How a Young War Veteran Became a Serial Bank Robber, Then a Novelist

Nico Walker, whose new novel draws heavily on his own experience of war and its aftermath.

A few pages into Nico Walker’s debut novel, “Cherry,” the narrator walks into a bank, pulls out a handgun and casually demands money from the teller, reassuring her that “it’s nothing personal.” Heading back to his car, he hears sirens approaching and feels oddly at peace with the inevitable outcome.

Mr. Walker, 33, wrote the novel while serving an 11-year sentence in a federal prison in Kentucky, after pleading guilty in 2012 to robbing 11 banks around Cleveland during a four-month spree.

His case puzzled prosecutors at the time, because he was such an unlikely criminal. He came from an affluent, supportive family, and was a war veteran who had received seven medals and citations for service in Iraq, where he went on more than 200 combat missions in 2005 and 2006.

The strange story of how Mr. Walker — a war hero with no criminal history — became a serial bank robber who evaded police for months sounds like the plot of a heist movie or thriller. Instead, Mr. Walker wrote an unsettling literary novel.

“Cherry” touches on some of the darkest chapters of recent American history: the opioid epidemic, the lingering trauma of war for a generation of young Americans caught up in the endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the social and psychological costs of addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. The book, which Knopf will publish this month, has drawn praise from writers like Dan Chaon, Donald Ray Pollock and Thomas McGuane. New York Magazine called it “the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.”

Tracing the arc of Mr. Walker’s descent into addiction and crime, “Cherry” is a raw coming-of-age story in reverse — a young man drops out of college, enlists in the Army and goes to war, but rather than maturing in the crucible of combat, he comes home shattered, unable to function. He becomes addicted to opiates and starts robbing banks almost on a whim.

“It seemed to me such a fierce book, so direct and so uncurated in giving voice to his experience,” Mr. McGuane said. “The narrative mystery as you read it is to sort of try to find hope in all this bitterness.”

“Cherry” fits into a growing body of literature by American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have turned to fiction to explore the trauma of war and its aftermath. Their ranks include acclaimed writers like Elliot Ackerman, Kevin Powers, Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay, whose story collection, “Redeployment,” won the National Book Award in 2014.

But “Cherry” adds a dark new chapter to the canon, revealing a young soldier’s transformation from hero to antihero, with no sliver of redemption.

“Some of it’s kind of ugly, but I didn’t really have a choice in the material,” Mr. Walker said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t want to romanticize it or exaggerate to make it more entertaining, I wanted to show it for what it really was.”

Before he went to Iraq, Mr. Walker was a fairly typical teenager, a good student who was interested in music and sports. He grew up in a well-off family, the younger of two sons, and attended a private high school in Cleveland. His parents, Timothy and Liliana Walker, remember him as a bright, funny kid with a creative streak. He enrolled in a Jesuit university in Ohio but struggled to find a focus. It was a few years after 9/11, and it weighed on him that young men his age were going overseas to fight.

“It kind of bothered me, staying in the States and hanging out with my friends and smoking pot and not really doing anything, when these other kids were getting blown up and killed,” he said.

He dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army at age 19, and was certified as a combat medic. In December 2005, he was stationed 30 miles southwest of Baghdad in an area called the Triangle of Death. His infantry company was first tasked with guarding a police station. Later, they went on night patrols, trying to catch insurgents planting roadside bombs.

On one mission described in “Cherry,” Mr. Walker was on a census patrol with a unit when they heard an explosion and saw smoke rising. They swam across a sewage canal and finally reached a burning Humvee. The charred corpses were almost unrecognizable. When Mr. Walker tried to pick up one of the bodies, it was still so hot his latex gloves melted. The acrid smoke made him reel. “The smell is something you already know,” he writes in “Cherry.” “It’s coded in your blood.”

Mr. Walker was sure he would die in Iraq. When he didn’t, he suffered from survivor’s guilt over the lives he failed to save. During a home visit, Mr. Walker seemed like a different person, his parents said.

“He said he wasn’t sure if he was going to be coming back,” Timothy Walker said. “He was dead-eyed.”

When he returned home for good in 2006, Mr. Walker began drinking heavily. He tried to restart his life, enrolled in college and played in a band. But he felt isolated and paranoid. He and his wife, whom he had married shortly before deployment, separated, and over time, he drifted away from his old friends.

