I love to read the comments from people who read Sam’s blog—and I occasionally receive emails from readers who have been especially touched by Sam and Erin’s story. I received one of those emails last week from a young man studying to be a doctor.
I would like to thank Jason for taking the time to email his thoughts. I can tell that he really took a lot of time and thought into what he wrote. The letter was so insightful and touching and I’m so glad Jason allowed me to share it with you.
Dear SGT Sam Nichols, Erin Nichols, & Nichols/Neria family,
Hello my name is Jason, and I am a medical student at UCLA. I am a California native and I am Sam’s age – I also graduated from high school in 2002.
Growing up in Southern California, I was indifferent or apathetic at best towards men and women who serve in our Armed forces. I pushed myself to “study, study, study” so that I would get into a good college, and then get into medical school, and then start a career as a doctor. In high school, most of my peers – and me – almost looked down on men and women who entered the military as people who didn’t have the motivation, grades, or resources to attend college instead.
With age comes more maturity, and I have come to view our Army, Navy, Marines, etc. with more respect than I ever had before. I have come to see that Marines like Sam Nichols did not join the military to blindly serve our country, but instead to answer a higher calling of putting themselves at risk to serve and defend our nation.
I am reminded of Army 2nd Lt. Mark Daily, a 2005 UCLA graduate who was an aspiring journalist, a registered Democrat and supported politically liberal causes. Despite his early strong opposition to the Iraq war, he came to believe that his help was needed in the military to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and bring about positive changes to the Middle East and the world. Of my own previous bias against the military, Mark responded: “Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics. Often times it is less about how clean your actions are and more about how pure your intentions are.” Mark wrote this the evening before he deployed to Iraq; he was killed by an I.E.D. in Mosul three months later. In case you have not seen it, his letter “Why I Joined” is a must-read for every American. If you are interested, his eloquently worded letter is available at: <http://www.today.ucla.edu/out-about/071109_Mark-Daily/>
About a month ago, I came across your blog about Sam’s experience and recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I spent several hours thoroughly reading all of the entries and links pertaining to Sam’s injury exactly one year ago on July 24, 2007. I commend both Mr. Tony Neria and Mr. Eric Nichols for setting up a blog and posting regular updates over the last year about Sam’s recovery from TBI. I am sure this past year has been an emotionally challenging year for the Nichols and Neria family.
We learned about TBI in medical school this last spring, but it is one thing to read about TBI in a textbook or journal. I think it is an entirely another issue to realize how TBI affects people and their families who care for them. Your blog about Sam’s recovery helped bring TBI to life for me. I became interested in learning more about TBI from a medical perspective, but not forgetting what Erin said, “Faith overrules Fact.” Modern healthcare is moving forward in leaps and bounds, but Hope is what gets us through when modern medicine cannot. From what I read, most of the doctors back last July and August predicted that Sam was not going to improve at all. But one year later, Sam has improved beyond what any healthcare professional expected!
From what I can tell, the extent of Sam’s progress would not be possible without Erin. She is nothing short of a hero (I guess I should say heroine). In today’s society, with divorce rates over 50% in the civilian population, and divorce rates as high as 70% among deployed military, the sad reality is that many women might not be able to handle such an emotionally devastating blow. Erin has not only stayed by Sam’s side, but her ability to come up with different approaches and techniques to stimulate his mind is truly commendable. It is clear that Sam appreciates Erin’s unwavering presence. Imagine what is running through Sam’s mind….and all of things he wants to freely say, but his TBI is unfortunately holding him back! The photos of Sam and Erin speak a thousand words – they seem to have a love so pure and strong that even an explosion on the other side of the world can’t destroy.
The word “hero” doesn’t even come close to describing the sacrifice that Sam made, as well as the struggles he has been going through for the past year. But I also think about people who made the “ultimate sacrifice” for our country – Cpl. McRae, Cpl. Zindars, Lance Cpl. Lynch, and Doc Noble of the Kilo Battery, as well as other troops such as 2nd Lt. Mark Daily and over 4,000 people in uniform who have died in Iraq & Afghanistan.
They say that God works in mysterious ways. But trying to make sense of this “mystery” can be daunting and frustrating. Why was Sam saved from death when others were killed by that I.E.D? Why did Sam get injured and experience TBI when thousands upon thousands of other troops have returned home, safe and sound, with no injuries? Why do innocent children around the world die from illnesses, abuse and starvation? Why do “bad” things sometimes happen to “good” people?
There are at least 30,000 American troops who have been injured in Iraq & Afghanistan. Many have physical injuries and amputations; others have mental scars such as TBI and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Even with some government assistance and gifts from charities, many of these wounded veterans struggle to cope and survive. Why is it that the same country and society which these troops served, now seems to have forgotten about them in their greatest time of need?
We may never really know the answers to our “why” questions. But what I do know is that Sam is a lucky man. He suffered devastating injuries, but he is going to make it. Most importantly, he has the support and love from his family – all of you.
Thank you again to your family for posting and updating your blog. Sam and your family demonstrate that TBI, other injuries, and personal setbacks are not insurmountable. You inspire people in the medical community to understand the science behind TBI and other medical conditions, but to never forget how TBI affects the brave people and the family & loved ones who care for them. You inspire people to bring light to where there was darkness, and to have Hope in the most challenging of times.
God bless you all. You are all heroes.
UCLA School of Medicine
Sam’s Medical Status:
On Saturday my wife and I spent the day with Sam and Erin. Besides Sam’s one year anniversary of his “Alive Day” on the 24th, he and Erin celebrate another special day on the 28th — their fifth year of marriage! At the end of our visit, I whispered in Sam’s ear, “remember tomorrow you need to say happy anniversary to Erin” and he said “ah-huh”. I called Erin the next day and asked if Sam remembered and she said no—but she had reminded him about ten times during the day it was their anniversary and every time she told him, he seemed to be thrilled at the news!
The meds they are giving Sam to relax his throat and tongue muscles which allow him to speak more easily seem to be doing the job. When we arrived on Saturday, Erin said to Sam, “hey Sam, look who’s here”! Sam turned and looked right at Julie and said in the clearest and strongest voice I’ve heard, “Hello Julie, how are you”? That was pretty cool and just made me beam though out the morning. Sometimes it’s hit and miss when visiting Sam. If his meds are off a even a little bit, he can be very sleepy and listless. So, it felt good to get there when he was in a talkative mood.
In the early afternoon, Sam had physical therapy. When the therapist and attendant were moving him into his wheel chair, he said a few words to them and both said that was the first time they had really heard him speak with some power and clarity. Once in the PT room, they had Sam get on the “standing board” which is basically a device that allows you to stand up and support yourself with your arms and shoulders. Sam did pretty good, but was having spasms for about the first two minutes due to his urinary tract infection. He grunted it out though and finished his PT.
Later in the afternoon, Sam got more tired and sleepy—but it was still wonderful to hear his gravelly voice…and as usual, it was wonderful and inspiring to see the interaction between Sam and his lovely wife Erin. Happy anniversary you too. God is with us—and God is watching over you.