Wind chimes, two old dogs in the sunlight. Andy, wiry and tall, long hair, in a sleeveless T, and his wife, Julie, on their porch overlooking their land in the foothills west of Loveland.
“Most people look at me and say, ‘You have a beautiful wife. You live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. What do you have to worry about? Shit, man, I wish I could stop.” Andy says. “I really do. I know how blessed I am… doesn’t change that I wake up shaking in the morning and scared. If I see a car come to the property that I don’t know, I get ice cold and white.”
Andy and Julie live on a hill at the end of a long, gravel road that rises quickly in elevation after entering the foothills and winds past lakes and a few driveways. The drivers that do make it up to the property are either lost, thinking they’d found a shortcut to Estes Park, or coming to see Andy and Julie.
“I’m scared of people, and I’m often disgusted at people. But I love them,” Andy says.
He gets flustered and a screen door creaks and snaps shut soon after. Julie looks out over the field; one of the dogs follows Andy and rakes its paw against the screen door.
“Somebody told me a while ago, his wife was a veteran, suffered from similar symptoms, and he was her caretaker,” Julie says. “And he told me that one of the best pieces of advice that he ever got was that when she is in panic mode, when the PTSD kicks in, to recognize that there are no longer two people standing in the room having a conversation. There is a third one and that third one is the PTSD person. It’s not the person that you know; it’s somebody completely different. It’s somebody completely irrational. And we’ve learned to deal with that.”
Julie lights a cigarette, and Andy comes back out onto the porch, calmer. “Helicopter,” he says. And we look up over the mountains. Then, we all look to the valley.
“The only reason that I’m actually even able to talk to you right now is because of that peace sign,” Andy says, pointing. “And because of the pilots.”
• • • •
“Three years ago, I cut a peace sign in my field,” Andy wrote in an email several months ago, out of the blue. He had just read a piece in Boulder Weekly, “The Peace Sign on the Mountain,” an excerpt from a book by Jack Olsen, a journalist, who, with some fellow Colorado Daily reporters, placed a large peace sign on Flagstaff Mountain to protest the Vietnam War in 1969.
“I found this article, and it really made me smile,” Andy wrote. “I have several regular visitors fly in to visit [pilots that fly over to see the peace sign]. It’s my socialization… as odd as it seems. Small visits, no words. Just a wave and a smile. Once I sent [a local aviation group] an email explaining that I didn’t talk to many people and that I truly appreciated their visits… so they increased their visits… it was beautiful… I honestly thought that kindness like this was dead in the world. I am a kind and intelligent man… but when I get around others I get odd… self-conscious… I feel sick… and it shows. Rubs folks the wrong way and they treat me differently, it hurts me horribly, so I stay alone. The glider and sport plane visits mean the world to me. I have worked for five years turning this place into my safe place… my park… and place to heal. However… day after day… it often feels like a prison.”
Andy trained as an Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) in Florida, then spent three years based in Fort Knox, going on training missions around the continent and often finding himself isolated in the wilderness, just his self, a backpack and a compass.
But, he says, “I was injured before I ever went off to the war.”
“That’s something I don’t talk about,” Andy says, kind of laughing. “I would break down. But I do want to say this: It’s very important for people to understand that there are many types of disabled veterans. Not all of us served in combat. Some went through hell. Some had been raped, some robbed and beaten, car accidents, being run over by a tank in a training accident. They are just as much a veteran as anyone else. I feel very isolated because everything you see on TV, all of the combat heroes… I lost my life.
“I do not in any way want to take away from combat veterans. They’re my heart, but it doesn’t mean that those of us that our number didn’t come up and we weren’t sent to combat, didn’t serve our country honorably,” Andy says.
“It’s a difficult thing to be a disabled veteran with a disability that you can’t see,” Julie says.
After the incident, Andy started drinking heavily. He was also taking as many as 15 prescription pills a day to deal with his PTSD. He says he was basically living on the streets. Like many highly trained veterans, he couldn’t get a job.
“I found a job listing for a dispatcher for a trucking company,” Andy says. “And I said, ‘Hey guys, I’m Air Force, I used to control air strikes. I know I can do this job.’ They said, ‘We’re looking for somebody with experience with trucks.’ I guess F-16s and A-10s don’t count as truck experience. I couldn’t get anything.”
Andy cashed disability checks and wandered, then in Arizona, through a haze. He met Julie online in 2007. Andy managed to go back to school and get a graduate degree, defending a thesis on how people get attached spiritually to landscapes. They moved to the East Coast, where Andy got a job with the VA. He convinced Julie to change career paths and get a government job herself. They’d work, amass savings and benefits, and retire in Colorado, in nature.
“PTSD is a weird creature. It comes and goes. And I thought I had it licked,” Andy says. “I was going to get back into the workforce. I was going to do more time with the federal government. And within three years, I had completely collapsed, even worse than I had before.
“I was hiding in the house behind curtains. If kids would walk by, I would be terrified,” he says.
