Young, Disabled, Combat Veterans Are Grateful For St. Louis Supporters

Nov 10, 2014

Marine combat veteran Todd Nicely and Xerxes on the deck of his home at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

People often call Todd Nicely a hero, but the 30-year-old Marine combat veteran would prefer that they didn’t.

Nicely, who lost his arms and legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan four years ago, says the heroes of the 13-year war on terror are the 6,841 U.S. service members who have died while serving their country since Sept. 11.

“If they want to call me an inspiration because of the things I have to do on a daily basis, fine. I’ll take that,’’ says Nicely. “But hero? No. I have friends who are heroes. The guys who aren’t coming home -- those are the heroes.”

On this late fall afternoon, Nicely had made himself comfortable at his dining room table next to wide windows overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks. He rested his myolectric left arm on the table and took off his prosthetic legs -- a short pair that he usually wears around the house.

He also has a tall pair of artificial legs -- which elevate him to his post-injury height of 5-foot-9 -- that he wears in public. He has another pair for running. And a pair for exercising.

“I probably have as many prosthetic legs as you do shoes,’’ he says, matter-of-factly.

In his “at-home” legs, Nicely is just over 4 feet tall.

“I try to mix it up -- keep people guessing,’’ he says, with a shrug.

Nicely is a direct kind of guy who talks easily about his experience, whether it be about prosthetic devices or the day he became a quadruple amputee.

Nicely being awarded his Purple Heart.
Credit Photo courtesy Todd Nicely

On March 26, 2010, Nicely was leading his squad on a patrol in the Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, when he stepped on 40 pounds of explosives. The homemade bomb was buried at the edge of a small bridge that crossed an irrigation canal.

The blast tore through his limbs, taking his left hand above the wrist, his right arm at the elbow, his left leg above the knee, his right leg at the knee.

“I always went first,’’ he says. “That first step was the one that got me.’’

Nicely was the only casualty from his squad that day -- a fact that has helped shape his attitude about his injuries.

“As long as all my guys came home -- that was the sacrifice that I guess I was willing to make,’’ he says. “And now, that’s a sacrifice that I’m going to live with.’’

His survival was death defying. He says he owes his life to the quick actions of his fellow Marines and to the helicopter that arrived within minutes to medevac him to a field hospital.

“We train these guys over and over how to put a tourniquet on. To make sure you’re going for the worst injury -- the one that looks the most catastrophic,’’ he says. “In this case, I’m pretty sure there were a few of them. But I had two or three guys putting tourniquets on and making sure they were stopping the bleeding all at one time.’’

Nicely knew he was severely injured -- he could see bone -- but he told himself to keep breathing.

"I thought, 'These guys are going to take care of you. You're going to get out of here. If you keep breathing, you’re going to get to see your wife,' '' he says. "I remember letting out a few screams and thinking to myself, 'Try not to do that. This might be the last time that your guys see you. And you don’t want them having that kind of image in their mind.’ ’’

 'My Arms And Legs Aren’t Coming Back'

U.S. service members who served in the Gulf War Era --  from 1990 to the present, including Iraq and Afghanistan -- now comprise about one-fourth of the nation’s 19.6 million veterans. Nearly 3.6 million of veterans from all wars have a service-connected disability; nearly 1 million of them are rated at 70 percent disabled, or higher.

Nicely belongs to a minute subset of those statistics: He is one of only five surviving quadruple amputees wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Four years after he was wounded, Nicely says he takes life one day at a time.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

With U.S. combat operations officially over in Iraq and now winding down in Afghanistan, Nicely says he’s glad that his friends are coming home. At the same time, he is frustrated to see Islamic State militants taking root in Iraq.

“This was my generation’s war,’’ he says. “And it’s almost like for naught if we’re going to pull out and not finish the job.’’

Nicely says he had wanted to make a career out of the military.

“Knowing that I can’t do anything at this time, I try to keep my mind off of it,’’ he says.

Instead, he focuses on taking life as it comes. Whether that means spending the day at home with his rambunctious bulldog puppy named Xerxes. Or, taking his 25-foot boat out on the lake.

“I just go with the day-to-day, what’s-going-to-happen-today mentality,’’ he says.

And he does it with the same light humor that he’s always had.

“My arms and legs aren’t coming back. I accept that. There’s not a magic time machine that can take me back,’’ he says. “You just accept what’s happened and you move on. Life is not going to wait for you.’’

That’s how he approached his initial treatment and multiple surgeries at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and learning to use prosthetic limbs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After four years, he’s still figuring out how to use his motorized arm.

“I still crush things that I don’t mean to,’’ he says. “It takes a lot of patience that I really usually don’t have and a lot of time and effort in using it.”

Nicely, who grew up in Arnold and graduated from Seckman High School, moved to the Ozarks after his medical discharge because he and his wife, a Marine from Kansas, both enjoyed vacationing at the lake when they were children. The couple has since separated. 

