Inspired by the experiences of William Rommel

"Death of the War Pigs"

Ryan O’Sullivan
24″ x 48″ • Oil on Canvas

Artist Statement

I didn’t want to do this originally. I thought I’d put the violence and aggression down because it was something I could force away. When I read Will’s story… well… I skimmed it. I wanted to get the quick trajectory and let it sink in so whatever I was inspired to do might be close to the spirit of the story I was trying to catch. I saw what I wanted to do and said I would do it. However, Will wasn’t the only one with demons. Having read his story, we shared the same melancholy. So I avoided it. I forced it away like I had the violence and the aggression. When the deadline came for me to turn in my work, I had nothing. At the time, I didn’t realize how much his story had affected me. Maybe how much we had in common, each of us fighting off darkness that was placed on us. Then, just like Will, I was reminded that I’m stronger than those who would avoid half of themselves. I embraced the darkness with hesitance and caution, but I embraced it nonetheless. I welcomed that darkness to the table, as I do the light. Through the exchange that followed, I created a work that I hope mirrors the extreme, humbling, and transformative experiences that are both Will’s burden and, with the right eyes, his blessing.

The Periphery, The Center

by Susan Lenz

Twenty-one-year-old, volunteer fire fighter, Will Rommel entered the army in 1996 as a howitzer mechanic, working with the self-propelled field artillery until quickly crossing over to the Multiple Launch Rocket System or MLRS. He was young and eager to serve, as his father, brother, and uncles had. AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) led to his first duty station in Korea near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a 160 mile swath of land separating North and South Korea). During a training exercise, a vehicle rolled off the icy road and tumbled down the mountainside into a raging river. Five of the six soldiers were killed; just one survived. Will was part of the recovery team, a grizzly task reclaiming deceased friends, army brothers.
The memorial, a tradition including the company’s Last Roll Call for the Dead, TAPS on a bugle, and a salute of seven pulling their triggers for three, deafening volleys.
Will’s eyes were suddenly opened to the realities of army life. Still, Will pushed through the trauma. He tried to put it behind him, to forget, but Will had work to do, work to keep him distracted.
Later, a typhoon hit while his company was in the field. They were ordered to evacuate but only three vehicles made it across the only bridge back to post. Will was among those trapped in mud from a landslide. A Korean burial ground slid down the mountain, body parts floating in the rising river. For days, arms and legs were found in an effort to survive the ordeal.
Will’s way of dealing with the carnage was to attempt to drink it away. At times he consumed so much an ambulance was called due to alcohol poisoning. Other times, he vomited so violently, he ruptured blood vessels in his eyes. Yet through it all, Will stayed busy, and he was good at his job. working hard to compartmentalize his issues and keep him distracted from the trauma. The hard work paid off.
By the time Will got to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for his last eighteen months of service, he was ranked as an E4 (an enlisted soldier with increased expertise and lower-level management responsibilities). Within a week, he had corporal stripes and by the following month, he made sergeant. In 2000, Will made the transition back to civilian life in New Jersey.
Without the intense pace of army life, with mounting responsibilities, Will couldn’t hide the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) He was often angry, drinking, and found himself in brawls. He’d returned to volunteer fire fighting and picked up work with the New Jersey Parkway towing company but it wasn’t enough to control his own, growing internal rage.
One rainy night, a car sped by his tow truck. He heard the crash and rushed to the scene. The driver had spun backwards and over an embankment, hitting an overpass and nearly folding the car in half. The driver was still alive, moaning as Will and a State Trooper attempted in vain to release his mangled body. Still alive after the extraction team cut the body free. The moaning continued. Helpless and in shock, Will went home to his wife and daughters where his anger boiled over, scaring his family. Will was out of control.
It wasn’t the only time Will erupted at home. Before long, Will found himself alone, divorced, angry and confused. He was overwhelmed by emotions he couldn’t process. Then he learned eight other soldier friends had committed suicide. He asked himself impossible “why me?” questions, until the only escape was with the Glock 22 he’d purchased back in Oklahoma.
Will felt no fear as his finger tightened on the trigger. Yet in these few seconds, he experienced a cathartic moment.
The gun’s click was loud, but the round didn’t fire: Devine intervention?
Will sold the gun the next day and applied for VA counseling, yet several months later paperwork was still being processed.
On September 11th, terrorists brought down the World Trade Center and Will, needing to find a purpose, and meaningful work, reenlisted in the army.
