View Full Version : Wounds didn’t stop colonel from returning to Iraq

07-02-07, 07:22 AM
Leading by example
Wounds didn’t stop colonel from returning to Iraq
By Gidget Fuentes - gfuentes@militarytimes.com
Posted : July 09, 2007

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Hours after Col. Larry Nicholson took command of Regimental Combat Team 1, an insurgent’s 122mm rocket struck Camp Fallujah, mortally wounding his communications officers and shooting shrapnel into the colonel’s body.

Nicholson was evacuated after the Sept. 14, 2004, attack. But just three months later, the colonel, with a new set of combat gear and surgical scars still healing, boarded an airplane and returned to Iraq, much to the surprise of his fellow commanders.

Nicholson, a native of Canada and graduate of The Citadel, was intent on holding up his end of the bargain to finish that combat tour, one way or another.

“I really wanted to get back,” he said.

After working in division operations after his recuperation, Nicholson again took command of a regiment, this time as commander of 5th Marines in March 2005, and went back to Iraq for another year.

The year saw many successes in rebuilding Iraqi security forces and a renewed stability in Fallujah, once an insurgent stronghold.

On June 21, Nicholson handed over command of 5th Marines — “The Fighting Fifth” — to Col. Patrick Malay, a seasoned infantry and reconnaissance officer who led his men with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, through often harrowing and deadly battles on Fallujah’s streets in late 2004.

Fifth Marines, one of two infantry regiments at Camp Pendleton, is the Corps’ most decorated unit, going back to World War I. Among its recent combat awards are six Navy Crosses awarded to Marines with 3/5 who fought in Iraq. Its four infantry battalions — 1/5, 2/5, 3/5 and 2/4 — have seen multiple Iraq combat tours.

Nicholson, who was stationed in Brussels before he first landed in Iraq, now heads east to Quantico, Va., to command The Basic School and be promoted to brigadier general.

Whether talking to Marines or large crowds, he speaks off the cuff, without notes, recounting with a heartfelt emotion the personal and poignant stories of his warrior Marines in great detail. At a recent ceremony awarding the Navy Cross to the family of a fallen 3/5 Marine, Cpl. Jason S. Clairday, killed in Fallujah in 2004, Nicholson rattled off the names of five other “Darkhorse” battalion men who also earned the Navy Cross in Iraq. Each time, his words burst with the pride of a father praising his son’s courage, skill, bravery and awe-inspiring acts under fire.

He’s one of them, too: A battle-hardened, combat-wounded, fighting Marine, with the call sign “Grizzly.”

“He’s a tough bastard,” Malay said in a recent interview from the Army Command and Staff College in Carlisle, Pa.

Malay remembers the day Nicholson was wounded. Before he was evacuated, Nicholson promised them, “I’ll be back.”

“He was a mess. He was bleeding all over the place,” Malay recalled. Marines in the room quickly put pressure bandages on Nicholson’s wounds, which included shrapnel that struck his shoulder and upper arm.

So it was a shock of sorts when Malay spotted Nicholson stepping out of a Humvee on Christmas Eve 2004 at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi. “I walked up to him and I said, holy s---, is that you, Larry?” he recalled, laughing. “He’s a tough bastard.”

“We all have a great deal of respect for him,” he added.

Nicholson served out the tour as the operations officer for 1st Marine Division. “It was more emotional for me, I think, to get back. It was pretty exciting for me,” he said. “The exciting thing for me was the elections.”

Better-than-expected voter turnout in Fallujah buoyed expectations, he said, and “we were able to pull it off without attacks, so people had a chance to vote.”

For Nicholson, that return to Iraq didn’t end his journey to regain his physical health.

He spent a month at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., after initial emergency surgeries at military hospitals in Iraq and Germany, and settled in Charleston, S.C., for recuperation. His wife, Debbie, nursed him through that period, changing his bandages and shuttling him to outpatient appointments and physical therapy at the VA Medical Center in Charleston.

“I worked hard to get the motion back,” he said of his arm. He endured painful skin graft surgeries, where doctors took skin from his legs for reconstruction.

These days, Nicholson, whose son is on his second Iraq combat tour, would like to take on a small personal mission: compiling a database of all the wounded men of 5th Marines.

Each month of his command tour, he tracked the regiment’s wounded Marines, many who lived in barracks rooms near the chow hall at Camp San Mateo. But those are the ones still on the books, attached to the battalions. He worries about other Marines trying to get their lives back on track after combat.

It might be tough logistically or bureaucratically, but he’d like 5th Marines to put its “long arms” around those who might be forgotten while recovering or once they hang up their uniform.

“Do we have the ability to see? How good are our records?” he asked.