Chapter 1 – Nick Vento

 

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.”

                                                                                                                                     -Mario Puzo

 

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Nick Vento just prior to a night-time raid in Yusifiyah, Iraq

Nick Vento remembers the day vividly.  It was near the end of the summer in 2004 and the second day he was in the country of Iraq.  He was a Corporal fire team leader and member of Golf Company 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (2/24)1, a Marine Corps reserve infantry unit.  He and all other squad leaders had been sent to the area of operations several days before the rest of the company, so that they could get a full picture of the area the unit was about to inherit before they would be completely responsible for it.  Almost immediately upon arriving, they linked up with their counterparts from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (2/2), the unit the company would replace.  Since Golf Company would first fall in on the Main Supply Route (MSR) Tampa mission, Nick was out at one of Tampa’s permanent checkpoints, taking every opportunity to learn from his predecessors’ experiences.  Over the course of the next several days, he would take in how the unit did patrols and snap vehicle checkpoints (VCPs), how they worked alongside the Iraqi National Guardsmen (ING) assigned to them, and other miscellaneous missions.  This direct observation of the unit that had been doing this for several months would be invaluable when the rest of the company arrived and he and his fellow Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) would direct the missions.

As Tampa was the major road route from Kuwait to Baghdad and the main route for logistical resupply for all coalition forces in the country, it was critical to maintain the highway free from attacks and impassable barriers.  In late 2003, civilian Iraqi traffic on Tampa had been forbidden after a series of coordinated cratering attacks happened at various points along the then busy highway.  As Corporal Vento got to checkpoint 22A, which was a series of protective HESCO and Jersey barriers built to encircle a highway overpass bridge, he exhaled slowly.  Despite oven-like heat from the oppressive September sun, as well as the novelty of the territory and environment, he was realizing he was more than up to the challenge.  It was hard for him to believe, but what he was experiencing had already started to feel somewhat ordinary, just hours after first being exposed to what was to become his new reality.

That feeling of normalcy lasted less than 24 hours.  The following day, while preparing at 22A to go out on some patrolling operations with 2/2, the loudest booming explosion Nick had ever heard thundered down and enveloped the CP and surrounding area.  As loud as it was, he could instantly tell the noise came from some miles north of his location. Knowing the layout of MSR Tampa, he surmised it most likely originated from the area of checkpoint 28A, also known as the mixing bowl checkpoint.  That CP was essentially at the intersection of MSR Tampa and Alternate Supply Route (ASR) Jackson and took its nickname from the cloverleaf on and off ramps to the highway.  It served as the first coalition checkpoint on Tampa as convoys motored out of the Baghdad area.  Given the enormity of the blast, Nick remembered thinking to himself, “Oh, my God, Sergeant Lewis is dead, and this is only day one!”

Sergeant Kevin Lewis was one of the other squad leaders in Second Platoon2 and was positioned that day at CP 28A, the area Nick was sure the blast had come from.  Lewis and the other individuals with him were unharmed; however, the powerful explosion was not a figment of Nick’s imagination; a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED and pronounced ‘V-bid’) had detonated at the CP.  A 2/2 machine gunner had opened fire on an Iraqi civilian vehicle when it would not slow down as it approached the CP from the west at an extremely high rate of speed.

Given that 28A was at the furthest western edge of where Tampa was shut down to Iraqi traffic, there were always vehicles traveling from the west that had to be stopped at the checkpoint.  Most of the time the drivers were confused as to what they were supposed to do and why they couldn’t continue on their intended route.  When that happened, they were quickly and politely re-routed, usually onto ASR Jackson, which provided access to the southern half of the country.  However, there were times that insurgents would probe checkpoints to see if they could penetrate the security barrier around them and do harm to as many Americans and ING as possible.  The Marines had progressive tactics to use if vehicles did not appear to be stopping: 1) Wave their arms to get the attention of the driver to stop; 2) Fire one round approximately 10-20 yards in front of the vehicle; 3) Put one round in the engine block, and (if the vehicle still had not stopped); 4) Shoot through the windshield until the vehicle threat no longer moved. These tactics had been practiced over and over ad nauseam, both in pre-deployment training and during the real-life situations presented periodically throughout the time in country.

In this case, the vehicle had continued to accelerate through all the progressive actions, until the driver detonated the VBIED approximately 50 yards from the sand-filled HESCO barriers that provided blast protection for the checkpoint site.  Because of their training and the experience of the Marines who had been in the AO for several months, there were no Marine or ING casualties, as all those at the checkpoint were properly behind the cover the HESCO barriers provided.  However, some of the explosion left an indelible physical imprint on the barriers as the charred remains of the front bumper of the vehicle ended up on the edge of the checkpoint’s protective material and burned a good chunk of it.  Also, the engine block of the vehicle had detached and ended up resting feet away from the checkpoint barrier (see figure 4).  Sergeant Lewis and the other Marines at the checkpoint were shaken a bit from the explosion, given that no one ever quite gets used to concussive blasts of that magnitude in such close proximity to themselves.

Figure 4
Sergeant Isaac Weix, 2nd Platoon, in front of the remains of the VBIED at CP 28A

For Vento, the enormous blast provided a concrete reminder of what could and would happen during this type of combat: “At that moment, things kinda got real.  This was an explosion like I’ve never heard or felt before.  It was a sobering and eye-opening experience.”  The story of the VBIED explosion made the rounds to all the squad leaders in the company and was relayed back to the rest of the Marines in Golf Company, still back in the United States, to reinforce for them the reality in which they were about to be inserted.

