Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series of veteran profiles honoring those who have served. If you have a story to tell, or know a veteran whose story needs to be told, contact the Killeen Daily Herald at firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “Veteran Profiles.”
HARKER HEIGHTS — Retired Army National Guard master sergeant/first sergeant Don Nicholas never saw combat; never served an overseas deployment during his 31 years in the military. But he excelled at a job that many soldiers could not or would not want to do.
“I see guys with Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, and I’ve met Medal of Honor winners,” Nicholas said. “And when I say I was a recruiter for 27 years, they look at me and they say, ‘Man, I wouldn’t trade places with you for nothing.’
“They’ve told me, ‘You wouldn’t want to do what I’ve done, and I really don’t want to do what you did.’”
Now 68 years old, Nicholas grew up milking cows, baling hay, slopping hogs, feeding chickens and picking up eggs with an older brother and sister on the family farm in North Dakota before deciding to join the National Guard in 1971, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down.
He was going to college at the time, earning a degree in animal science and agricultural economics — even teaching one year of high school agriculture — along with his part-time Guard duties and never-ending farm chores.
“I figured I’d do my time, like a lot of folks did, and then get out and go back to doing what I was doing,” he said.
“Then, I fell in love with it. I was looking for an opportunity to go on active-duty and in 1978, when I was 26, they came up with this AGR program — Active Guard Reserve — and it’s still a great program today. A lot of Guard people are in it now.
“I was one of the first people hired in 1978 under Title 10. I was the same as every active-duty soldier, sailor, airman and Marine at that time, for about eight years. Then, they switched us over to what they called Title 32, which puts us under control of the governor at that point.”
Initially, Nicholas was a combat engineer before becoming a recruiter. He worked at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Fargo, and was responsible for a large territory that included the state of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.
It was a demanding job with sometimes grueling hours, but also something Nicholas enjoyed. Not only that, being a National Guard recruiter eventually led him to a dream post-military retirement job.
“A lot of guys go into recruiting and it’s not a good career for them. They have a hard time with it,” he said.
“It becomes a downfall for them, and they look at it as a black mark on their record if they’re not successful at it. It can make or break your military career, sometimes. It’s long hours, and it’s essentially a sales job.
“You have to maintain a certain level of composure all the time; positive attitude all the time. You have to work really crazy hours. It’s not uncommon to get up at two or three o’clock in the morning to go pick up an applicant and take him overnight to a military entrance station — and those are not in every town.
“In North Dakota, we only had one military entrance station, so if an applicant lived in Bismarck and was going to enlist, he had to come in the day before, and the recruiter was responsible for driving him (to Fargo).
“The recruiter would have to pick that applicant up, make sure all the paperwork was done, get everything put together. You put in about eight to 10 hours’ work just getting them ready. That doesn’t count the number of hours you’ve put in trying to get the individual to sit down and visit with you first. Not everybody is a walk-in. Not everybody walks in the door and says, ‘I want to join the National Guard.’ You have to go search them out.”
After he retired from active-duty Guard in 2003, Nicholas went to work as a recruiting contractor for Management Training Consultants Inc., in Washington, D.C. He and other recruiters traveled the country to find and sign personnel for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System and 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska.
“That base was closed, and that was the reason they reopened it,” Nicholas said. “We were the ones who put the first people on the ground up there; first boots on the ground. Three of us traveled for almost four years all over the United States recruiting people who were in the Guard to go on a three-year active-duty tour to Fort Greely.”
In 2006, MTC moved to Killeen, and he and his wife, Jody, who also worked for the company and now serves on the Harker Heights City Council, came to central Texas. Four years later, Nicholas went to work as district director for former State Rep. Ralph Sheffield of Temple, and in November 2014, he got a call from U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, asking if he was interested in a job on the congressman’s staff.
He jumped at the chance and has worked for Williams ever since.
“That was kind of my dream from my high school days — to work as a field representative or staffer for a congressional representative,” Nicholas said. “I never wanted to be an elected official; I just wanted to work for one.”
Looking back at his military career and ahead at the future of the country, Nicholas says he is proud of his service, and excited about the possibilities to come.
“I’m extremely satisfied with my career,” said the father of seven, grandfather of nine. “In some ways, I wish I would have stayed on and made a deployment to Iraq, but I never did. I was a master sergeant, a senior (noncommissioned officer), and I was ready to retire. I had over 30 years in, so it was time.
“I had been selected to go to sergeant major academy, but I decided I wasn’t going to worry about going to another nine-month school, and so I took the opportunity to work on the missile defense program. I figured if I missed it, an opportunity like that would never come along again.
“I think recruiting was a career that gave me that opportunity … it helped me understand there’s more to life than small stuff. Really, it’s all small stuff. You look at it as all small stuff and you take the small steps to get to the level you want to be.”