VILSECK, Germany — Days before the barracks on this small Army post emptied for leave, Lt. Col. Peter Zike flipped through his unit’s schedule as soldiers briefed their plans upon return.
Down to the final weeks before a summer deployment to Afghanistan, Zike’s team of military advisers — a group of officers and NCOs from various branches of the service — needed to schedule a meeting after the break. Someone suggested a Wednesday evening.
“That interferes with my yoga class,” Zike said, without looking up from his papers.
Several soldiers smiled, but the 48-year-old artilleryman was serious. Zike recently embraced yoga a response to his body’s growing stiffness and the stress of work, both important considerations for a soldier with his history. The coming deployment will be Zike’s seventh since 2002, a decade in which he has spent more time on the battlefield than at home, at the expense of two marriages and what many people would consider a normal life for a middle-age man.
“Anybody that deploys, he volunteers to go,” his former sergeant, Leroy Gadson, said. “That’s just him. That’s his life.”
Now mulling retirement, Zike is thinking about what comes next and how he’ll adapt after years spent building his life around the Army and its deployments.
“I know what my lot is in life,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m a simple soldier.”
Raised for service
Trim, with glasses, graying hair and an affable demeanor, Zike could pass for a banker at first glance. The scarred stab wounds in his right arm suggest otherwise, as does the faint path a bullet fragment cut into his right cheek.
Zike was all but raised for the military. His father served in the Navy in World War II, twice surviving torpedoed ships. An uncle served several decades in the Air Force, and Zike’s brother enlisted in the Army before Zike was commissioned. Zike attended military school as a teenager, and he joined the ROTC in college.
In conversation, he is blunt and opinionated. He extolls ideals of service and duty, fears the country has lost its stomach for war and believes that Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan.
“He’s very direct, doesn’t hide anything,” said Capt. Ryan Kurrus, a former platoon leader in a battery commanded by Zike. “He’ll tell you how he feels — right, wrong or indifferent. You’ll know where you stand.”
His decisiveness served him well in Iraq in 2004, his second deployment after 9/11 and his first taste of combat. As a fire support officer for a cavalry regiment battling Shiite militants in the holy city of Najaf, Zike directed much of the close air support for troops on the ground, from the AC-130 gunships that fired 40mm guns on the completely outgunned insurgents inside the city, to the then-somewhat-novel Predator drones targeting fighters with Hellfire missiles.
Like many, Zike was forced to make quick decisions in a chaotic environment. In an interview Zike gave to the Center for Army Lessons Learned in 2006, he recalled then-Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey watching over his shoulder as he targeted a white truck driven by insurgents. After the drone lost visibility of the truck for a couple of seconds, Dempsey asked how sure Zike was that the truck he was now targeting was the same.
“He looks at me and says, ‘Are you 100 percent sure?’” Zike recalled. “I said, ‘Yes sir, I am.’ Was I? No. Was I willing to take that risk because I was sure enough of the data? Absolutely.”
He found that war was exciting, that targeting and killing from above didn’t bother him and that he was happy to fulfill a mission he had long trained to do. His sister, Cyndi Skweres, recalled a conversation with Zike before his first deployment.
“He said, ‘Sis, it’s kind of like this: if I was trained to be an architect and never got to build that building, all of my training and education would be for naught,’” Skweres recalled. “’This is what I was trained to do, and this what I was paid to do.’”
Returning to Iraq in 2006 to lead a military adviser team, Zike waded into an even more dangerous situation. His unit worked out of the Adhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, a Sunni enclave and epicenter of sectarian killings then raging between Sunnis and Shiites. Firefights erupted on the streets. Fresh bodies appeared on the roads many mornings. When not outright targeted, Americans often found themselves caught in the chaos.
Zike’s team patrolled two to three times daily, recalled Gadson, the team’s lead NCO. One or two patrols were planned, the others in response to attacks against American units. At a time when every trip outside the wire was dangerous, Zike pushed his men with zeal, Gadson said.
“The thing is you get wore down and you can’t focus, but again, he was always wired,” Gadson said. “Guys would get tired, and I would tell him, ‘Hey sir, you gotta take a break.’”
Zike’s stories from Iraq are typically grim, involving shootings, explosions and scenes of twisted metal and scattered body parts. He remembers arriving at a scene where another unit’s Bradley hit a roadside bomb June 21, 2007, killing five soldiers, as well as several young Iraqi children nearby. Another soldier, a female MP, had been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade after responding to the scene.
“That was a bad day,” he said.
Yet the brotherhood of war and the sense of purpose provided a flip-side to its horrors. A favorite story of Zike’s is the time he and two soldiers sheltered in a Humvee from a mortar barrage in Najaf in 2004. With no Meals, Ready to Eat in the vehicle, they split the only food they had — a bag of Skittles, a piece of pound cake and an oatmeal cookie — and dubbed it “The Last Supper.”