Twenty-five years prior to his ‘welcome to Iraq’ VBIED, Nick was born in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin to Chuck and Pat Vento.  Born one of three triplets, he learned very quickly to compete in order to survive.  He and his brothers competed in EVERYTHING. They competed in football, wrestling, and whatever other sport was in season at the time.  But they also competed for food, for clothes, and for the attention of their parents.  A potential look back at the foreshadowing his competitiveness might signify, Vento observed: “I think that is inherent to most every Marine, being competitive, and wanting to be the best.”  He gives a lot of credit for his competitiveness to being active in several sports with his brothers.  Their familial competitiveness would come front and center when Nick and his brother Tony faced off against each other in the finals of a high school wrestling tournament.  Getting to the finals of a tournament in and of itself brought an extra amount of adrenaline and emotion; doing so against a sibling supercharged the atmosphere even more. Nick won the match and looking back at it said: “I’m not sure if it’s because I wanted it more, was more competitive, or just hated losing.  I would say probably all three.”

When Nick was 17 years old and a junior in high school, tragedy struck his family when his father died of a heart attack.  While not unprecedented for a family to lose a parent while still very young, Chuck’s death provided an almost overwhelming challenge for Nick, his mother, and his siblings.  Looking back on the raw time after his death, Nick points out, “Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a parent, especially in such a tragic and immediate way.”  The entire family not only had to come to grips with losing their father, they also had to make peace with the fact that the suddenness of it had not allowed them to say their goodbyes before he was taken away.

The year after his father’s death was a time of ‘firsts’ nobody desires.  The first birthday without Dad. The first holiday without Dad. The first camping trip without Dad.   Nick credits his faith, as well as his relationships with his mother and siblings for bringing him through, remembering, “We all held onto each other, because we needed one another.”  And while he questioned his faith – as is common when faced with personal tragedy – ultimately his faith bolstered him.  “If I didn’t have a belief in the afterlife, and know I would see him again, I am not sure how I would have coped with it,” Vento explained.

The grief and pain of losing a family member cannot be adequately described in words; however, the Vento family has spent the time since then bringing honor to Chuck’s memory through the way they have each lived their own lives.  To this day, Nick still thinks about making his father proud of how he is living, stating, “Here we are 22 years later, and I am still trying to do right by him.”

By the time of his father’s death, many of Nick’s other positive traits had emerged. His mother described him as “honorable, caring, protective and dependable.”  As a senior in high school, his high school wrestling team chose him to be captain.  This honor was even more impressive given he went to one of the largest high schools in Wisconsin.  In his time as captain, he honed his already impressive leadership skills in a very relevant environment.  Asked what made him so special in this leadership role, brother Tony said, “Watching Nick’s ‘never say die attitude’ while wrestling motivated a group of subpar wrestlers to want to be better.  As a captain, Nick was not judgmental to lesser wrestlers and carried himself with integrity and tact.”  Nick naturally led by example and possessed an innate ability to get more out of others, not from a command and control approach, but more from a “I care about you and we are going to accomplish this together” perspective.  This was an extremely mature leadership quality that would be displayed in many situations over the course of his life and service.

As he neared the end of his high school time, perhaps Nick’s strongest developed trait, however, was loyalty.  From a young age, Nick displayed great loyalty to others.  His mother had a straightforward explanation for this: “I believe we are loyal to those we love, be it God, family, country, friends.”  She also recounted a story she remembered very well that included all his brothers.  When they were in high school, another teenager challenged one of the Vento brothers to a fight and arranged a location to meet after school.  When the challenger showed up, he was surprised to find all the Vento brothers waiting.  While they had grown up competing against each other in everything, they had formed a bond of loyalty that nothing would break.  The Vento family even points to Nick’s confirmation name in the Catholic Church as a great example of loyalty.   Of all the names he could have chosen, he selected Michael the Archangel, who was a protector.

Nick graduated high school and attended college at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville. In the fall of 1999, during his junior year, he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves.  The reasons why he decided to serve were both simple and noble.  Vento explained: “In a nutshell I joined the Marines because I wanted to serve my country.  Although my grandfather was in the Korean War, an uncle participated in Vietnam, and I had two other uncles in the military, nobody in my immediate family had served.  My dad had passed away at the end of my junior year of high school, when I was 17.  Deep down I still wanted to make my dad proud and knew he would have been proud of my military service.”  Nick had a fraternity brother who was already in the Marine Corps, in Golf Company, the reserve infantry company out of Madison, Wisconsin.  Having the opportunity to talk to him about his experiences in the Marines gave Vento an even higher level of comfort in his decision to serve.

Lance Corporal Justin Heizler, who was in the same squad that Nick would later lead, recounted an exchange he witnessed Vento have early in his Marine Corps service.  Corporal Weigel, their fire team leader at the time, asked Vento and Heizler why they had joined the Marine Corps. Nick immediately answered, “We as a country will go to war before we as a country are expecting it, or ready for it.  I’m going to be ready for those who aren’t.”  Even before the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts were a potential reality, he was already determined to do his part to be ready for whatever might come during his service.