His first duty station was back in Korea. At first, things seemed to be going well. Will stayed busy and had a good laugh when the VA back in the States finally wanted to schedule therapy for him. He was a staff sergeant by December 2003, climbing up military ranks. By the time he got to Camp Jackson, Korea he was an SGL instructor (Small Group Leader) who taught at the NCO Academy (Non-commissioned Officer). He was enrolled in PLDC (Primary Leadership Development Courses). His evaluation reports are stellar, and by 2008 he was a Sergeant First Class who responded to an advertisement seeking the top one-hundred NCOs for an exciting opportunity in Human Intelligence. Shortly after acceptance into the program, he became an MOS 35M, a military occupational specialty as a Human Intelligence Collector, someone who gathers information about an adversary’s strengths, vulnerabilities, and intentions. It’s a job that involves debriefing and interrogating sources and preparing intelligence reports.
Will Rommel was the 49th NCO in a field of only one-hundred candidates accepted for this advanced training in interrogation. Upon completion, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) assigned him as a “singleton” to Qatar. Arriving alone and at night, he was surrounded by the deafening sounds of mortar fire, explosions, and small arms fire from a nearby range. Within twenty-four hours, he learned that this place had a Jimmy Buffet inspired nickname, “Mortaritaville”. He was there to support a direct-action unit, interrogating HVIs and HVTs (high value individuals and targets). His job was working alongside Delta and Seal operators and required him to use his training to be a “human lie detector”. Tactics became the norm. Compassion was utterly lost. Will no longer saw the subjects of his work as human. He only saw their micro expressions and looked for ways to break patterns he learned in training. It was a brutal job, but it kept him busy and distracted from his own issues. Will wanted to stay with this job, but the army made him a drill sergeant and then a platoon sergeant.
The change might have been welcomed by a different soldier, but for Will it meant dealing with three-hundred and eighty new soldiers who weren’t all taking their jobs seriously.
By this time, Will’s internal rage had a very low tolerance for “stupidity” and no patience at all. In one particular situation, he was so mad, he slammed his own office door so violently, the door jamb shattered along with a female staff sergeant’s ear drum. He also destroyed his awards and plagues, breaking his hand in the process. This led to his first official diagnosis of PTSD and a move to Fort Bragg. Will worked in an environment of officers writing AARs (After Action Reviews). For Will, his professional life was smooth sailing, yet after hours were different.
Will Rommel was a model soldier at work but a nightmare off post. Of course he was still drinking, and often didn’t know how or when he drove back home. At local bars, he was often brawling, eventually banned from the place. He didn’t remember that fight. and returnedvery next evening. Another fight ensued, police were summoned and told Will had a gun with him. The weapons charge was charged, but Will plead “no contest” to criminal trespass. Part of the sentencing included five hundred hours of community service.
Off post there were other traumas, including an incident of road rage. Another driver cut him off. He chased that car down, blocked it, pulled the driver out of the car and started beating him. Thankfully, his new wife was with him and stopped the carnage. In another incident, Will came upon a Vespa accident. The scooter’s driver was gasping for air on the pavement with a broken neck. Will stayed until the ambulance arrived but tried to push the entire scene into the back of him mind. He was actually getting good at blocking out trauma. But it happened again on June 28, 2012 during a Fourth of July safety briefing that ended in a murder-suicide.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Roy L. Tisdale, commander of the 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion at Fort Bragg, was shot to death by Specialist Ricky G. Elder, a 27-year-old infantryman from Kansas who was linked with a nine-soldier ring of thieves. Officially, Elder had been accused of stealing a $1,700 toolkit from the base motor pool. He was facing a court martial and a dishonorable discharge. And, there were other problems… a missing Black Hawk helicopter engine and duffle bags of heroin coming in from Afghanistan. Four shots were fired that day.
The fourth bullet was self-inflicted.
Will Rommel only remembered the first two shots. He had no memory of later driving twenty miles home or walking through his front door in a shirt covered with blood. Thoughts of suicide plagued him. As the memories of Tisdale’s death returned, he knew it was time to request a discharge.
Shortly afterwards, Will had a new, civilian jobwith Rayethon as a Strategic Human Collector. As a major U.S. defense contractor manufacturing weapons, military electronics, and even long-range missile systems, Rayethon needed Will for similar work he did while in the army. He was teaching others to debrief subjects. It involved a lot of role playing and interrogations. Six months later Will felt as if his own identity has been erased. He had lost himself in his own compartmentalization of life traumas. Even though he was heavily medicated for his PTSD, the drugs weren’t helping, so he quit Rayethon.
