Standing down

As brutal as the war in Iraq could be, ex-Marine Nathaniel Fick has learned one of the biggest challenges is coming home.


In his dreams, it's always summertime. He stands by a lake. A family reunion. His cousins splash in the water while the adults talk. No one pays him any attention. They can't hear him; they don't see him. He looks down. He's wearing desert camouflage. A rifle is slung across his chest. His clothes are covered in blood.

The dream came a dozen times in Nathaniel Fick's first few months home after returning from Iraq in June 2003. A Baltimore native, he had been a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and during two combat tours had distinguished himself with bravery and compassion.

But coming back was its own, unexpected challenge.

"All of a sudden, I was by myself," says Fick, now 28 and the author of the recently published One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. "It was extremely isolating, even if you have people who care about you. You don't know quite how to relate."

It wasn't just the dreams. On his first Fourth of July home, he dove behind a car at the blast of a firecracker and reached to his hip for a pistol that wasn't there. While driving on a highway in California, he swerved wildly under overpasses, a tactic he had been taught in Iraq to avoid bombs being dropped from overhead. And when a car cut him off, he envisioned pulling the driver's head back and slitting his throat with a key.

On a visit to his family's Cockeysville home, Fick spent his sister's 22nd birthday in front of the TV, absorbed in the news of Saddam Hussein's capture. When she mentioned he had forgotten her birthday, Fick exploded. What was happening in Iraq was more important, he yelled.

In some ways, he was still there. Fick and the 22 men in his platoon had spearheaded the U.S. invasion. He'd come under enemy fire and seen two of his Marines wounded; he'd battled Iraqis and Syrians armed with semiautomatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars; he had encountered wounded civilians and children; and he had survived on less sleep, food and water than ever seemed possible.

The Marines had prepared him for all of that. But not for what he would face when he got home.

"His soul has changed," his mother, Jane Fick, said in an interview. "I can't say for better or worse, but his soul has changed."

As a boy, Nate Fick had enough GI Joe action figures to invade a small nation, but his family never thought he'd end up in the military. He played lacrosse and football at Loyola Blakefield. He cycled competitively. He was an altar boy. He talked about being a doctor.

At Dartmouth College, one chemistry course was enough to convince Fick he wasn't cut out for medicine. He switched to classics and was soon entranced with the ancient Greeks and Romans, their legendary battles and belief in the citizen-warrior.

Fick, who stands 6-foot-2 and looks like he stepped out of a J. Crew catalog, took inspiration from those soldiers and wanted to serve his country as they did. At Dartmouth, that set him apart. His friends were going to law school and medical school, or signing six-figure contracts to work at investment banks and consulting firms.

"I didn't understand what we, at age twenty-two, could possibly be consulted about," Fick wrote in his book. "I felt as if I had been born too late. There was no longer a place in the world for a young man who wanted to wear armor and slay dragons."

But the Marines came closest to what he was looking for. After completing officer training, Fick was put in charge of a platoon of 44 Marines, based at Camp Pendleton in California. They boarded the USS Dubuque on Aug. 13, 2001, to be part of the U.S. force in the Pacific. It was a six-month assignment that would take them to Hawaii, Guadalcanal and Australia.

That's how Fick came to be in a bar on Australia's northern coast, drinking a Victoria Bitter, on Sept. 11, 2001.

A month later, he was launched on his first wartime mission: the rescue of a Black Hawk helicopter in southern Afghanistan. When Fick's platoon got to the crash site, they found the Pakistanis had beaten them there. An officer poured him a cup of tea.

That set the tone for his time in Afghanistan. He never fired his weapon, though he did call in several air strikes. He said his most anticipated mission, an attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, was canceled because of fear of casualties.

Iraq would be different.

Marine officers are taught they have three responsibilities: to be ready always, to win every time and to return their Marines to society better than they found them.

"The first two things were frankly pretty easy to do," Fick said. "That's what we were equipped to do, and we were lucky we were fighting a pretty incompetent enemy at that point [early in the war]. But the returning your Marines to society part is tough."

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