MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - A Marine sights in and focuses on his target. His fellow warriors observe him making mental notes before his first shot of the Wounded Warrior Shooting Trials. It lands in the center of the target.
After he completes his shooting in the relay, The Marine does not crowd around the screen and wait to see his score. He instead moves toward his fellow wounded warriors and helps them set-up their weapons for their time to shoot.
Paul Davis, a shooting coach for the wounded warriors, said from his haircut and the way he carries himself, one could tell he is a Marine.
His name is Dionisios H. Nicholas and he is a retired master sergeant who served 23 years in the Marine Corps.
“He is the epitome of a senior staff non commissioned officer in the Marine Corps because he leads by example, takes care of the other wounded warriors and he is not too proud to work with anyone,” said retired Maj. John T. Schwent Jr., head coach and supervisor of the shooting trials.
But this was not always the case for 51-year-old native of Honolulu.
When Nicholas sustained a back injury during training he said he did not feel like a leader his Marines could look up to. He called those times his dark moment.
“When I was training in the hills of Camp Pendleton before going to Iraq, I sustained a back injury which ultimately led to nerve damage and a serious spine-fusion surgery,” Nicholas said.
The injury forced Nicholas to retire from the corps before he planned to.
“I was a hard charger when I was in the Marine Corps, but after my last surgery in 2005 I was on my back for two years,” said Nicholas. “I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself and I couldn’t bath myself. I really felt like I went from hero to zero, and I thought about punching out.”
Davis said when most warriors get hurt and realize that cannot do the things they are accustomed to, they isolate themselves from others. They often feel they are no longer needed.
“At times I felt like I had died and just kept living,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas said he believes that is the way most wounded warriors feel and the best way to overcome those feelings is with the support of your fellow warriors.
When Nicholas was hurt the Marines in his unit showed him that he was missed.
“Once a Marine always a Marine, and Marines take care of one another.” Nicholas said.
His Marines would visit and they gave him the sense of purpose necessary to rise above his injury, said Nicholas. Their support helped him overcome his injury, and now he gives back to wounded warriors even though he continues to suffer from chronic back pain.
Not only does Nicholas compete in the shooting trials, but he also teaches Marines who are participating.
“There was about 112 new service members competing this year, some of which who never shot these weapon systems before,” said Schwent. “Nicholas walks up to me and says, ‘coach can I teach these new guys about the weapons?’ and of course I let him.”
Schwent said Nicholas mentored the new wounded warriors, teaching them everything he had learned through the trials and sharing his life changing experience with them.
He understands the shooting trials give the wounded warriors a chance to do what they used to enjoy and an opportunity to make some new friends, Schwent added.
“I think everyone can learn something from Nicholas,” said Schwent. “It doesn’t matter if they are wounded or not.”
Nicholas said he owes his Marines because they didn’t turn their backs on him when he was wounded. He certainly won’t be turning his back on this group of wounded warriors.
Nicholas won his third gold medal in both the air rifle and pistol competition at this year’s shooting trails. He plans to return next year to defend his title for the fourth time.