Another reason why Nick joined the military, in his words, was that it was the ‘honorable’ thing to do.  “Instead of taking something from this great country, I wanted to give something back to it in the way of protecting and defending it.”  This level of loyalty to country is something every generation worries the next generation won’t possess.  What some fail to understand, however, is that not everyone has to have that level of loyalty; just enough people do.  As long as we have enough Nick Ventos in society, the country will be just fine.  When Nick’s desire to serve is dissected, there are multiple motives that led him to enlist.  Foremost among those reasons was a deep loyalty to his country.

Nick enlisted, knowing full well the sacrifice he might be called upon one day to make, and he was at peace with that.  “The idea of potentially giving up my life, I never had an issue with that.  Losing my dad at such a young age, I came to grips with my mortality. Also, my strong faith, having the background I had helped tremendously.  So long as I remember, I never had a fear of dying, because I was comfortable where my faith will lead me following this life.”  This peace with what might come was well developed and allowed him to navigate some very stressful situations in his time serving with calm, skill, and grace.

Vento was one of the many over time who have signed a de facto social contract with our country through military service.  At the time he joined, his decision may or may not have led to the ultimate sacrifice.  But the crux of his decision and the one that all who serve make, is that he would not be able to choose the level of sacrifice he might one day make.  That would be chosen for him.  That is why we must respect and honor all of those who have served.  And it is also a reason why our country must continue to uphold its end of the contract in the way it treats its veterans after they depart the military.

While his decision felt sudden to those who knew him best, there was not a huge amount of surprise in hindsight.  Kim Ryan, Nick’s sister, explained, “I was not surprised Nick joined the military.  Nick has always been a protector.”  Steve Goehner, who had been his boss the previous few summers, indicated that Nick had talked to him about joining, in part to help pay for college.  When Steve asked him if that was the only reason he was considering it, Nick was adamant that he felt he needed to do it.  It was the other reasons – how he felt that it was the right and honorable thing to do, and because he wanted to give back to his country – that led him to make his decision.

Once Nick signed his enlistment contract, he called his mother to break the news.  Pat was on vacation in California, visiting relatives.  Nick didn’t know how he she would respond to the decision he had made.  When he informed her he had joined the Marine Corps and would be leaving for boot camp three months later, her immediate response was, “You didn’t!”  She quickly overcame her initial shock, and clarified, “Did it surprise me?  Yes. I didn’t recall him talking much about the military and then suddenly he had joined.  I always felt that Nick was a disciplined person.  So, once I absorbed the news of his enlistment, I realized this was characteristic of him.  I truly felt a sense of pride.”

In terms of “Why the Marines?” over the other branches of service, this was also never a doubt for Nick or others.  He was drawn to a set of qualities that he felt existed in only one service.  Nick said: “If I was going to join a branch of the service, I wanted to join the best.  I knew the Marine Corps would be the best of the best.  They were elite, and I wanted to be in an elite fighting force.”  Tony Vento added, “If my brother were to join any branch of the military, it would be the Marines.  When my dad was alive, he loved John Wayne and his favorite movie was Sands of Iwo Jima.  Watching Sergeant Striker command a team and sacrifice for the betterment of his team, this represented what a military man or woman embodied.  We watched that movie so many times that Nick enlisting in the Marines was the only option.”

The Marines also appealed to the very competitive side of Nick.  Given how much he had excelled at so many things growing up, he wanted to measure himself against who he considered to be the best.  Said Vento, “I wanted to know that I was capable of being part of the best of the best.  I knew the Marine Corps would align with my competitive drive.  I was either going to be a Marine or nothing.”  He was drawn to the Marine Corps for many of the same reasons that others were. ‘The Few, the Proud’ was more than just a recruiting slogan, it was a way of thinking for all Marines.  The mystique that had been created over time, with the idea of what a Marine was, appealed to the core of who Nick was.

Nick attended Boot Camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in the summer of 2000, and had entertained the idea of attending Officer Candidate School (OCS) and going active duty as an officer after graduating from college.  After finishing boot camp and the School of Infantry, he joined Golf Company.  He fit in immediately and naturally with the guys in the company and he noticed there was an especially high level of comradery that existed within the unit.  While most, if not all Marine Corps units tend to possess great esprit de corps, Golf seemed to be just that much more.

My own observations of the incredible brotherhood when I first joined the unit were similar.  After graduating from the United States Naval Academy, I had served on active duty for six years, from 1993-1999, and had been part of some close units.  There was something very satisfying about seeing a group of individuals coming together from different parts of the country to form a singular team capable of fulfilling any mission.  But upon joining, I quickly realized Golf Company was at a different level in this.  Maybe it was because of the number of Marines in the unit who grew up knowing each other, given that reserve units tend to pull from those in driving distance to their locations.  Perhaps it was the number of family members who joined Golf Company, knowing they would be in the same unit as their sibling.  Or it could have been the healthy chip on the collective shoulders of the company, looking for every opportunity to erase the perception that reserve units were somehow lesser than active duty units.  Whatever the reason, it was abundantly clear the men of Golf Company respected each other.  They supported each other.  They went out of their way to help each other.  And they believed in one another.  All of this provided a phenomenal foundation that would be built upon and further strengthened over the years.

