‘They kind of looked to me as the sister-mom'
Senior Airman Nicole Nellist, 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, explosive ordinance technician, deployed from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, explains how C4 explosives work to Frank Skinson, Sather Air Base USO, and SrA. Adrian Contreras, 447th Expeditionary Communications Squadron, custodian of postal effects, June 12, 2010 at Sather Air Base, Iraq. Mr. Skinson, and Airman Contreras were assisting EOD to destroy unserviceable munitions.
The radio silence following the massive explosion brought dread to Staff Sgt. Nicole Nellist.
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician had an “awful feeling” something was terribly wrong on Sept. 3, 2012, in Shurakay in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Two Cougar infantry mobility vehicles had been blown up that day in a valley that narrowed to a dangerous choke point. But the crews in those vehicles established communications right away to let everybody know they were safe. A third Cougar was on its way down the mountain to help retrieve those vehicles when it hit a very large improvised explosive device.
Nellist and the other military personnel with her waited for a voice — any voice — to come over the radio and say, “We’re OK.”
No voice came over.
After waiting between 30 seconds to two minutes — Nellist (who now goes by Richardson) said the time “seemed to stretch on for days” — she and her crew went to investigate.
Two severely wounded Marines trapped inside the vehicle were in agonizing pain, yelling for help. A third Marine, Lance Cpl. Alec R. Terwiske, the gunner for the vehicle, had died from the blast.
“I can still hear that scream perfectly the way that it happened. ... That’s something that will always stick with me,” Richardson said.
Part of a three-member Air Force EOD team attached to a Marine combat engineer unit for a six-month stint at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, she was on her fourth and “most challenging” deployment of her military career.
“We definitely had a lot more IED strikes on this deployment than I had on my past deployments,” the Buffalo, N.Y., native said recently during an interview from her parent command at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, where she is attached to the 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron. At the time of her Afghan deployment, her unit was the 802nd Civil Engineer Squadron and was renamed after the Afghan mission as part of an Air Force restructuring process.
Highly proficient in their specific bomb-disposing job, the EOD techs had also been trained in a medical training regimen, Richardson said. “We multitask with our training to ensure we can complete the entire mission. You never know how well you know it until you have to do it. … We made sure that the two guys that did survive actually made it on the medevac and home safely to their families,” she said.
Nellist and her fellow EOD techs worked carefully to clear the area to ensure there were no more explosives. They also helped clear an area to serve as a landing zone for a medevac helicopter.
After helping extract the Marines from the vehicle, and while waiting for the British medevac crew to arrive, Richardson helped administer medical care to the wounded.
As one of the older people in her group and having been deployed downrange before, Richardson said, she was “a little more experienced at dealing with the stressors of combat.” But nothing prepared her for the sense of helplessness she felt at not being able to protect the younger Marines that day.
The worst part, she said, was seeing 18-, 19- and 20-year-old Marines — most on their first deployments — “pick up one of their friends in a body bag… knowing you can’t do anything to shield them or protect them. …. That is the worst feeling in the world.”
With the unit reeling from the multiple IED blasts that day, the combat engineers called for reinforcements to help extract the damaged vehicles. Another unit of U.S. Marines and soldiers and several more Air Force EOD personnel were sent out to assist them. For the next two days, they worked to move four blown-up vehicles back to the top the hill, where a fifth Cougar vehicle was blown up by an IED, Richardson said.
On Sept. 5, 2012, as they were fueling their vehicles to return to Camp Leatherneck, a rocket-propelled grenade hit their outpost. There were 75 to 100 personnel that last day, Richardson recalled. Seven or eight servicemembers, including her EOD team leader, were injured by the strike, she said. An intense firefight followed as enemy rounds rained down on them from two directions.
Repeatedly exposing herself to enemy fire, Nellist resupplied gunners firing the larger M-240B machine guns with ammo, while she fired her M-4 during the lulls. She also directed the other team member manning her vehicle’s M-240B.
When the dust finally settled an hour to two later, she said it felt as though only 15 minutes had passed. “It’s not something, at the time, you think of. You just know that you’re getting shot at and you need to make sure your friends and coworkers are safe. So in the moment, it’s just second-nature, it’s your training …
“In the aftermath, you realize, ‘Wow, I could have gotten shot.’ ”
For her actions during that September 2012 three-day mission, Richardson received the Army Commendation Medal with “V.”
After making it back to their home base, she said she “kind of made the rounds … and talked to the guys and let them kind of show a softer side, you know, if they needed to talk about things… Being the only girl, they kind of looked to me as the sister-mom,” she said.
Some of the guys were really shaken by the whole ordeal, she said.
“Luckily, I had somebody to talk to when I got back here,” said Richardson, who got married after returning to the States.
Richardson, now 28, said she is surprised at how much she was able to deal with, emotionally. “It’s not like after that mission we got to go home. We had to still continue to keep doing missions after that…”
In the end, she said, “in a way, we have to count our blessings … We could have taken a lot more injuries. Thankfully, most of us came home.”