Nicely's home was custom-built to allow him to live independently -- a gift from a coalition of nonprofit organizations led by the Stephen Stiller Tunnel To Towers Foundation, which builds homes for veterans who suffered catastrophic injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actor Gary Sinise held a concert to help raise funds for the home.

Nicely’s “smart” home, which was designed to be accessible and energy-efficient, was also furnished and decorated.

But the memories on display in the den -- his man cave -- are Nicely’s. This, he says, is where he keeps the stuff that really matters to him.

Painted on the floor is the logo of the “Warlords’’ -- 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines – the outfit he served with in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Flags of those countries signed by “his guys” hang on the wall. The knife he used when searching for explosives in Afghanistan is displayed with a bayonet from World War II that belonged to his grandfather, also a Marine.

Nicely in his man cave. Under the TV is his trunk from Afghanistan, still crusted with dirt.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

Below the big-screen TV mounted on the wall is a trunk still crusted with dirt from Afghanistan. Inside it, are the personal items he took with him to war.

“After I got injured, they threw my belongings in it and sent it home,’’ he says. “I’ve opened it once or twice -- never pulled anything out of it.’’

There are also souvenirs of his post-war life: A Matt Holliday jersey signed by the Cardinals, when he was honored at Busch Stadium. A T.J. Oshie jersey from the night he rode the Zamboni around the ice at a St. Louis Blues game. A jersey from former Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, who provided a private plane to fly Nicely to New York for a Tunnel to Towers marathon.

St. Louis Reaches Out To Help

Nicely, who earned a medal for valor in Afghanistan, says it took him a while to get used to the idea that so many people have wanted to help him.

“I’ve always been a humble type of person, and people helping me out has never been something that’s ever occurred in my life,’’ he says.

Despite Nicely’s reluctance to be a hero, a small band of St. Louis volunteers say that’s exactly what he is.

They’ve “adopted” Nicely and five other veterans from the St. Louis region who were critically wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. They also assist the daughter of a Marine who was killed in Iraq.

The group, which organized as a nonprofit in 2008, is the Joshua Chamberlain Society (JCS), named after a Union Army Civil War hero. Their mission is to provide long-term support to veterans who sustained permanent combat injuries while fighting the war on terror, say St. Louis attorneys Matt Cutler and Randy Soriano who founded the organization.

It's all about improving quality of life, Cutler says. Although the veterans are classified as 100 percent disabled and receive disability pay and VA health care, they have needs that aren't covered by the government. The society has paid to remodel bathrooms to make them accessible. They've bought furniture and furnished transportation. They gave a customized motorcycle to a paralyzed veteran who wanted to ride with the Patriot Guard. 

The group helps Nicely with his utility bills. That might not seem like a big deal, but as he points out, the utility bills can add up for his “smart home,” which has an elevator and a heated driveway so he doesn't have to worry about snow and ice. 

“That right there helps me save a little bit of money so I know in the future I’m going to be a little more secure,’’ Nicely says.

The group calls the veterans they assist “The JCS Heroes,” though Soriano acknowledges that the veterans don’t see themselves that way.

“They think they were just doing their job. They’re uncomfortable being called heroes, which just speaks volumes to the character of these guys,’’ he says. “These are not guys who are looking for a handout. These are proud young men who joined the military to serve their country, and they just don’t see themselves as heroes.”

All the veterans assisted by JCS have suffered life-altering injuries, most of them inflicted by improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- the ubiquitous weapons that have plagued the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,500 casualties of those wars have suffered major limb amputations; more than 7,500 have suffered a severe or penetrating brain injury. The quick transport of wounded from the battlefield, coupled with advances in medicine, have improved survival rates. 

“Our goal and our hope was to make sure that these guys know that when they wake up every morning with the injuries they sustained on our behalf -- that the St. Louis community is behind them at all times,’’ Cutler says.

The roster of heroes includes Staff Sgt. Cory Remsburg, the Army Ranger who was lauded for his determination and courage by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address in January. Remsburg, who grew up in St. Louis, was gravely wounded by an IED in Afghanistan. He now lives in Phoenix but returns to St. Louis frequently and makes it a point to attend JCS fundraisers.

The group has helped pay some of the travel costs for Remsburg’s parents that are no longer covered by the government, so they can be with him when he travels. JCS paid for a bathroom remodel and have bought special furniture for his apartment.

Sometimes, the members provide help that the VA would eventually provide, but they can do it quicker. The society’s five-member board of directors, which includes St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry, are all unpaid volunteers. They move quickly to approve requests from their veterans – because that’s what they do, Cutler says.

Besides donations, the group holds three fundraisers a year – a gala in January, a shoot in September put on by Mabry, and an annual trivia night that will be held this year on Nov. 15 at the Overland VFW. Last year, the group spent about $170,000 helping the veterans they have adopted, says Cutler. 

A chapter of JCS has started in Nashville, Tenn., and the group hopes that the concept will eventually spread to other cities.