“I still laugh at that camaraderie,” Zike said. “How do you explain that to people?”
Trouble at home
As Zike eagerly gave more of himself after 9/11, so, inevitably, did his wife. The former Julie Zwirtz was a grade-school teacher he married in 1989. Both had grown up in military families and believed they knew the lifestyle and its pressures. Julie’s father was drafted in the Korean War.
The young Zike was ambitious and focused, Julie recalled, with long-held dreams of joining the Army. But he was also easily wounded when confronted with suffering around him, she noticed.
“My dad always said, ‘He’s so soft-hearted, it’s going to be very hard,’” she said. When he would see a stray dog, “he’d go through the drive-through at McDonald’s and buy it a hamburger.”
The occasional separation for training and a few moves to new posts were the only challenges the couple faced in their first years together. The Zikes were at Fort Polk in Louisiana when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and when Zike began deploying in 2002, his wife — surrounded by other military families — believed she was prepared.
Zike, eager to see combat, spent a mere two weeks at home between his first and second deployments. When he returned in 2004, he acted differently. Although he had never slept easily, he slept even less. He appeared distracted and nervous, and Julie recalled him once becoming anxious when they drove under an overpass on the way to dinner, fearful of roadside bombs.
He was intense, less patient and eager to return downrange. He boasted about driving fast and appeared proud of his recklessness. He was reluctant to talk about the battlefield.
“It just seemed that there was just this urgency about him,” she said. “He never came to rest. He was always spun up.”
Skweres, Zike’s sister, also noticed the change.
“He came back a little bit harder around the edges,” she said. “That softness was gone.”
Bad news at home added to Zike’s frustrations. His branch delayed his assignment to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., so he could go to the Leavenworth-based center where he would be interviewed about his experiences. Zike, considering the assignment a snub, dubbed the center a “self-licking ice cream cone” in one of his recorded interviews there.
Meanwhile, several of his mentors died within a short period of time, among them his father and uncle and Julie’s uncle, all veterans.
“It was just one loss after another, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” she said.
Isolated and eager to return to the battlefield, Zike divorced Julie after finishing staff college. He quickly headed back downrange.
He would deploy three more times after the Adhamiyah tour — twice with with 10th Special Forces Group in Iraq and once more to Afghanistan in 2009, with the Asymmetric Warfare Group. Iraq had largely settled down, but the Afghanistan deployment brought more violence, and in close proximity.
Zike kept in closer touch with Skweres, and he remarried. He found it difficult to talk openly about his experiences, and between deployments he often needed time alone, riding his motorcycle or working on a cattle ranch owned by family friends.
“He needed to just be the loner there for a while,” Skweres said.
By the time he took battalion command at Fort Bliss, Texas, in 2010, Zike was going days without sleep, and his second marriage was on the ropes. He found himself increasingly bothered by memories of violence, and he was troubled by the same hunger for adrenaline that gnawed at him through many of his tours. He sought treatment for PTSD.
He enrolled in a five-month therapy program in Dallas called Pathways, making the nine-hour drive from El Paso to stay at the center on four-day weekends and occasionally taking leave for longer stints. His second marriage ended in divorce, but Zike credits the program with returning stability to his life, encouraging him to talk and make healthier decisions.
“I reclaimed my soul,” he said. “I found things — I found goodness in life again.”
Life outside service
As he prepares for his seventh deployment, and his first since getting treatment at Pathways , Zike is trying to imagine life outside the Army.
He sometimes pictures owning a cattle ranch in the Southwest or becoming more involved in El Paso, where he recently bought a house. He stayed there during the recent block leave, riding a new motorcycle he ordered while in Germany and enjoying the view from his back porch, with his dog, Jack, at heel.
But with no family or children and few roots to a community, the idea of staying in the Army a few more years remains attractive.
“I think he’s to the point where he’ll adjust fine,” Skweres said. “I think he’s scared like a lot of our vets are that he’ll come back and no one will want him.”
He’ll first need to complete the mission at hand, one seemingly quieter than past tours. His team will work with Afghan commanders on administrative issues like logistics and command chains. The job comes with perils, in particular the threat of insider attacks. A friend, Lt. Col. Todd Clark, was killed by an Afghan in June in eastern Afghanistan — “doing the same job I’m fixing to go do,” Zike said.
Whatever comes, he plans to apply the coping mechanisms he’s learned in recent years, and he says he’ll visit Pathways again when he returns. A vocal advocate of counseling and encouraging other soldiers to seek it, Zike has been gratified to hear the leadership in his current unit, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, emphasize the same to its commanders and advisers.
Zike says he’ll reassess his situation when he gets back. He’s open to another deployment, he said. It would be after 2014, assuming the U.S. still has an advisory role in Afghanistan.
“I’d forgo retirement,” Zike said, “just to do one more year. One more year, I think I could swing it.”