On June 15, 1966, Stephen Nickerson was serving as a senior rifleman on a search and destroy mission in Vietnam.
While traveling to join another unit, Nickerson’s platoon was ambushed by the Viet Cong. Several casualties were sustained by the GIs during the attack.
Nickerson returned enemy fire amid the intense assault and, later in the attack, crawled within feet of enemy forces to mark positions for an airstrike. He continued to return enemy fire and throw smoke grenades while helping to move his wounded comrades to safety.
The account of Nickerson’s involvement that day in Vietnam is detailed in an Army document dated Dec. 8, 1966, the day Nickerson was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism.
The V device signifies distinguished valor in combat.
Nickerson didn’t know the medal had been awarded for years to come.
He served in Vietnam from December 1965 until November 1966 as a member of Mongoose Bravo, Company B, part of the Army’s 1st Cavalry.
A week or two after his discharge, Nickerson said he received a letter that stated he’d been recommended for a Bronze Star with V device for his actions that June day.
Nickerson never heard more about the medal, assumed it hadn’t been awarded, and tried to move on from his experiences in Vietnam.
“I ran away as fast and far as I could,” he said. Eventually, Nickerson came to Pagosa Springs.
Unfavorable views on the war in Vietnam increased Nickerson’s desire to distance himself from his service.
“When I returned from Vietnam, the atmosphere was very different for returning veterans,” he said, noting that there were no parades or celebrations as there are today. “We were essentially viewed as poop.”
However, more and more as the years went on, Nickerson thought about the medal, but was hesitant to pursue it.
“I didn’t want to scratch old wounds,” he said.
About 20 years later, in the 1980s, Nickerson, now a resident of Pagosa Springs, went to the Veteran Services Office with the intention of finding out if anything had come of the recommendation. Attempts to obtain his records were unsuccessful.
In 2004, Nickerson again went to the Veteran Services Office, but with a different goal. He began working with Andy Fautheree to obtain some of his records in order to apply for veteran benefits.
Fautheree requested all of Nickerson’s records, not just those pertaining to his benefits and, in September 2004, Fautheree received medical and military records.
While sitting in his car, looking through his records, Nickerson found the mention of the Bronze Star.
This led to Nickerson and Fautheree to send in a request in October 2004 for all awards and medals entitled to be presented to Nickerson, along with a copy of the orders awarding the Bronze Star.
The Army records department responded saying that no records were found of the medal, Nickerson said.
Nickerson then pursued the medal on his own, contacting the Department of the Army.
After hearing from the department that they were unable to locate any of his records, Nickerson gave up.
In the fall of 2008, Nickerson’s wife urged him to talk to U.S. Rep. John Salazar during the congressman’s campaign stop for Mark Udall in Pagosa Springs.
Salazar promised to have his staff look into the matter, Nickerson said.
The effort paid off.
On Saturday, Oct. 14, Salazar presented Stephen Nickerson with the Bronze Star with V device during a ceremony at the Ross Aragon Community Center, nearly 43 years after the medal was awarded.
At the ceremony, Nickerson spoke of two of his comrades — Robert “Doc” Carr, Jr., an Army medic who died while trying to save Larry Brooks, after Brooks was shot 11 times. Brooks survived.
Although the medal was presented to him, Nickerson maintains it is for all of Company B, in particular those who lost their lives that day.
“I don’t feel like it’s mine. It’s more like it’s ours,” he said.
“He is just like so many others, an unsung hero,” Fautheree said, adding later, “and today he’s recognized for his exceptional valor in combat, protecting his fellow soldiers in combat.”
In the last year, the push to receive the award also led Nickerson to reconnect with men he served with, but had not spoken to since he left the army — something he calls “therapeutic and wonderful.”
“I’d put that in a lockbox. It’s good to reconnect.”
He also found out that Company B hold reunions yearly and has done so for about 10 years.
In October 2010, Nickerson plans on traveling to Pennsylvania for a reunion, during which the group intends to visit the Vietnam wall.
“The older I get, I enjoy the renewed camaraderie with the veterans from that time period.”