Nico is a well set up young man in his mid-20s. Raised in San Dimas and Irvine California, as well as in Roswell New Mexico. He graduated from High School from Woodbridge HS in Irvine. One of Nico’s primary adult influences, or mentor, while he was growing up was a US Marine. It’s not surprising that Nico followed his mentor into the Marines. He says with a wry smile, I was “the kid that was always playing GI Joe”. He entered the Marines through MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) Los Angles and completed his basic training at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego. From there he did his infantry training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, in North San Diego County. Upon graduation from his training rotations he was assigned to the 3rd Marine Battalion of the 5th Marine Division, also known as the “3/5” or the Darkhorse Battalion in honor of their commander during the Korean War, Col Robert Taplett (Darkhorse Six).
Nico’s MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) was 0311 – Infantry Rifleman. He was deployed once to the Pacific Theater of Operations and once to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
While in Afghanistan his squad’s job was the detection and removal of enemy insurgents. When in the field, the squad included a combat engineer who was sweeping for and marking IEDs. Nico’s responsibility was to follow in the footsteps of the squad’s engineer. (Dear reader, make no mistake, “follow in the footsteps” is not a euphemism, he quite literally followed in the exact tracks laid down by the engineer because that is where he and the rest of his squad were free from the danger of IEDs.) Nico had his engineers’ “six” or back while the engineer found the IEDs placed in their path.
In addition to his responsibly to keep the engineer safe, Nico and his “bomb” dog “Tank” were continually hunting for IEDs. “Just like a bird dog, I’d send Tank out forward, left, and right. When Tank smelled or “alerted” on an IED he was trained to move to it, and lay down beside it.” From there we would rig a C4 charge, fuse, and detonator; and blow the IED. All of this while quite often taking incoming fire.
During the Darkhorse deployment, twenty-five of the battalion’s Marines were killed in action and 200 were wounded. In addition 10’s of 1,000’s of IEDs were uncovered and exploded.
On November 10th, the Marine Corps Birthday, while he and his squad were relieving the personnel of a remote FOB (Forward Operating Base), his convoy was taken under attack. The truck he was riding in sustained a direct hit from an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). Nico says “My world seemed to lift a few inches, and everything went black, and then I could see the shrapnel as it exploded through the truck. At first I thought I had escaped injury…” He quickly triaged and applied combat first aid to several injured Marines in the truck, popped smoke to warn other members of the convoy and then took the enemy under fire.
Nico and Tank were both injured during the attack. It wasn’t until later that he became aware that he too had taken some shrapnel in his upper back. Nico was awarded the Navy
Commendation Medal with V for Valor for that incident.
Nico is no longer in the Marines. He’s working as a fabrication specialist at a small manufacturing company in Irvine. On reflecting on the transition from military to civilian life he says the toughest for him as been the loss of that very, very tight knit community of warriors. “People who have not ‘been there, done that’ just do not understand and are hard to talk with. Sometimes it’s exceeding lonely. Other times I wonder by what chance I survived and so many of my friends didn’t.” Beyond the injuries sustained during the above mentioned action Nico also suffers from PTSD. “Everyone who is there has some level of PTSD. You can’t come through that and not suffer some kind of post-traumatic stress. “
Nico just completed his PADI Open Water Certification through The WAVES Project and is working on his PADI Advance Open Water Cert now. Nico’s demeanor changes while talking SCUBA. “While under the water on SCUBA it’s both a relaxing environment and one that forces you to focus on what you are doing. It is while on SCUBA that I tend to forget all about the past and focus on only the here and now.”
Authors Note: Nico is a good, cautious new diver. He is already showing skills well beyond those expected of a diver with so few dives. It would be my honor to dive with him at any point he’s willing to have me as a dive buddy. Maybe I can have his “six” for a while
Contributor: Steve Moss