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Combat reunion pairs father-son, regiment-platoon commanders

14 Apr 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

The last thing 2nd Lt. Andrew D. Nicholson wanted to do was work for his dad.  That’s the last thing he did before he left Iraq.

Nicholson, a 23-year-old platoon commander for G Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment spent his last day in the Fallujah area bird-dogging Regimental Combat Team 5’s commander, Col. Larry D. Nicholson.  Most Marines know him by his call sign, “Grizzly.”  Andrew calls him simply, “Dad.”

“I see him as my father,” Andrew explained.  “I don’t see him by his rank insignia.  I played baseball with him.  We used to go on trips together.”

This latest trip is one of a lifetime for the Nicholsons.  It was the one chance in their careers they both figured they’d be in the same unit.  Even so, it wasn’t by design.  In fact, it was something both father and son fought hard to avoid.

“It never occurred to me it could actually happen,” said the 49-year-old Nicholson, from Camp Pendleton, Calif.  “We joked about ensuring it would never happen.  I would never allow that to happen.  I promised him he would not be in my regiment.”

But any Marine knows, family wishes aside, Mother Marine Corps gets her way.  Despite the lieutenant taking up duties at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune and the colonel leading 5th Marine Regiment at California’s Camp Pendleton, Iraq would be their crossroads.

“I found out about a month or two into the deployment that he’d be coming out around March,” said Andrew, who calls Charleston, S.C. home.  “I figured maybe we’d see each other for about a day.”

Nicholson figured it out sooner.  When Andrew was completing pre-deployment training in California, he visited with him.  They compared notes, but most of all, Nicholson was still a doting dad and wanted to check on the unit with which his son would go to war.

“I was very happy with what I was hearing about 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment,” Nicholson said.  “If your son’s going to war, you want him going with the best unit possible.”

After all, Nicholson never figured he’d be sending his son off to war.  That was the father’s business.  Andrew grew up a military child, but never showed any particular yearning to wear his father’s uniform.  It wasn’t until Andrew’s junior year at the Citadel, Nicholson’s alma mater, that he said he wanted to be a Marine.

“I had no idea he even thought about doing that before,” Nicholson said.  “I thought it would pass.  Kids want to be firemen and play centerfield for the Yankees.  When it didn’t, I felt a great swelling of pride.”

Andrew admitted he never really gave the idea of being a Marine a second thought until Sept. 11, 2001.  But looking back, it seemed natural.

“It was a normal lifestyle for me,” Andrew explained.  “I guess it’s like steel workers in Pittsburg.  It’s a family tradition.”

Still Nicholson worried for his son.  He knew Officer Candidates School and The Basic School would be tough.  Follow-on training would be worse, since Andrew turned down an opportunity to become an aviator to run down his father’s footsteps as an infantry officer.

“That had less to do with me,” Nicholson explained.  “He always wanted to do things the hard way.  That didn’t surprise me so much.”

Nicholson deployed when Andrew was in OCS and Andrew kept the fact his dad wore a set of eagles on his collar to himself, even through TBS.  But his secret was short-lived.  His first week of TBS, he learned what it was again, to be the son of an officer at war. 

Sept. 14, 2004, Nicholson was wounded by a 122 mm rocket, the same day he took command of RCT-1.  Lt. Col. Kevin Shea, Nicholson’s communications officer, was killed in the blast.  Andrew found out by a phone call from his mother.

“She was just crying,” Andrew explained.  “I sat in my room for four hours.”

Andrew had no details.  He didn’t know if it was a grazing wound or if the man who taught him to throw a baseball was worse off.  Andrew finally saw for himself when he and his mother visited Nicholson at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“I was in complete shock,” Andrew explained.  “But there he was with this big smile on his face.”

But that was when Nicholson first became concerned for his son.  It was while he was healing from his own wounds he knew he couldn’t keep his son safe from everything like when he was a boy.

“That’s probably when I got concerned,” Nicholson explained.  “If it can happen to me, it can happen to him too.”