Nick’s potential plan of going to OCS and becoming an officer after he graduated from college was immediately scrapped on September 11, 2001.  The terrorist attacks on America, using commercial jet liners as weapons, created a new certainty for those in uniform at that time.  Nick knew it was not a matter of if there would be a deployment by Golf Company, but when. His brother Jim also noted how 9/11 affected how he himself thought about Nick’s service: “Once my brother enlisted to be a ‘weekend warrior,’ I was like cool, he is going to get his college paid for by the government.  Then, 9-11 happened and shit got real.”  The feeling was shared across the Vento family friends, as the inevitability of a combat deployment and everything that might bring weighed heavily on them.

With the loyalty he already felt to his brothers in Golf Company, Nick could not see himself going to combat with any other group of Marines.  The company’s pre-deployment training reinforced this decision was the right one for him: “It was easy, because a lot of the guys were friends.  We had a great mix of guys, and that made it more fun when it could have not been” Vento shared about the three months they spent in California preparing for combat.

Though Vento had generally been a pretty serious, focused individual, there definitely existed a lighter side to him.  One of the examples demonstrating this happened when Golf Company first arrived at Camp Pendleton to conduct intensive training in preparation for the deployment.  As the buses offloaded the Marines on the parade deck at Camp Horno, which would be their home for the next three months, they were met by three Navy Corpsmen who were joining them, recently assigned to Golf Company.  One of the Corpsman looked to be about 6’4” tall and 250 pounds.  As Nick walked off the bus, he looked the massive man up and down and asked, “Doc, just how big are you?” Doc Van Der Meulen responded, “6’4”, 250 pounds.  Why?” Nick quickly retorted, with a deadpan expression, “I just want to know in case shit goes wrong and I have to carry your big ass out.”  The interesting outcome from this exchange is that Van Der Meulen immediately approached Captain Ben Wagner, the second platoon commander, for a quick discussion.  Two days later, Doc was assigned to Vento’s squad.

Vento and Doc Van Der Meulen in front of the Karch Oil Facility

Another story that highlights the humor that often existed in the middle of the tensest situations occurred the first day Vento was in Iraq.  As previously described, he was part of the advance party that arrived in country before the rest of Golf Company.  After flying into Baghdad, the group was helicoptered to FOB St. Michael in Mahmudiyah, arriving in the middle the night.  No one had slept much over the previous few days and everyone was understandably feeling the nerves and anxiety of finally being in country.  Vento checked in at the base with a smaller subset of the other NCOs, including Sergeant Mick Gillitzer, Sergeant Brad Jackson, and Sergeant Mike McVay.  Once they were checked in, they received their temporary quarters assignment.  They put on their packs, grabbed their weapons and the rest of their gear and headed out in the pitch-black night to find their tent.

As the group walked through the maze of the enormous tent city on the unfamiliar base, they heard the unmistakable sound of indirect rounds being fired and headed in their direction.  Fearing the incoming mortar fire would land in their immediate vicinity and given they were not inside a sand-bag protected tent, the NCOs all hit the ground.  As Vento remembers, “All of us jumped on top of each other because of the incoming we heard headed for us.”  As they laid on the ground, waiting for the inevitable explosion of the mortar rounds, they heard the door of the nearest tent open and a Marine who had been on the base for several months looked down at them laying in a jumbled pile.  He asked the group what they were doing, and when they responded, informed them that the mortar fire they were hearing was actually several miles away. “We all laid there and laughed at the stupidity that must have been the way we had looked,” Vento shared as the punchline to the comical scene that was their introduction to the Iraq combat theater.

Upon getting into the country, Nick and his platoon fulfilled a variety of missions.  They began their time in the AO conducting the MSR Tampa mission, ensuring the security on and around the highway and providing for the safe transit of coalition vehicles on mission-critical supply runs.  After a few weeks, his platoon was detached from Golf Company and placed under operational control of Fox Company.  As part of the battalion’s overall strategy, Fox Company was pushing from FOB St. Michael as their base of operations to Yusifiyah, which had been an uncontrolled hot bed of terrorist activity prior to 2/24 arriving.  While the insurgents continuously counterattacked with everything they had, it was necessary to provide Fox extra support to help it restore security.  Second platoon was chosen from Golf Company, and for about four weeks, Vento and his platoon mates participated in some of the most harrowing conventional warfare that occurred during our deployment.

After their stint helping in Yusifiyah, Second Platoon returned to Golf Company, which had itself pushed out from the battalion HQ in Mahmudiyah and established a FOB in Lutifiyah.  The city of 90,000 located south of Mahmudiyah and straddling ASR Jackson, mirrored Yusifiyah in some ways.  Both were home to several known and suspected terrorists.  Both were places where patrols would get more surly reactions from the locals than in the friendlier confines of Mahmudiyah.  And both were cities that had, up to that point, been allowed to operate fairly autonomously, given that previous units had patrolled them very infrequently.  Lieutenant Colonel Mark Smith, 2/24’s innovative Battalion Commander, had a very different vision for conducting operations in the AO.   Smith, an Indiana State Trooper in his civilian career, knew the key to fulfilling the mission we had in the environment we were in was presence.  If we could establish a consistent presence everywhere, not only could we maintain the level of security that was needed, but we would have a much greater opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the local Iraqis.  And as tends to be the case in any counterinsurgency operation, that is a critical element in winning.

