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Wars For Generations: Father And His Sons On Serving Together In Afghanistan And Iraq

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The longest war the U.S. has ever fought marked its 19th anniversary in October. The war in Afghanistan has spanned a generation. And for some families, the idea of generational war takes on new meaning. Parents who fought in Afghanistan have seen their own children deployed there as well.

And we want to take a few moments now to introduce you to the Nicholson family. Lawrence Nicholson is a retired lieutenant general in the Marine Corps. He commanded forces in Afghanistan's Helmand province and also led forces in Iraq. Lawrence commanded his son Andrew in Iraq and served alongside his other son, Kevin, in Afghanistan. And during those deployments, Kevin and Andrew each did something unique. They went on patrol missions with their father. All three join us now - Lawrence from Knoxville, Tenn., Kevin from Nashville, Tenn., and Andrew from Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii.

Welcome to all of you.

LAWRENCE NICHOLSON: Thank you, Ailsa. Good to be here.

KEVIN NICHOLSON: Oh, thank you.

CHANG: Well, seeing your sons become Marines is one thing, but I imagine it's quite another thing to see them serve while you are serving, sometimes as their commanding officer. So when you found out that you were going to be Andrew's commanding officer in Iraq, I'm just curious, like, what went through your mind?

L NICHOLSON: Ailsa, it was a little surprising to find out that Andrew would be joining our regiment. And the way that happened is we deployed with the 5th Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton to Fallujah, Iraq. And one of the battalions that joined us there was the battalion that Andrew was in coming out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. And it was fairly common during those years of the war for units from, you know, from Japan, from California, from North Carolina all to be blended to create regiments in combat. So I was surprised. I was really excited. It was, of course, very, very unexpected.

CHANG: (Laughter) How did their mother feel about that?

L NICHOLSON: That's a really important question because I think there was an expectation that, hey, my husband's a Marine, and I know what he does. But I think it was a whole different thing for my wife, Debbie (ph), when our sons started deploying to combat. But I think for her, much harder for her to see her sons go off to war than it was for me.

CHANG: Sure. Well, I'm curious. As a colonel, when you were in Iraq when Andrew was serving in Iraq as well, you were his commanding officer. You were a colonel at the time. And I'm wondering, did you view your responsibilities any differently knowing that your own son was serving directly under your command? Did that change the way you saw your duties in any way?

L NICHOLSON: You know, Ailsa, certainly, you know, anyone's human. And knowing that your son is in the same combat zone you're in certainly gets your attention. But, you know, as a commander, you know, I had several thousand Marines and sailors under my command. And you worry about them every day, a well.

CHANG: Well, what about you, Andrew? I mean, when you learned that your dad was going to be your commanding officer in Iraq, how did you feel about that at first?

ANDREW NICHOLSON: I couldn't believe it, to be honest with you. The odds of my battalion on the East Coast falling under his regiment on the West Coast was - you know, the odds are small. So the stars aligned, I guess, and it worked out. But yeah, you know, when the colonel comes around and your lieutenant commander, you pay attention. And I probably paid a little bit more attention to what was happening when he came around. He came to the base...

CHANG: Oh, so having your dad as your commander actually makes it a little bit more stressful, makes things a little more rigorous, not the other way around.

A NICHOLSON: Yeah. You just don't want to fail.

CHANG: What do you think your dad's like as a commander compared to all the other commanders you've had in all the years you've served in the Marine Corps?

A NICHOLSON: It's a tough question. Obviously, there's some natural bias towards my father's as a commander. He's a perfect example of leader by example. He leads, and other people follow. And that's the type of commander you want. It's the type of commander you hope for. Yeah. And of course, I was super-proud.

CHANG: Kevin, when you found out that you and your dad would be serving in Afghanistan at the same time, did it shift something in your mind when you knew that your dad was out there? Even though you were far apart geographically in Afghanistan, did it just feel different knowing that your father was in combat with you out there?

K NICHOLSON: I guess there was a sense of comfort knowing he wasn't too far away. You know, he was a busy guy. He was the operations officer at the time. And he was all over the country of Afghanistan visiting troops, so when he did get a chance to come down to Helmand, it was absolutely great to see him, getting the chance to go out on patrol with him - because that's the first thing he wanted to do was to leave the wire and go see the people of Afghanistan - absolutely great experience. There was an extra sense of, I need to make sure everything's really tight today to make sure that it goes well.

CHANG: Well, I want to ask each of you to talk about this. Do you think it's a good thing for family members to serve together? Like, knowing what you know now about what it was like to serve together, would you have wanted to do it the same way?

K NICHOLSON: So what I would say is, you know, in the Marine Corps, we are all about legacy, from our birthday balls, where we cut the cake and let the oldest Marine take a bite and then pass it to the junior Marine present. Passing of the legacy - in our family, it's very close to home. You know, growing up with my father serving in the Marine Corps, I could see a role model that I would want to fill the shoes of - really, the boots of - one day, and serving with him in combat, you know, absolutely solidified that.

A NICHOLSON: Everybody knew Kevin was going to be a Marine one day.

CHANG: Really (laughter)?

A NICHOLSON: He was the one that was probably the most dedicated, I think clearly the guy that was going to join. I probably wouldn't have joined the Marine Corps unless it was - because of 9/11, right? 9/11 happened when I was a sophomore. But I mean, obviously, I think some of my success in the Marine Corps has been because I was, you know, around my father. It made me work harder, wanted to prove that I was doing this on my own. I wanted nobody to say that I was getting unfair treatment, et cetera. So that's motivated me to do well.

CHANG: Well, what advice would you give to other service members who are facing a similar situation, where they are serving or will be serving in combat with their family members?

A NICHOLSON: I think the first thought that crosses your mind is, oh, man, this is going to be really bad. Why is this happening? I think just stay optimistic. That should get you through deployment. And enjoy it, too. I mean, what a great opportunity. I mean, you can't manufacture that. It comes together just because stars aligned.

L NICHOLSON: You know, our example, Ailsa, I think is incredibly unique. You ask if we would change anything, and my answer is no. I think it's been a bonding experience to be able to share just even a few hours of - in combat with your loved ones. But I think - do your job. That's where it comes down to to me. If you're proficient, if you're good at what you do, people will depend on you. And that's what matters the most.

K NICHOLSON: I think they said it the right way. I would change nothing. The way the stars aligned, I had a great experience with my father in combat. I just might have had a little bit more alertness out on those patrols within those days. But everything ultimately remains the same.

CHANG: That is Maj. Kevin Nicholson, Lt. Col. Select Andrew Nicholson and their father, retired Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson.

Thank you for sharing this time with all of us.

K NICHOLSON: Thank you.

A NICHOLSON: Yeah, thank you. Have a great day.

L NICHOLSON: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.