Still, Nicholson had Marines to lead.  He made it up in his mind he would be back in Iraq before Christmas.

“We thought he was crazy,” Andrew explained.  “But he said, ‘If my Marines were there for Christmas, I should be there too.’”

“It was a pretty easy decision,” Nicholson said of his return to 1st Marine Division, where he completed his tour on the staff.  “I knew as soon as I was well enough that I would go.  I really wanted to come home with the division.”

The first time the Nicholsons visited together on this tour, Andrew stood in his father’s office, the same one where he was injured.

“I said to him, ‘You know, this is the office I got hurt in,” Nicholson said.  “He got kind of hushed and was taking it all in.”

Nicholson quickly changed the subject, but in those few brief moments, Andrew looked up and saw the pockmarked ceiling where fragments of the rocket gouged out the concrete. 

“I stared at them for about 10 minutes,” Andrew said.  “I was in there for about 30 minutes and didn’t see the holes.  I thought there was no way this was the same office.”

Both Marines spoke of the incident in unflinching, hushed tones.  They didn’t look away as they answered the questions, but both very conscious of their answers.

They’ve both worried for each other.  Andrew worries about improvised explosive devices, Nicholson about him as any father would.  But the both agree, Debbie Nicholson, the colonel’s wife and Andrew’s mother, has had the roughest road yet.

“Marines wives are a special breed,” Nicholson said.  “But Marine moms are different.  It’s incomprehensible for me to put into words.  Every time the phone rang, she jumped.”

Andrew agreed.

“She can’t wait for one of us to come back,” he said.  “I’m sure it’s been hard on her.”

For her part having both husband and son gone has been tough.  Debbie said in an e-mail exchange that knowing both were in harms’ way has been difficult to handle, but worrying is different when it’s a child.

“It is totally different having a son deployed,” she said.  “They are your baby and your child that you always want to protect from harm.”

Debbie’s tempered her maternal worries though, with an understanding of a Marine’s heart.

“I understand the determination they have for doing the job given and doing the best they can,” she said.  “And the way they feel about looking out for their Marines and Sailors.”

But it hasn’t all been bad.  Debbie was able to see pictures of father and son together and that quieted some of the fears.  E-mails home from the colonel about their son made things easier.  Andrew didn’t have regular access to Internet or phones, so updates were a little more common when the elder Nicholson arrived in Iraq.

“She calmed down once I was in theater,” Nicholson said.  “Dad will take care of it.”

But Nicholson made a point of being the colonel before he was dad when it came to his son. 

“I worked hard to make it a point of not being an obvious parent,” Nicholson said.  “I only saw him three times in six or seven weeks.”

He did have a confession, though. 

“I read the significant actions for G Company very closely,” he said.

Andrew has a hard time seeing in his father the nearly indestructible regimental commander every other Marine sees.  To him, he’s the guy who taught him to swing a baseball bat.

“I don’t think of him as a regimental commander,” Andrew said.  “He’s my father.”

And Nicholson said he has a hard time not seeing his son as the tike in the yard playing sports.

“He’ll always be that little kid swinging a baseball bat,” he said.  “I never want to let that image go.”

Still, combat changes a man and the Nicholsons share in a bond that goes beyond father and son to veterans who have led Marines in combat.

“He’s different,” Nicholson added.  “He’s much more composed than he was a year ago.  He’s a confident young warrior I’m not only proud to have in the regiment, but doubly proud to have as my son.”

A few days ago, Andrew hefted his seabag and boarded the plane for home.  He spent the last day in country at his father’s side, a rare opportunity both Marines allowed for themselves.

“It’s a great way to end the deployment,” Andrew said.  “We went on a patrol together and I showed him around my area.”

It frustrated Nicholson to not prod into his son’s life and have to send him “MotoMail” messages when he was only a 20-minute drive away.  Still, he was glad to send him packing for Camp Lejeune.

“I feel like a 20-pound rock has been lifted out of my pack,” Nicholson said.  “I feel guilty saying I won’t be able to see him.”

Nicholson will lead RCT-5 through early 2007 in operations in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.