The major difference, between Yusifiyah and Lutifiyah was proximity to the Sunni-Shia population seam.  Lutifiyah was much closer to the area where the country’s population demographics turned from Sunni dominated to Shia dominated.  As a result, it was the city that would see by far the most amount of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence in the overall area. This made the mission in Vento’s AO that much more difficult and complex.

On January 10, 2005, now Sergeant Vento led his squad on a mission they had done so many times in the past they had lost count.  As they patrolled south on ASR Jackson, they were searching for a bomb that had been placed in the vicinity so that they could defuse it.  Yes, that is correct…they intentionally headed toward the expected location of a live bomb that was most likely intended to detonate on them.  To the average citizen in our society, that would be a decision and a day they would never forget.  For those on the patrol, it was just another day in the world of a Golf Company rifle squad in Lutifiyah, Iraq.

For the previous few months, a squad from Golf Company rotated each week to fulfill the mission of providing overwatch and security on and around IED Bridge.  The bridge had been destroyed by insurgents several months prior, and after being rebuilt by the Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group, Golf Company established a permanent presence there in partnership with the ING to ensure it didn’t happen again.  Ensuring the crossing at IED Bridge was maintained safely was one of the most strategic missions in all of Al Anbar Province.  If for some reason MSR Tampa became impassable, ASR Jackson would be the primary route between Kuwait and Baghdad for critical logistical support for all coalition forces in country.  And while that would not have been be an ideal scenario because of the less direct route and highly populated areas ASR Jackson meandered through, it clearly beat the almost impossible logistical alternative of trying to fly all supplies through Baghdad International Airport.  The mission was made more difficult by the fact that IED bridge was fairly contiguous to the neighborhoods of Hay (pronounced “eye”) Mezra and Hay Salaam, both of which were home to numerous individuals with direct ties to the insurgency.

IED Bridge. The raised earth is the fill added under the south bound lane

As a quick side story, Nick and IED Bridge were involved in one of the biggest misunderstandings I have ever been involved with.  After the critical bridge had been destroyed and rebuilt, I was convinced the insurgents would try to demolish it again.  One day when I was visiting the position and inspecting the defenses we had constructed around the bridge, Nick just happened to be the squad leader on site.  As I was trying to impress upon him the need for extreme vigilance in the protection of the bridge, I thought I noted a casual tone and lack of urgency in his response to my emphasis on the importance of this specific mission.  After the inspection, I headed north to FOB St. Michael for the weekly meeting that Colonel Smith held with his company commanders and the rest of the battalion staff.

Later, during our convoy on ASR Jackson back to FOB ROW, we encountered way more traffic congestion than usual as we approached IED Bridge.  As we came around the last bend and the actual bridge came in sight, it was clear that only one lane on the bridge was passable.  As we got closer, we could see a huge hole in the southbound lane of the bridge.  My immediate assumption was that somehow the insurgents had been able to get to the bridge and place an IED and detonate it in broad daylight.  Sergeant Vento was in the middle of everything, getting the Marines and ING on site to direct the traffic as efficiently as possible.  When he saw my vehicle, he came running over.  I asked him if he needed any help, and he responded in the negative.  Then my anger took over, and I told him I wanted him back at FOB ROW as soon as safely possible.

An hour or so later, I was informed that Sergeant Vento’s squad had just arrived back at the FOB.  I almost literally ran out of the CP to meet him in the motor pool.  I was livid at what had occurred and was going to take it out on someone.  I lit into Vento non-stop for about 5 minutes.  He let me go on and took the tongue-lashing coolly.  When I ended with, “I can’t believe after all we talked about that you let them get an IED in on the bridge and damage it again,” he finally responded. “Sir, that crater wasn’t because of an IED.  It’s a sinkhole coming from the water in the canal that eroded the fill they put in at the base of the bridge when they rebuilt it.”  As I fully digested what had really happened, and realized no one had failed in their duty, the only response I could generate was, “Oh. Ok. Thanks.”  And then I walked back into the CP and carried on with the rest of the day.  This colossal misunderstanding demonstrated the worst in my leadership that day, and I still hear about it from Nick almost every time we have been together since then!3

The sinkhole on IED bridge was a source of a huge misunderstanding

Returning to the original story, it is important to note that many of the IEDs the unit experienced in our time in country were emplaced on the stretch of road south of IED Bridge, alongside ASR Jackson.  The tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) being utilized by the insurgency on IED usage were evolving at a rapid pace.  No longer did the individual who placed the IED need to be physically tethered to it in order for it to detonate.  During the span of our time in country, wireless-signal detonated IEDs became more of the norm.  These were extremely hard to detect and given the mere 1-2 minutes it took a crew of 2-3 insurgents to bury them, it was virtually impossible to catch them ‘in the act.’

Beyond the significance to the higher headquarters of maintaining a free-flowing alternate supply route, keeping this route clear was of paramount importance to Golf company’s overall mission in the Lutifiyah area. Without it, our ability to utilize vehicular patrols, including our quick reaction force (QRF), would be severely degraded.  As well, much of our mission was tied to creating the conditions necessary for the local populace to build and maintain a stable society, not having the only major north-south civilian traffic way open would be a major hindrance to the daily life of the average Iraqi citizen.

