whole chopped up part, it cuts off once it’s happening. I used to watch the whole thing happen like an out-of-body experience.”
DREAMS OF BECOMING A SNIPER
In an ironic twist, when he was overseas—and before his body count started to climb—he would dream of home. Specifically, high school just outside of Baltimore, where he was bullied incessantly for being undersized—he’s 5’7”, 160 pounds at his heaviest—and for being a sincerely enthusiastic ROTC cadet.
As early as sixth grade, Irving says he dreamed of being a sniper. Both of his parents were in the Army, and Irving grew up on the grounds of Fort Meade in Maryland. His mother Angie made him his first ghillie suit. An otherwise poor student, Irving’s only A came in ROTC. He graduated with a 1.7 GPA. Nevertheless, his father Gerald always foresaw great things in his future.
“My dad kept saying, ‘One day, you’re going to write a book and people are going to want to read your life story.’ I said, ‘I have a 1.7. What the heck is he talking about?’”
Military life might have been all Irving wanted, but if you’re a stickler for the rules, he should have never been accepted at all. Irving is color blind, an automatic disqualifier for the infantry. He only learned this at the MEPS, or military entrance processing station, while taking a physical to get into the Navy where he planned to become a SEAL. He failed twice, but after his second try, an Army nurse overheard what his issue was, and took him aside for another try.
The nurse traced his fingers across numbers he couldn’t see so he could read them out loud and pass the exam.
“I saved my medical records,” Irving says. “There’s a one-day gap where it’s a 0 out of 14 and then 14 out of 14, flying color passed.”
BRINGING THE WAR HOME
To this day, when Irving wakes up in the morning, it takes a while to work the kinks out of his joints. He’s perpetually sore, a side effect of parachute drops and carrying so much heavy gear over so many miles. When equipped with all of his weapons, gear, and a full complement of ammo, he tipped the scales at 315 pounds, a weight at which it was typical for him to march 15 miles or more.
It turned out that wear-and-tear were the least of his worries. The intense combat experiences and subsequent nightmares, combined with a lack of direction for a new career once he left the military in 2010, led Irving to drink heavily—a full bottle of Jack Daniels plus an almost unbelievable 20 beers per day. This crippling habit didn’t just leave him blind drunk, it emptied his bank account and nearly cost him everything; his car was repossessed by creditors, his home was on the verge of foreclosure, and he was left to beg his wife and parents for money, which he also drank away.
Through all of this, Irving didn’t seek help and didn’t talk to his wife about the obvious underlying issues of his drinking. In fact, throughout his military career, Irving kept his role within the Rangers a complete secret from his wife Jessica, going so far as to tell her that he didn’t see combat when he deployed.
“She didn’t find out until 2009,” Irving says. “One of my guys slipped up. He was like, ‘Dude, I heard you killed 50 guys overseas.’ She was standing right next to me. She looked at me like, ‘What?’ We went home that night and it was weird. She said, ‘I’ve been sleeping with a guy who’s killed people…’ Then she said, ‘That’s why you drink.’ I was like, ‘I guess. I’m not really sure.’”
The shame of his spiral into alcoholism nearly made him a statistic—one of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day. It would hardly be new in Irving’s circle. Thirteen men he served with chose to end their own lives.
“You go from this stellar background to watching some of the missions you do on CNN to calling your parents saying, ‘Hey can I borrow $200?’ It’s really depressing. At that point I thought, ‘I’m just a burden on people.’ I contemplated suicide twice. I had one failed attempt.”
On that day, Irving walked out to a secluded area behind his home, an area he chose because he thought, “It won’t be too much of a mess to clean up.” Then, with a round loaded into his favorite Glock, he put the gun to his head.
“I pulled the trigger and nothing happened,” Irving said. “Nothing happened. It’s a Glock so there’s no safety… I walked back inside. I had to find another round. Somewhere in that thought process of looking for another round, I passed out drunk.”
Irving says he can’t explain what happened, but he’ll happily give credit to God. He says that of all the hundreds of thousands of rounds he’s fired in his life, he had only experienced one other weapon malfunction or jam. But surviving the suicide attempt would be right in line with other inexplicable miracles he’s seen on the battlefield.
“We were in this one firefight that lasted about 12 hours,” Irving recalls. “Almost to a man, all of us had bullet holes in our clothes, but we weren’t hit. I saw some weird stuff that day, like a bullet entry on the front part of someone’s chest and then exit wound on the back but the round never touched him. A chaplain that day had to put down his Bible and pick up a gun… I saw an RPG shot at us at a close distance and then it just bee-lined straight up to 12 o’clock and exploded instead of hitting us. I couldn’t explain that, either.”
Irving began to taper his drinking in 2015 and quit cold turkey on November 28, 2016—the day his first child, a son named Kayden, was born. The day also happened to be Irving’s 30th birthday.
“I was sitting in a hospital for 18 hours that day. We were concerned. He had a heart condition, a murmur,” Irving recalls. “All my focus was on him, making sure he was fine. I didn’t care about anything else. It was the first time in a long time, many years, where I didn’t crave or think about a drink. Usually, in a stressful situation like that, I would want to decompress with something, Jack Daniels or a beer, something like that, but it was the first time it never happened. I realized it’s not that bad. I’ll just quit it right now.
“Then when they pronounced, ‘Oh, he’s fine. He’s good to go,’ I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s a sign.’”
The birth of his son gave Irving hope that he thought he’d never find again. Today, he has a simple message for veterans contemplating suicide: There is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about anything,” Irving says. “A lot of guys think that you become less alpha, if you talk about your emotions and talk about what you feel. I think keeping it inside—it’s what I did—it gets really, really bad the longer you do it. But talking about it and not being ashamed and feeling sorry for yourself for the things that you’ve done helps a lot. I’ve forgiven myself a long time ago things that I’ve done. I do believe that everybody I killed deserved it and they were trying to do bad things to us and prevent my guys and me from going back home. I never had a regret about doing that.”
It should be noted, too, that Irving’s ability to talk so openly about his experiences has given him a second career as a writer. A follow-up to his first book, called Way of the Reaper, released later in 2015, and includes details of operations not covered in the first book. In turn, the notoriety gained from the books earned him a job as a military consultant for some movie and television projects, and in the spring of 2016 he worked onscreen alongside John Cena in the military-themed reality show American Grit.
“No one should be afraid to talk about what’s on their mind,” Irving says. “Even if you think no one’s listening, I’m a big believer that someone’s always listening somewhere. When people have those Facebook rants, someone’s always listening. You’d be surprised whose life you can impact—or whose life is exactly the same as your life. You’re not alone in anything in this world.
“I thought I’m the only guy who’s losing his house, the only guy who’s losing his car, about to lose everything. You find out that no, you’re not the only guy. There’s a lot of other guys going through this, too. Keep working hard. Don’t quit. There’s always going to be light at the end of every tunnel.”
Originally published in Robert Irvine Magazine.