By David Perry
It was a photographer’s dream: Nick Lavery’s V-shaped physique set against vertical stripes of the 36-foot by 20-foot garrison flag unfurled from the third-floor balcony of the University Crossing lobby.
A gaggle of them snapped away as Lavery ’07 looked straight ahead, his 6’5” body stock-still.
For just under an hour at the university’s annual flag ceremony honoring student veterans, Lavery was the main focus.
That his right leg was lost in battle on March 11, 2013, and replaced by a prosthesis is only part of the picture. With steely perseverance, the Green Beret refused to yield to his injury. Two years ago, he went back to Afghanistan to become the first Special Forces operator to return to combat as an above-the-knee amputee.
He is also a recent father to Dominic, six months old, and husband to Toni Lavery, now on her sixth Army deployment.
It is valor and determination that made Lavery a hero and helped him survive more than 40 surgeries, intensive retraining and, eventually, a return to combat. He lost his leg when a long-trusted Afghan soldier fired on him and his fellow soldiers, and other enemy forces emerged on rooftops, shooting. Lavery was hit four times, his leg shredded.
He shouldn’t be alive. Doctors can’t explain how he survived more than two hours outside of surgery with a severed femoral artery. Nor can anyone explain how he survived after receiving the wrong blood type during a transfusion. Only grit can explain how he refused a full medical retirement and returned to combat in Afghanistan in August 2015.
It was Lavery’s first time back to campus since he collected his criminal justice degree at Commencement a decade ago.
Veterans Services Director Janine Wert, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and a packed house of more than 125 welcomed Lavery and fellow UMass Lowell Military Alumni Veterans Hall of Fame inductees Edward “Skip” Kittredge ’67 and Senior Master Sergeant Norm Lombardi, half of the hall’s first father-son team of inductees (Lombardi’s son, Rich ’80, was also honored, but was not at the ceremony). All of the inductees were honored two nights later at the seventh annual Veterans Military Legacy Ball.
It was a day to thank those who have served their country, especially the more than 1,200 student-veterans who attend UMass Lowell.
“This is a day of pride for all of us,” said Wert. She credited Moloney with providing strong support for veterans programs at the university.
Moloney praised the “tremendous courage” of the veterans, particularly those balancing family, work and studies, as well as those managing “serious injuries, both seen and unseen.” She pledged continued support and touted Wert as “totally committed,” a leader who shows “true courage every day as a champion for the veterans office.”
Senior Marshall Ireland, president of the Student Veterans Organization, said the camaraderie between veterans on campus is strong.
“If one of them has a problem,” the Marine veteran said, “we make it our own problem so that veteran isn’t alone.”
Wert noted that she’d been trying to bring Lavery back to campus for years, but he was always “nowhere nearby.”
She praised him as “a protector of those unable to protect themselves, a warrior-diplomat who exemplifies honor, courage and duty. He embodies and lives these values every day of his life.”
Lavery spoke for 11 minutes, his speech bracketed by standing ovations.
He marveled at the university’s growth, said he was “bombarded” with memories. He credited Wert with being “remarkably persistent and dedicated” in her efforts to bring him back to campus.
Lavery said that as a Special Forces soldier, he is “still getting accustomed to” public recognition.
He has plenty within the military – he has earned the Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, three Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation medal and the Special Operations Command’s Excalibur Award.
But mainly, he works in the shadows.
“We are the smoke eaters, the bearded men, quiet professionals, men of action. We’re not used to being recognized for our actions.”
He said he is often thanked for his service in public, “and I’m grateful every time it happens.”
He said the “everyday sacrifices of military families tend to go unrecognized too often … wives, aunts, uncles, husbands, parents, grandparents.”
He noted his wife’s sixth deployment.
“I can attest to the hardship because of what I go through every day that my wife is gone. I’d prefer to have bullets zip over my head than live that part.”
His family has lived “a lifetime of stress and fear on my behalf.”
“Welcome home, Nick Lavery,” said Wert. “You are forever in our hearts.”