As part of the IED Bridge mission, twice daily the squad would clear ASR Jackson from the bridge two miles south to FOB ROW of any IEDs that had been implanted on or by it.  The technique they used was fairly unique within the combat zone.  Most units operating in Iraq at the same time would conduct vehicle-mounted IED sweeps, regardless of distance or the terrain they were sweeping.  Convoys of at least four vehicles would travel across routes where IEDs were suspected or had been emplaced before and scan the sides and in the road for any potential sign of an IED.

Often the vehicles were HMMWVs, the most common transport vehicle in Iraq.  Some portion of the vehicles had been configured with ‘armor kits’ that were being produced in light of how many IEDs were being detonated on HMMWVs originally built with limited blast protection.  These upgraded kits provided bolt-on metal doors and armor in other locations on the vehicle.  However, the magnitude of the IEDs that were routinely being placed, often with several 500-pound bombs connected in parallel to each other, challenged the level of protection the armor kits provided.  It was not long before the military industrial complex caught up with the evolving needs of the conflict, and many more Up-Armored HMMWV variants were being manufactured and rushed to the region.  These vehicles came with armored doors, blast resistant windows, and more rigorous underside protection.

Most units inside of Iraq possessed a variety of HMMWV types with varying levels of armored protection against IED blasts.  The prevailing feeling at the time was that the benefit of whatever level of protection their vehicles provided outweighed the drawback of how incredibly hard it was to spot an IED on the side of the road in a HMMWV going 40 mph.

In Golf Company, when the patrol’s primary aim was IED clearing, we conducted the sweeps on foot.  This allowed us to have much better sightlines to potential IEDs, as well as having higher situational awareness of the local population, any one of whom could be a lookout or trigger person.  Our success in finding and clearing IEDs throughout our time in Iraq supported the efficacy of this tactic.  And by clearing certain routes twice daily, we were in control of the routes in our AO and kept the insurgency in a much more defensive posture throughout.  This was clearly the preferred way.  The exception to this in our company was on MSR Tampa, where we were assigned 15 miles of road.  Dismounted IED sweeps over that distance simply wasn’t possible.

Though the dismounted IED sweep tactics were very successful, they took a LOT of nerve to carry out.  Imagine walking point on a twelve-man patrol in the middle of a pitch-black night with night vision goggles (NVGs) and a flashlight mounted on your weapon serving as your eyes, looking for IEDs placed on the side of a road that was also littered with the same trash you would see on the side of the road in any urban area.  Over the months, our guys became incredibly adept at memorizing down to the piece of trash EXACTLY what was in, on the side of, or near the road.  As Vento stated, the squads were looking for “wires out of place, burlap bags, or stones that were not there the day before.”  Additionally, as they honed their instincts, they became very attuned to thinking like insurgents, and would often discover IEDs in places they themselves would place them had the roles been reversed.

On the day at issue, Sergeant Vento was tasked with clearing the route back to FOW ROW.  Earlier that day, while doing a patrol in Hay Mezra, a local Iraqi had approached the squad and told them that an IED had been planted somewhere on ASR Jackson south of IED Bridge.  This piece of intelligence was fortuitous for a couple of reasons.  The obvious one is the squad would proactively be on an even more heightened sense of alertness as they patrolled, but beyond that, this was a great indication that a level of trust between the Iraqi people and the members of Golf Company was developing.  We had taken pride in our level of presence over the first few months in and among the Iraqi populace.  Many of our guys participated in two formal patrols a day, generally lasting several hours each.  On the patrols, while ensuring security was the primary mission, developing a bond with the locals was a critical secondary task.  Our guys, many of whom learned Arabic to communicate better with the Iraqis, did a great job developing the beginnings of real relationships while conducting these missions.  “The fact that some of the locals had informed us of what happened was a testament to the work we had done with them,” Vento explained.  The trust being built with the local citizens could not be overestimated and would continue to pay dividends throughout the deployment, leading to the first vestiges of the potential of returning Iraq to a more secure society.

During the patrol, Nick was walking along the trash-filled median with Lance Corporal Jason Constantine and Captain Wagner, who had joined the squad on the mission, as he often did.  Several minutes into their route headed south on ASR Jackson, they halted when they saw a box that no one could remember seeing the day before.  The squad, per standard procedure, set up a hasty 3600 formation, so that security could be maintained as engineers were called to come and dispose of the suspicious package.  However, on this day, the IED, which turned out to be three daisy-chained 155mm artillery rounds, detonated almost immediately.  When the explosion occurred, Vento was approximately 40-50 feet away from it, and the concussive blast knocked him off his feet and left him unconscious for a short period of time.  As Vento recounts, “I remember coming to and Captain Wagner was yelling at me, but all I could hear was ringing in my ears.”  Jason Constantine, who almost caused both Vento and Wagner a heart attack because of how close he was to the blast when it happened, immediately popped up and as Wagner remembered, “roared some profanity-laced insults in no particular direction at an enemy we didn’t see and continued to trudge south to check on his fire team.”  Vento got the ‘thumbs up’ from each of his fire team members, then proceeded to radio the Company CP at FOB ROW to advise that EOD was no longer needed.  All squad members were free from serious injury, but as they continued their sweep southwards, the event served as an extremely sobering reminder that every interaction with an IED had the potential to end like this, or much worse.

