MIGHTY 25: Nolan Peterson continues to serve at the Irregular Warfare Center
Nolan Peterson could have quietly left the service after serving in combat as a pilot with Special Operations in the Air Force. But, that’s not the way it went.
“Both of my grandparents served during World War II and that inspired me to apply to the Air Force Academy when I graduated high school in 2000. Initially, I wanted to see the world and look cool as a pilot,” he laughed. “That quickly changed when I sat in class watching the towers fall. My instructor had served in combat during Desert Storm and said ‘You guys are going to war.' I remember the rage that I felt over what happened and this unquenchable thirst to do something.”
His reasons for being at the Academy completely changed after that day. Peterson chose SpecOps because he knew it was the fastest route to being in combat. He deployed and flew multiple missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“At the tail end of my career, my younger brother was deployed to Afghanistan and for the first time, I really felt the weight of the wars,” he explained. “The disconnect in war experiences being stateside and worrying about a loved one versus being deployed myself was surreal. I felt a new sense of service to my country and the importance of informing people about the realities of the world in which we live.”
With this in mind, he decided to become a journalist when he left the Air Force in 2011.
“Suddenly, I'm back at the bottom again but I paid my dues and sort of worked on my craft as a writer and then went back to Afghanistan as a journalist. I actually got to spend time with my brother in Afghanistan, while I was a journalist, and he was still serving. I began this new career as a war correspondent,” Peterson shared.
By 2014, the world’s conflicts were heating up. Wars were raging in the Middle East, Israel and then Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I went to Ukraine initially only planning to spend a few weeks. Getting there, a lot of things really stood out. The seriousness of European combat was intense and watching students or baristas leave work to pick up arms to fight was unbelievable,” he said. “I felt like that story was one that needed to be told. So a couple of weeks' trip turned into basically a decade; I decided to stay in Ukraine. I was among the first foreign journalists to embed with Ukraine's regular army and combat force back in 2015.”
Peterson married and weathered intense fighting over the years. When Russia once again invaded, the reality of it all came full circle.
“I really believe that Ukrainians are fighting to uphold our country's best values. I see how they look to us in America as this shining example of what they want to achieve in their life, what they are fighting for and the future they want,” he said. “It makes me think, as an American, we need to do better to live up to that promise because we represent what Ukrainians and every freedom-loving people around the world, what they're willing to fight for.”
The full-scale war that began in February of 2022 wasn’t like anything else he’d ever experienced, he added.
“To be literally lying in bed with my wife and the next morning having to grab her to run to a bomb shelter because Russian cruise missiles were raining down on our neighborhood isn’t something you can prepare for,” Peterson explained. “I think that has given me a whole new level of empathy for the civilians who suffer in war that I never had previously. Now I'm in this new phase of my career and I've become a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council as well as an expert researcher at the Pentagon's Irregular Warfare Center.”
In this role, he is a voice for Ukraine while also learning from their defense, believing it will be a lesson for the dangerous new threats America will face.
“I think it's critically important to have veterans who become journalists because they understand the experience of the soldiers or combatants before them. You don't see them as chess pieces or mindless automatons out there, following orders. You understand what is going through their head,” he said. “There’s the burden of command or the burden of taking care of your comrades in arms, the burden of limiting civilian casualties. Those anxieties, that stress supersedes the fear of dying by numbers you cannot possibly comprehend.”
Two decades of war and service leave Peterson more patriotic than ever. Despite the bleakness the withdrawal from Afghanistan brought to him and others, he celebrates the bright light of freedom they introduced to Afghans. It’s his belief it will bring change and purpose to war. To veterans, he has a simple message:
“I think every veteran has an incredible amount of utility and use for our society,” Peterson said. “Find your niche, find your way to continue to serve and find purpose and meaning. Don’t give up; I absolutely understand that feeling of loneliness or searching for your place. Hold your course and through that you will find happiness.”
Learn more about this incredible veteran by clicking here.