Published November 22, 2011
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Most men at the age of 59 are planning for retirement, but Staff Sgt. Don Nicholas is no ordinary man. He wants to re-enlist in the U.S. Army and stay a soldier as long as he can.
A Vietnam veteran, Nicholas is the oldest soldier serving on the front lines in Afghanistan.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Sgt. Nic, as he is affectingly called by younger soldiers, re-enlisted in the military.
“It was the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. I just didn’t want everyone else out there doing things I should be doing.”
A former Marine rifleman with two tours under his belt in Vietnam, including one at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as enemy troops moved into the capital city, Nicholas thought he could faithfully rejoin their ranks.
But the Marines rejected his application. So he turned to the only other unit that offered him a chance to see combat – the U.S. Army.
In 2005 he was sent to Afghanistan as part of an Army Reserves psychological-operations unit in the violent and dangerous Korengal Valley. After a brief break at home in Ohio, he then was sent to Iraq for 11 months. And then Afghanistan again in 2011.
Nicholas insists he isn’t fascinated or even in love with war, but instead is drawn to the military by its camaraderie.
“Combat has a way of welding people together,” he says, “that noncombat doesn’t.”
During his 16 years of service, Nicholas says the average infantryman hasn’t changed much.
“The soldiers of today tell the same stories that Marines told 40 years ago.” But Nicholas adds, most of the stories aren’t suitable to be repeated.
After three wars, and 65 months in combat zones, Pentagon regulations require Nicholas to retire next July when he turns 60. Despite missing his wife Dagmar and his two adult children, retirement from the military appears to scare Nicholas far more than combat.
“If I have my chance to stay in and complete my 20 years. I absolutely would,” he says.
“Probably would stay in a few more years after that if I could.”
As a trained podiatrist, Nicholas is hoping to receive a commission in the Army medical branch which would allow him a chance to stay in the Army and even possibly complete another tour in Afghanistan.
Although Nicholas has spent a career following orders and saluting, he doesn’t like to be told he can’t do something because of his age.