Andy says it was the stress of the job that triggered his PTSD. He says he was asked to shape information that indicated the VA was doing more for veterans than he felt they actually were.
“And as a sick veteran being asked to do that, it was harder and harder every day,” he says.
Julie didn’t know the extent of Andy’s illness when they married in 2008.
“I knew that he had PTSD, but we didn’t really talk about the incidents that happened until the last five years,” she says. “The way I look at it now is, you know, when I met him, he had taken all of those nasty things, and he put them in boxes and shoved them in a storage unit. And then slowly but surely, one by one, [his illness] started rearing its ugly head.”
His PTSD-induced anxiety forced him to miss his father’s funeral. He missed a neice’s wedding.
“He’s a kind man, and he’s generous, and he’s open and honest, and he appears on the outside to be doing just fine,” Julie says. “He can hold conversations, but when it’s all over, his mind just doesn’t let it go. And he goes over the conversations over and over, and he feels shame and humiliation and embarrassment. He wonders whether what he said was the right thing or not, he wonders whether he hurt somebody with what he said. And the fact of the matter is, he’s never hurt anybody.”
• • • •
The land was overgrown when Andy and Julie moved to their 35 acres in the Colorado mountains five years ago, so Andy started to tend to the brush and weeds. He built a trail system, a solar generator, a rain-catcher, a small campground.
And then one day, “he walked down with a tape measure, string and a can of paint,” Julie says. And he started walking around and he marked it and mowed it off. “And I was like, holy f—. And it was awesome.”
A 100-foot peace sign on the crest of hill in the valley below their house.
“Tell Jack Olsen that the peace sign rides again,” Andy wrote in that first email.
“Originally,” he says on the porch, “I woke up every morning, and it seemed like a person of color was being shot for no reason. It really affected me. I am so naive. I thought that this behavior was gone in the ’70s. I had no idea that this type of hate still existed in America. I had had the idea of putting a peace sign out there, doing art just to keep myself busy. And I just woke up one morning, I said, ‘Honey, I gotta do it.’ And I walked out there, and I did it.”
Since carving out the peace sign, he’s added physical monuments that have been born out of grieving, like 17 small wooden posts with bike reflectors shaped like angels to commemorate the people who died in the Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“I separate myself from most people because I know I have a part of me that is extremely angry, and I will lash out. I will say things that are mean and unkind, and I withdrew myself from people so that they don’t have to deal with that. Yet I see people in important positions that are acting like this is something to be proud of. They wield their anger and their hate and spew, and then they spin it into something. And I can’t be a part of that anymore,” he says.
Andy and Julie got rid of their TV, and they don’t use social media. Andy hardly leaves the property. And yet, he feels a need to communicate. It’s part his healing process. He hosted a small bluegrass concert for the people on the dirt road that leads to his house. Fifty-five people showed up. “Now, I collapsed afterwards,” he says, laughing again. “For two days, I was sick.”
And he needs to create; that heals him too. To his surprise, one has begotten the other.
When he first saw North Colorado Med Evac aircraft flying over, he sent a note to the group, saying he appreciated the visits. They sent him a sweatshirt. He tracks the planes that fly overhead and sends emails to flight companies that cross his path. He occasionally sends emails, and gets back a few responses. One pilot seems to be coming back regularly. Andy sent an email after our visit to mention the pilot came back again:
“When I saw him coming on the radar, it was like an old friend coming to visit,” he wrote.
“I have so learned to appreciate the little bit of communication that we have, because we do communicate,” Andy says on the porch. He says he wrote one flight company: “You’re here for a minute or two. You fly over, you circle, you leave. I appreciate that so much.”
“It gave me hope, you know, and that’s when more people started showing up,” he says.
Andy admits the peace sign seems “kindergarten-ish,” but that we’ve become so disconnected and divided in this country that it’s going to take something that starts at the grassroots to bring us together.
“I don’t care what part of the political spectrum or religious spectrum you are from,” Andy says. “We all have shit in our lives that sucks, and we’re all going through crap and we can all use a friendly face and a hand…”
“…and a peace sign to remind you there are good people out there in the world, and it’s wonderful,” Julie says.
You can see the peace sign from satellite imagery on Google maps.
• • • •
One day, Andy and Julie were out on the porch, with their dogs, looking over their fields, and their peace sign, when a plane flew overhead. Andy, the former Air Force member, who struggles with regular conversation because of experiences he had while in service, heard the plane making some unique turns. He pulled out his GPS flight tracker and “the more I looked at it, I’m like, he flew that route twice. And that’s an awfully specific pattern to me.”
After a few days of looking at the flight pattern, it hit him. He thought he knew what the pilot was doing.
“I don’t know, he could’ve just been screwing around,” Andy says. “But I choose to believe anytime I can in good, and if you have a chance to prove me wrong and it wouldn’t matter otherwise, I’d rather you not prove me wrong.”
Andy said the pilot had spelled ‘hi’ in his flight path above the peace sign.
(Last names omitted and Julie’s name changed by request.)