Crowded places terrified him. He couldn’t sleep, and when he did, he had nightmares about killing and being killed. “He came back broken,” Liliana Walker said.

Sometimes he was overwhelmed by anger, which he directed at himself. He hit himself in the face and stabbed out cigarettes on his arm. He started taking OxyContin and heroin.

When he went to the Veteran Affairs office in Cleveland in the summer of 2007, he was prescribed antidepressants and was told he had an anxiety disorder. His parents later found another psychiatrist, who misdiagnosed bipolar disorder.

In December 2010, Mr. Walker robbed his first bank. The act was so spontaneous he didn’t bother to plan a getaway, much less bring a gun. After the adrenaline rush of demanding money from the teller, he felt strangely peaceful, a sensation he likened to the sense of focus he felt in combat.

“I never put any thought into robbing,” he said. “It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I was used to that feeling.”

Compared to combat, stealing money felt like “child’s play.”

“Hundreds and hundreds of times I’d gone through people’s houses with guns, zip-tying people, screaming at people, sometimes shooting, and it’s like, what’s this compared to that?”

He robbed nearly a dozen banks over the next four months, stealing close to $40,000.

The morning of his arrest in April 2011, he wore a dark blue hoodie and sunglasses, and carried a dark green handgun, according to the criminal complaint. He showed the bank teller his gun and said, “You know what this is.” He put the money in a white plastic bag and drove away in a Ford pickup. The police followed him, and he sped away, crashing in the parking lot of a Burger King and breaking a vertebra in his back. They found $7,426 in his car.

It wasn’t until after his arrest that a forensic psychiatrist gave him a diagnosis of acute post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He was one of the most severely impaired trauma victims I’ve ever seen,” said the psychiatrist, Pablo Stewart. “If at any point along the way there had been a proper intervention, this wouldn’t have happened. He found his own cure, and it just happened to be robbing banks.”

At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Walker’s lawyers argued that his crimes stemmed from the trauma he had endured. “This kid, every day, saw absolute hell,” Angelo Lonardo, one of his attorneys, said in an interview.

When the judge asked him what drove him to rob banks, Mr. Walker struggled to explain. “I have been very, I guess, desensitized to things like this, and I am not trying to be insolent at all, but at the time, it just didn’t seem like that extraordinary, you know, such a terrible thing to do,” he said. “I thought it was, not normal, but not as insane as it looks to me now in retrospect.”

Mr. Walker never planned to write about his experience, he said. Once in a low security prison, he found ways to occupy himself: he read 19th-century Russian literature, studied Spanish, German and Latin, and tutored other inmates who were getting their G.E.D.s.

Two and a half years into his sentence, he got a letter from Matthew Johnson, co-owner of Tyrant Books. Mr. Johnson had read an article in BuzzFeed about Mr. Walker’s crimes and his military service, and began sending him books to read. After they had corresponded for a few months, Mr. Johnson urged him to write a book.

Mr. Walker was hesitant, but eventually started writing at night. He mailed pages to Mr. Johnson, and sometimes weeks later, would get edited pages back.

He spent nearly four years writing and rewriting. Some of the hardest chapters were the ones that take place in Iraq. He worried that he might offend people who had served or lost loved ones in the war, and that other veterans might think he was cashing in on tragedy.

“It was difficult to write about things that were more graphic,” he said. “At the end of the day, I thought, it’s better to do it like that than to lie about it.”

Beyond the logistical challenges of writing and editing a book in prison, there were legal concerns. Under the Son of Sam law, convicted criminals are barred from profiting off their crimes through books, movies or other media that describes their criminal exploits, and money made from such works can be seized and given to victims or their families. But some legal experts argue that there is wide protection under the First Amendment for convicts to publish and profit from their work.

Mr. Johnson thought the book could benefit from a bigger publisher, and eventually sold the rights to Tim O’Connell at Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. A Knopf lawyer determined there that the novel didn’t run afoul of Son of Sam laws. Mr. Walker has used money from his publishing contract to pay off some of the roughly $30,000 in restitution he owes the banks. He expects to pay the remainder by January.

Mr. Walker is scheduled to be released in November 2020, and plans to keep writing. He’s gotten encouragement from one of his literary heroes, Mr. McGuane, who has been sending him letters, a twist that Mr. Walker still can’t believe.

“It’s like a kid getting a letter from Spider-Man or something,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

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