He just wanted to get away. In 1962, a Mead High School graduate but also a self-described "18-year-old cast-off," Jim Nichols wasn't much interested in academics. The Air Force seemed like a good fit, so he headed down to the recruiting office, all ready to sign up, but was told he'd have to wait until after lunch. While waiting, he was approached by Army Master Sgt. Ice -- yes, Ice -- a man whose name Nichols hasn't forgotten even after more than 40 years. Sgt. Ice put his arm around the scrawny Nichols, walked him over to the wall and pointed up at a poster of a paratrooper standing, hands on hips, looking full of honor and glory.
"Now you seem like a real man to me," he told the 145-pound Nichols. "Yeah, you're an Army man."
Nichols thought about this for a second, hiked up his pants, puffed up his chest and said in his most manly voice, "You know, I think you're right."
"I bought it hook, line and sinker," he says today, laughing.
That was the day that set it all in motion. He joined up with the 101st Airborne, spent a couple years on duty in the States and then was shipped to Vietnam in July 1965. He was there for a little less than a year but saw more than most of us do in a lifetime. When he was sent home, he started work on a labor of the heart, mind and soul that would be 38 years in the making.
Nichols dedicates his book, Requiem: A Song for the Dead in "The Nam," to "all the grunts that fought and died in the Nam." It's a look at one man's experience in what may be the most controversial war in American history. It was edited by Nichols' 80-year-old mother-in-law, Penny Brugh, who says her senior writers' class helped her build the skills to take on such a daunting task.
As for why he decided to write the book, Nichols says, "Something had to be said."
He had come home, like many, a changed man, disillusioned by much of what he had seen and even more by the lies he says he heard coming from the government.
"I don't believe in the system," he says. "The more I saw of the system, the less I liked it."
Nichols was also hurt by the treatment he received once he returned. When he stepped off the plane, he was greeted by a crowd of angry college students, spitting at him and shouting insults.
"Here these people are blaming me for something I had no control over," he says. "I was more afraid here [than I was there] because I didn't have a weapon."
One of his goals in writing this book was to give people some insight into what it was like for the run-of-the-mill grunt just trying to survive.
"I wanted to take you as a reader and drag you along with me," he says.
Nichols says the book can be especially useful to the wives of Vietnam veterans, who are trying to get a glimpse of what their husbands have been through and why they are the way they are. He says he talks to more women at book signings than to men.
Nichols' wife and unofficial manager, Marvel Brugh-Nichols, agrees. After 11 years of marriage, she says, she still can't fully understand what exactly it is that haunts her husband, who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. She used to call it his "Hitler routines" when he would break into a rage over minor incidents.
"It isn't anger; it's beyond," she says.
She's packed her bags and left him three times, even choosing to live on the streets for a few days rather than in a house with a man she found so confusing and unpredictable. But the book has helped her gain an appreciation of everything he's been through, and Marvel says it can help others too.
Nichols also recommends it to the families of soldiers who are now fighting in Iraq to help them prepare for when their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers come back. Because "they're going to come back different," Nichols says. "They're not going to be the same people who left."