“In the Army I learned respect. I learned integrity.”

As a teenager, I knew every cop on the north side precinct on a first-name basis. It was hard for me in the holding tank, but I got it even harder when I got home. I certainly had a problem with authority. I didn't follow direction. As my grandfather put it, ‘That boy’s got smarts, but he doesn't like to use ‘em.’

Photos by Megan Monday

Nick | UW-Oshkosh, WI

“My parents worked a lot and so I had a lot of time to myself. I was an only child. But I had friends all over the block, and man, we ran that neighborhood. We caused all of the trouble in it. My parents tried, but at some point you just kind of go, ‘Well, he’ll figure it out or be in prison.’

In my home environment, there was a lot of yelling. My dad, he cared a lot about me but he was tired. He worked 16, 18 hour days. He’d be up at two in the morning, be out of the door to work by three, come home at nine or ten at night. He was tired. I understand that now. When I was younger I always had trouble getting a grasp on that.

Going into my freshman year of high school, I was six-foot-two. I had hair down to my waist—all the way down. I could tuck my hair into my belt. I had really dorky big glasses. I spent summers on my grandpa’s farm, so I was in incredible shape. And I fought. A lot. I didn’t get along with others. I didn’t care about school. I was off to a great start, right?”

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“When I was in elementary school, I cared about how well I did. But when I got to middle school…well, at my school they started to put an emphasis on your GPA. If you had a GPA of 3.2 or above, you would get on the honor roll. I think I had something like a 3.5, and I didn’t make the cut. I didn’t understand why and it never got resolved so I was like, ‘All right, screw this.’ Problem is, I’m incredibly extrinsically motivated. And well, when you put in a lot of effort and you don’t get the reward, you just stop trying. I stopped. In fact, I had done so well at not doing good in the classes that mattered that by the time I was done with high school, I wasn’t qualified for any college.

I had just turned 18. I was working at an arcade and my best friend, who comes from a military family and who is partial owner of a fireworks stand, said to me, ‘Hey, we like to blow stuff up, right? Let’s do it and get paid.’ I said, ‘Hey, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s go down to the recruiter.’ That’s how I joined the Army.

My dad didn't want me to enlist. But my mom's father was a World War II vet, and she thought it would be great for me. She was right. I'll admit it.

I know you’re thinking: ‘How do you take somebody who is resistant to authority and doesn’t give a shit about life goals and get them to want to join the service?’ Well, the running around with guns, blowing stuff up part…for me at the time, it was an excellent motivator. I’m extrinsically motivated, remember. Also, I got used to the idea of authority real quick because the drill sergeants don’t give you another choice. It was their way, or a lot of pain. I learned it the hard way. My drill sergeants also used to say, ‘There are smart privates, and there are strong privates.’ I was one of the strong ones.”

"In the Army I learned respect. I learned integrity. They showed me what it was to be a leader, and it turns out I had great leadership qualities. They were developing me. I was doing the work of a staff sergeant as a private first class, so three steps above me.

They also showed me what it was actually like to have someone care about you. For five and a half years after basic training, I was in the National Guard. During my first few years I got a DUI and I lost my license. I lived just far enough away from the armory that it was a really long walk. But my squad leader actually came and picked me up every morning and dropped me off every night. I had people that really cared about me.

And after those five and a half years in the Guard, my battalion was deployed to Iraq. We went to a base near Nasiriyah. You know, from the Bible, House of Abraham. I was less than a mile from there. Our operations covered the whole southern part of Iraq. I was a sergeant at that point, and I was lucky enough to get to fly all over, training other refueling point crews. My unit flew the most combat hours of any unit up until 2011. I mean we were always in the air, always. We got a lot of accolades for it. I loved my work.

When I was coming back from ‘rest and recuperation,’ I was on a plane and I got up to stretch and I heard two very loud pops in both of my knees. Then, just like that, I couldn’t walk. The doctors have no idea what happened. I have no idea what happened. I couldn’t walk for a month. I had also been wearing out my back. I injured it in combatives. So I blew out my knees and my back. The army came to me after we got home and they said, ‘You are no longer physically capable of doing your job. You can either transfer to paperwork, or you can get out.’ I said, ‘All right, well, I’ll get out.’”

“After that I was too physically beat up to be a prison guard, too physically beat up to be a cop, a DNR warden was out of the question. All of the things that I could do, could do well, and really wanted to do, I couldn’t.

My wife is a UW-Oshkosh alumna, so she goes, ‘Why don’t you go to Oshkosh, figure out what you want to do?’ I always liked geography. I like maps. I taught map-reading in the army. So I came here for geography and urban planning. I got through in two and a half years. I’ve ‘got smarts,’ remember, I just couldn’t prove it for a long time. Then I decided to apply to grad school. 

Now I’m studying for the Master’s in Public Administration. It’s the MPA degree. The best way I’ve ever heard it summed up is, it’s an MBA, but with a conscience. It’s for the public sector, so city administrators. The CEO of the staff of the city. I would love to be a city administrator. I also plan on getting my doctorate. One reason is completely selfish, just to do it ‘cause no one ever thought I would even graduate high school. But really, I want to teach. Get some experience in the field first, and then teach.

Sometimes I look at my life and think, ‘Oh, I haven’t always had the most pleasant of experiences.’ Plenty of times I was challenged, couple times I should have died.

The army was good for me, but it was hard. I miss the people I served with, not the army itself. But all of my life experiences have culminated to make me the person I am today, and I'm very happy with who I am. I'm confident. I know how to handle myself.

I’m not easily intimidated. I don’t think I’ve been intimidated in a really long time, except by my wife. She’s a six-foot-two farm girl. She can beat me up. I have two girls—in fact, one has all of the attitude that I’m sure I had. It’s just about as wonderful as it gets.”

-Nick | UW-Oshkosh, WI

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