This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.By Jeanne McKinney
A loving father tells his 5-year-old daughter “Daddy’s a police officer fighting the bad guys,” a concept that helps her understand why her father has to be deployed for months at a time. Thousands more children, who yearn for a parent to return from war, learn hard and fast the meaning of sacrifice in the military. And yet these youngsters, who give so much, get back the vital blessings of freedom as long as there are fathers, mothers and others willing to step up to defend it.
Sergeant Travis D. Nessel served his first four years in the Marine Corps and got out when his daughter was born. At that time he thought, “It wasn’t for me.” When he was recalled back to active duty, he realized how much he’d missed it —choosing to re-enlist back into a bonded chain of brotherhood that is “First to Fight.” What spurs him on? “It’s duty to that guy left or right of you more than anything else.”
“‘First to Fight’ is more than just a motto,” states the Marine Corps. “It’s a mindset and a core tenet driving every Marine to achieve and maintain optimal readiness. You never know when the next conflict or crisis will occur.” In 1952, the 82nd Congress mandated that, “The Marine Corps be the most ready when the nation is generally the least ready…”
Nessel, an “Amphibious Assault Vehicle Crew Chief,” adds, “People on the outside might think you wake up running and go fight wars.” From day one of signing up, it’s constant preparation – testing, schooling, testing, and more school in order to be battle-ready. The hardest time for Nessel was when he attended his first Sergeant’s Course. “In three months, they teach you everything from basic tactics, ways to counsel and mentor, public speaking, military papers format, and clerical skills…I took a lot away from that that I refer to all the time.”
He went on to attend Marine Combat Training School of Infantry (MCTSOI) where he learned weaponry and how a fire team operates. From there it was school for amphibious assault vehicles (AAV), massive tracked vehicles capable of going on land and water. “The AAV’s purpose is ship to shore movements, amphibious assaults, attacking beach fronts, and stuff of that nature,” says Nessel. “We also use it a lot to transport troops.”
The AAV can go up to 12 nautical miles out from shore – an amazing distance for a 29-ton watertight “tank.” Although no stranger to the unknown — being born into a family of firefighters — Nessel found plunging this $250 million “amtrack” through the surf a bit intimidating. All the hatches are closed and darkness surrounds except for dome lights.
“My first splash in school, we had a fire in the generator.” With older amphibious vehicles, it’s a lot of “turning wrenches.”
“For every eight hours of operation, it’s eight hours of maintenance. Like any job, you get used to it.”
Nessel, a native of Eau Claire, Wisc., volunteered for a deployment to Al Anbar Province with the 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion in support of “Operation Iraqi Freedom II – ½.” While on tracked vehicles, he led a crew of three and was in charge of four other vehicles in his section.
“The body of the AAV is light armor [which is more vulnerable], so we put a 50-caliber heavy barrel gun and grenade launcher on there, which enhances our defense.”
Soft-spoken, but serious, the sandy-haired Sergeant explains, “When you get in country, your first brief is rules of engagement.” As Crew Chief, he’s in charge to make tactical decisions if they get engaged. Are the protocols to shoot met? Can they see the hostile intent? “We use warning flags and pyrotechnics — anything to de-escalate the situation before it gets to the worst-case scenario.” Nessel conducted numerous raids, seizures, and searches to keep supply routes open along the border of Iraq and Syria.
A year later, as part of Operation Steel Curtain and Iron Fist, he returned back to that same spot to find insurgents had completely taken over. Villagers had been pushed out of the cities of Sadah and Husaybah and were living in tents on farmland to the East. “We swept through there in two-three days and gave the people back their homes.”
“At first the Marines weren’t appreciated, but shortly after we cleared the city — the civilians were more than happy and accepted our help to rebuild.” Shunning possible retaliation, a local villager, “Big Mama,” liked to serve our guys tea and homemade bread and they were able to provide a way for her double- amputee son move around the house better. Nessel says after the stress of combat, it brings one back to reality to do something nice for someone.
It’s not only rewarding to do a good deed, but extra nice to see good deeds done by the men you train and work with. When an unlucky Marine caught his arm between a storage container and trailer, shattering his humerus and severing one of his arteries, two of Nessel’s men immediately put a tourniquet on him and took him to the “cache,” a makeshift ER out in country. The Corpsman said they did an outstanding job.
“I couldn’t have been more proud and thought they were deserving of an award.” Although Travis had never written one himself, he did the award criteria research, took seven hours to write it and then had to get it approved. “When they pinned the Navy Achievement Medal on my Marines — that was the most memorable thing for me.”
At this time, it may be too frightening for Sergeant Travis D. Nessel to share details of his daily work with his young daughter – they’re not restful bedtime stories. When she can better understand, her daddy’s own Navy and Marine Corps Combat Medals and Certificates of Achievement will swell her heart. Her eyes can widen when she hears of his days plunging through the surf and taking pop shots while amtracking over foreign roads embedded with mines. Unforgettably real will be visions of forging convoys through the night to help secure vital supply routes and destroy enemy threats.
The stories of her warrior father helping people who live in ignorance, fear, and poverty to build new and free lives are experiences she can pass along to her children. The Marine Corps ethos Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful) will be forever ingrained in her personal legacy as she never forgets a code her “daddy” now lives by, “Take care of your Marines and they’ll take care of you.”