What is particularly amazing about this story is where Nick was located. Specifically, he was in the patrol formation right in the median of the road, and that was not accidental. He knew that the overwhelming majority of IEDs in this part of Lutifiyah were placed in the median.  Why did he put himself along the axis where an IED was most likely to be?  “Probably because I didn’t want to ask my guys to do something that I myself would not do,” was Vento’s understated response.  When pressed further to clarify if this patrol just happened to be his ‘turn’ in that median position, Vento simply said “I did it every time” before quickly changing the subject.

This was one example of the type of extreme loyalty Nick displayed for those he served with.  He couldn’t fathom putting others in his squad into a position that could be more dangerous, and instead took it upon himself.  Some call that leadership by example, but it goes deeper than that.  At its core is a deep loyalty built from feelings of respect, pride, trust, and love for those around him.  Nick’s sister Kim had this to say about his feelings towards those he served with: “He holds all of his Marine brothers as close to his heart as he does his own family.”  It may have been because of this consistent leadership by example that Lance Corporal Justin Heizler, a member of his squad, said “there is no one else I trust as much in this world as Nick.”

Lance Corporal Tony Ludtke, who was in the same platoon as Nick, tells another story that highlights the simple but fierce loyalty Vento held.  The two of them lived in the same apartment complex a few years out of school.  One night, as they did occasionally, they headed to a local bar for a couple of drinks.  Upon leaving, a drunk customer picked a fight with Tony and punched him.  He immediately started to go after the guy, but Nick wouldn’t let him.  He was senior to Tony, and even though he had nothing to do with the fight, he felt accountable for what was happening because he was there.  So, instead of letting Tony take up for himself and possibly get into trouble for what happened next, Vento instead went up to the other guy and, as Ludkte described, “dropped him with one punch.”  In further describing the why, he had this to offer: “That’s the kind of loyal leader Nick was. He didn’t care if he got in trouble. NOBODY messed with his guys.”

As Golf Company Commander, I closely observed Nick in action closely numerous times before, during and after deployment.  To this day, I admire the Marine, man, and person he is.  What makes him so good?  To me, it is a combination of several things.  In addition to his loyalty and competitiveness, he possesses a very high say/do ratio.  Much of success in a combat environment is simply doing a number of small things flawlessly.  Nick was completely reliable and always had his squad ready to do what was needed, do it well, and do it on time.  Another of Nick’s qualities was that he never shirked accountability for any outcome.  He was extremely comfortable in his own skin and would go out of his way to take the blame for things if it would spare his guys.  Lastly, he had a comfortable formality to him.  He engendered confidence and loyalty with those around him as he expertly managed the different relationship types that exists in an infantry rifle company.  In many respects, he reminded me of how I perceived Sergeant Denver Randleman, famously known as ‘Bull’ and highlighted in the book and HBO series Band of Brothers.  In the same way that Randleman could always be counted on to deliver in any situation, that is exactly what I witnessed from Vento for many years.  Ben Wagner, his immediate supervisor during our time in Iraq, offered his assessment: “Tough yet compassionate, aggressive but not foolish and committed to achieving the desired end state, Nick led his squad in a manner that, simply put, produced results.”

Some say that going to combat creates a bond among those who serve together unlike any other, and I agree.  There is something about sharing such an intense experience together that has the potential to rip relationships apart or cement them to an indestructible level.  I have witnessed first hand on countless occasions the respect, comradery, and love that the guys of Golf Company have had for each other, both in combat and back home in civilian life.  When someone has been in trouble, needed something, or just wanted to talk, there has always been a Golf Company Marine ready to do whatever he can to help.  Nick’s wife Kelly explained it perfectly: “The stories told, the tears shed, the jokes had, all breathe life into their bond, into their pride they have in each other.”

Even within this special group of brothers, Nick stands out with the level of loyalty he has, and support he shows, for those he served with.  Sergeant Jamie Studnicka, a fellow squad leader in the platoon, said, “Since our return from Iraq, Nick’s loyalty has grown to the company level and beyond.”  On a routine basis, Vento receives calls from Marines from across Golf, sometimes to just catch up, but often to discuss a serious issue.  He serves as an informal counselor to many.  The issues are varied.  Someone going through a divorce.  Help needed navigating the Veteran Affairs (VA) system.  Physical or mental issues.  A car being repossessed.  Whatever the problem is, Nick is there to listen to his brothers and offer help in any way he can.  Captain Wagner summarized his genuine interest: “He invests himself in his Marines and takes to heart the principle of knowing who they are, where they are from, what interests they have, what jobs they were pursuing and what their civilian lives are like.”  Though this consistent trait of Vento clearly is a differentiator compared to average leaders, his response to why he always goes the extra mile, in typical fashion, makes it about others: “I know that any given moment, any one of them would be there in my darkest hour, if only to listen.  It truly is a brotherhood, a family.”

When Golf Company returned from deployment, Nick went back to the life he had put on hold for the previous 12 months.  Several months after returning, he started dating Kelly Farrow who he had known in high school.  Fate brought them back together in the form of playing on the same team in a co-ed softball league, and in 2007, they married.  In 2010, their daughter Gianna was born, followed by Sofia, 2011 and Lucy, 2014.  The loyalty and service that he has shown to so many others in his life appropriately became focused on his wife and kids.  Kelly had this to say about him as a husband and father: “He’s loyal to us, ‘his girls.’  He does everything for us, and we are truly lucky.”  Today, he makes it a point to be home every day before dinner time, so that he can cook for his family and be present for the time they share together.