Although drinking to excess, Will had never abused drugs, but eventually he decided to do his own drug research. After trying everything from medical marijuana to Mefloquine, a drug that had side effects including ringing in the ears, dizziness, anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and thoughts of suicide, Will was still having difficulties.
In 2015, Will tried going without medication for four or five days. It was as if his brain got zapped. A humming in his ears wouldn’t stop. Thoughts of suicide returned with a vengeance. Crying uncontrollably and physically shaking, he locked himself out of his own house and called 911. He knew his gun was inside. He didn’t want his wife to clean up the mess. But ultimately the incident was written up as a cardiac event. He was home within a day, and he got the Klonopin he needed.
Trying to find some sort of balance in life Will turned to the VA. He was referred to a civilian neuropsychologist.
Unlike a neurologist who treats the physical symptoms of a brain disorder, a neuropsychologist treats the cognitive, mental and behavioral effects. Head scans were ordered and revealed left hemisphere “spikes” and mild TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). This new approach also placed Will into a close-knit group of veterans supporting one another in group therapy. However, his treatment plan only lasted for a single year. His doctor fought the VA for more time citing Will as “high risk” for suicide, and even though all efforts were unsuccessful his doctor continued seeing Will for another year without pay. She wasn’t willing to give up on him. A year later, Medicare kicked in and he still sees her for an hour every week.
On July 4, 2018 Will was administered his first dose of LSD and was amazed that the evening’s firework display didn’t cause him to panic. It didn’t even phase him that this marked the anniversary of Tisdale’s death. Will, for the first time in a very long time, felt wonderful. The LSD lifted a hidden, mental veil and allowed him to see the positive things in his life. Will’s wife noticed the change in his attitude. Although happiness only lasted for two weeks, Will was at the starting gate to a new way of living.
Later research and experiences included micro-doses of “magic mushrooms”, the kind containing psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound. Every three to four weeks, Will took another dose of LSD. This new regiment allowed Will to slowly ween himself off all other prescriptions. Researching psilocybin, a substance found in more than 200 fungi, led to learning about DMT, a substance found in other plant life.
DMT stands for the drug N-dimethyltryptamine, a potent hallucinogenic that has been used for many Central and South American groups in their religious services. This substance is naturally occurring in a number of plants including the leaves of the Psycholotira virdis shrub and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. These two plant ingredients are brewed into a tea known as ayashuasca. Imbibing this tea has become a popular worldwide journey for those seeking a spiritual experience and especially by those hoping to heal from past traumas. It is known to produce powerful, out-of-body experiences, an altered state of consciousness, and feelings of euphoria. For Will Rommel, it simply works.
Will is not alone in receiving the benefits of DMT. Others report mystical revelations regarding their purpose on earth and profound insights for being their own best friend. Will’s first heroic dose occurred on December 21, 2020. A heroic dose is a colloquial term referring to a very large quantity which is most often administered in the company of a shaman or guide. The experience often leads to a spiritual break through, as it did for Will.
Will describes the experience of entering a waiting room flooded with ecstatic lights and an internal communication system that bordered on telepathy. He could see his ten-year-old son’s face. He felt ripped from his own self but simultaneously inside a tube containing all of life on earth. He was blanketed with indescribable colors of love and beauty. Tears flowed over an involuntary but perfect smile. He came to know the Higher Power; he saw God’s face and survived. When blasted out to the other side, Will felt he’d been part of a great, universal experience where all fear of death disappears with the knowledge that every soul is part of the same, grand and unified consciousness. Simply put, the finite cannot understand the infinite; this was a trip to the boundless realm. DMT was the catalyst to Will Rommel’s breakthrough.
For most of Will’s life, he experienced hate which often boiled into an internal rage. After his first DMT heroic dose, he had no more thoughts of suicide, no more “me vs you” mentality, and no more issues of discrimination against anyone. He is truly and spiritually transformed but also aware that this new understanding of reality requires maintenance. Will regularly meditates and practices deep breathing techniques. His medical journey is well documented and continues a monitored, restorative path. Today, Will Rommel embraces life. He is comfortable knowing he had to go through his life’s darkness in order to find this new light. He is grateful to the Heroic Hearts Project, a non-profit primarily working through ayahuasca retreat centers with veterans suffering from PTSD. Will Rommel is thankful to get another chance at a wonderful life.