Battle Buddies For The Long Haul 

Army National Guard veteran Josh Eckhoff, who was the first hero adopted by JCS, has now become one of the organization’s most vocal advocates. 

Army National Guard veteran Josh Eckhoff of Ballwin suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in Iraq. He is wearing beads that he says help him with meditation therapy.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

The group paid to remodel a bathroom in his parents’ house in Ballwin to make it accessible so Eckhoff could move in with them during the early stages of his recovery from severe brain injury, suffered while serving in Iraq. When Eckhoff bought a house five doors down so he could live on his own, JCS remodeled that bathroom as well.

Eckhoff considers the group’s members his friends.

“For me it’s not unlike our battle buddies in the military,’’ he says. “You can always count on your battle buddy to cover you in whatever you need. To have somebody in your life that you can count on through anything is life changing. And to lose that in the Army when I was medically retired was hard for me. So it really resonates for me when I see the group at JCS fill that void.”

Eckhoff was wounded on Feb. 6, 2008, when an improvised explosive device pierced the armored vehicle he was riding in, and smashed into the right side of his head.

“The Kevlar helmet I was wearing actually concaved into the right hemisphere of my brain. So part of the damage was when they had to remove pieces of the brain that were pulverized from Kevlar -- and from the impact of the device,’’ he says.

Eckhoff’s good friend, Sgt. Brad Skelton of Gordonville, Missouri, was killed in the blast. They were serving with the 1138th Engineer Company of the Missouri National Guard. They were Sappers -- combat engineers assigned to scout for IEDs in and around Baghdad. Eckhoff was awarded a Bronze Star, in addition to his Purple Heart.

Eckhoff speaks deliberately -- describing the remarkable recovery that his brain has made. His scalp is a roadmap of scars from the surgeries he underwent to rebuild his skull.

When he awoke at Minneapolis VA Medical Center, which has a special unit for treating traumatic brain injuries, he couldn’t speak, swallow or walk.

“It was really like relearning everything,” he says.

Because the trauma was on the right side of his brain, the left side of his body has been most affected, similar to a stroke.

“I don’t have much control of my left arm, and I have limited control of my left leg so there’s some fine-tuning physically that I still hope to achieve,’’ he says.

Eckhoff served with the 1138th Engineer Company of the Missouri National Guard, clearing IEDs in Iraq.
Credit Photo courtesy Josh Eckhoff

Eckhoff says he took the original diagnosis -- that he would never walk again -- as a challenge.

“I had to lose part of my brain before I learned anything about it,’’ he says. “But the brain’s got incredible -- they call it plasticity. It’s the brain’s ability to use other parts of the brain to make up for the parts that are missing. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Six years since he was wounded, Eckhoff is an A student who is completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He wants to be a teacher and appreciates the opportunity to visit area schools so he can share his story with youngsters.

Eckhoff is a 2003 graduate of Parkway South High School, who joined the National Guard while still in school. He turned 18 during his first tour of duty in Iraq.

Eckhoff just turned 30 -- an important milestone for a soldier who suffered what could, and some thought would, have been a mortal wound.

“People that know me at school were all joking about turning 30 and they were all missing the point that I was lucky to make it to 30,’’ he says.

Eckhoff, too, shakes off the hero tag, though he has come to accept it. And it gives him an opportunity to share his belief that serving your nation is important, whether you choose to do it in the military or in some other fashion.

“For me, it’s important to be seen as a thoughtful soldier moving forward,’’ he says. “I still very much identify as a soldier. I always will, I think,’’ he says.

Despite their severe injuries, Eckhoff and Nicely say they have no regrets about their service.

"I'd do it again in a blink of an eye,'' says Eckhoff.

And Nicely prefers to be identified with one word: Marine.

"I still think of myself as a Marine,'' he says. "Always.''

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The Joshua Chamberlain Society Heroes

* Marine Cpl. Christopher Van Etten of O’Fallon, Ill., lost both legs in a massive explosion caused by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in June 2012.

* Marine Cpl. Tyler Huffman of Fulton, Mo., who is paralyzed from mid-thigh down, was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in December 2010.

* Army Ranger Sgt. Cory Remsburg of Phoenix, formerly of St. Louis, suffered a severe penetrating brain injury in Afghanistan in October 2009 when shrapnel from an improvised explosive device penetrated his brain and right eye. The wound has left him partially paralyzed.

* Cpl. Justin McLoud of Jefferson County was severely wounded in Afghanistan in December 2010 when an improvised explosive device detonated. He lost both legs and his severely wounded left arm was later amputated.

* Marine Lance Cpl. Erik Heldt of Hermann, Mo., was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in June 2005. JCS contributes to a college fund for his daughter, who was 7 when he died. The fund will help bridge the gap between the cost of college and the government assistance provided to children of service members killed in action.

* Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, lost both arms and both legs when an improvised explosive device detonated in Afghanistan in March 2010.

* Staff Sgt. Joshua Eckhoff suffered a severe penetrating brain injury when an improvised explosive device exploded in Iraq in February 2008.