Nick with wife Kelly, and daughters Lucy, Gianna, & Sofia

To this day, Vento continues to work at Goehner’s Industries in Dousman, Wisconsin.  Coming up on 22 years of employment with the company he started with, he is currently a sales manager and has done very well in his career there.  He has had plenty of opportunities to leave for roles at larger companies, but in this generation where a one-organization career is more the anomaly, he has never wavered in his loyalty to the business.  In talking to people about the things that they admire about Nick, almost everyone who knows him highlights the unwavering loyalty he has to his job, business, and especially the owner.  “Not only does his loyalty lie with the company, but with Nick’s boss, Steve Goehner,” says his sister Kim.

Nick Vento’s service to others is built around a foundation of loyalty, and as he notes about himself: “My loyalty to family and friends is part of my core.”  As more years are put between the time he served and the present, he looks back wistfully at his time in the Marine Corps: “I am proud of my service.  I’m proud of the great men I had the opportunity to serve with.”  His brother Chuck has been astounded by all the good that his brother’s service did for him and how it made him a better person at a foundational level, observing: “After serving, his pride, friendship, and nationalism changed to something far deeper.  He now would talk about his country with a reverence that only comes from someone who fought for the rights we enjoy.  The friendships he forged in battle were deeper, something more like brotherhood than friendship.  As I got to know some of the men he served with, it was apparent the deep bonds these men carry for each other.”

While Nick initially joined the military out of a strong feeling it was the right thing to do, this feeling was strongly bolstered by loyalty to the many ongoing reasons he had to serve and defend.  He continues to serve in every context he finds himself, starting with serving those he is closest.  His parents and siblings, his wife and three beautiful kids, and the Marines he has served with are all part of an intricate familial structure that Nick orchestrates perfectly from the center.  His service to each comes from a deep place and is immutable.  One could surmise the inordinate amount of loyalty he displays to others is driven from an intense desire to never let down any member of his family.  And he never has.  His brother Tony spoke the words that most every person spends a lifetime trying to earn when he said, “If our dad were alive today, he would be so proud of the man, father, brother, and son Nick has become.”

 

Footnotes

1Golf Company was a rifle company and one of five total companies within 2/24, the infantry battalion that deployed intact to Iraq.  Fox and Echo companies were the other two rifle companies, with each rifle company having approximately 190 Marines and Sailors in it.  Rifle companies are the basic tactical units within the battalion.  In addition to the rifle companies, within the battalion were Weapons and Headquarters & Service (H&S) Companies.  Weapons companies in an infantry battalion consist of an 81mm mortar platoon, an antiarmor platoon, and a heavy machinegun platoon.  H&S Companies consist of the command and support components to ensure the effective operation of the battalion.  Total size of an infantry battalion is approximately 875 personnel.

2A platoon is unit one level down unit from company.  Within a rifle company, there exists 5 platoons: three rifle platoons, each with three squads (each consisting of three fire teams) of 12-13 Marines, a weapons platoon with 60mm mortars, medium machineguns, and assault sections, and a small HQ platoon.  Total size of a platoon numbered from just under 20 personnel in HQ, approximately 40 in the rifle platoons, and about 50 in weapons.

3The IED bridge mix-up taught me an invaluable lesson about better understanding the realities that people are coming from. Nick and I were both “right” that day based on two different realities we were seeing at the site of the bridge.  Had I taken a couple of extra minutes (and breaths) to identify what was really happening, I would have spared myself the embarrassment of what came next.  It is a lesson I am still learning today.

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Adam, I truly enjoyed Nick Vento’s story of bravery and loyalty to his country, comrades, and family. During my own son’s deployments starting in 2007, my husband and I would do everything we could to visualize John’s daily life as a Marine. We watched CNN non-stop and tried to glean details from every media source we could find so we could better “identify” with his situation. During the rare telephone conversations, we wanted to be able to ask meaningful questions about his surroundings – our way of showing how much we cared and that we were thinking about him non-stop. You are doing a wonderful job of filling in the details of those critical years for so many Marine families – thank you.

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    1. Thanks so much Gay! I know all of our families felt the same way at the time. People said that we had it hardest, and I always responded I felt the families had it harder in many ways. We had each other and knew exactly what we were facing for the most part. The families had to piece things together, and as you can imagine we very rarely shared all of what was happening! Given your experiences as a Marine Mom, I know you understand. Now, with years between us and that experience I am grateful to have the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks. Thanks for the comment…

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  2. Maj Holton – Phenomenal write up on Nick sir. I look forward to more of you’re writing. I am honored that I had the privilege to serve with you and my fellow brothers of Golf Company 2/24 on this deployment. It is hard to believe it was 14 years ago when you and I flew into FOB St Michael as ADVON for Golf Co. What an experience during those first two weeks huh? Hope that you, your family and all our families of G 2/24 are doing well. Semper Fidelis.

    GySgt Duane Paquin

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments Duane! It’s not lost on me that our journey in Iraq started together. Won’t soon forget that day in Lutifiyah 🙂 Hope all is well with you.

      S/F,
      Adam

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