Fick '99 pens autobiography on Iraq, Afghanistan experience

by Matt Beale | 10/14/05 5:00am

On March 19, 2003, while Dartmouth students were enjoying their spring breaks, Nathaniel Fick '99 was crossing the Kuwaiti border in the dead of night, leading his elite Marine Corps special forces unit into Iraq.

Fick, who also served in Afghanistan as part of the Marines' special operations force, published a book, "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," in October covering his training and his combat service. Writing the book, which recounts Fick's military experience, was cathartic, he said.

Fick came to Dartmouth planning to go to medical school, but, after doing poorly in a chemistry class his freshman year, reconsidered his major and eventually ended up double majoring in classics and government.

"I ended up working in a foreign policy think tank, and a lot of the older guys had been in the military. That gave them a lot of credibility in foreign policy matters. I wanted to do something with public service, and I was really looking for something different after graduation," Fick said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

During the summer between his junior and senior years, Fick went to Officer Candidates School, a 10-week Marines boot camp for prospective officers. Fick said he chose the Marines' program because completion guaranteed a commission after graduation, but there was no obligation, a plus for someone unsure of whether or not he wanted to join the military.

Fick said he found the transition from Dartmouth to a military setting difficult.

"It was hugely jarring -- I hated every minute of it. I realized how my background hadn't prepared me for this at all. But they're savvy about it. They realize by the end of this we're emotionally invested in it," he said. "At that point I'd given up blood, sweat and tears, and that's why I ended up sticking with it."

After receiving his commission, completing training and receiving command of a platoon, Fick was sent on a routine training mission to the Middle East and Asia in August 2001.

"We were sitting in a bar in Darwin, Australia on Sept. 11, and we watched everything happen on TV," he said. "Before the sun came up we were on our way to the North Arabian Sea to Pakistan."

Fick and his platoon were in Afghanistan from October 2001 to January 2002. When they returned to the United States, Fick joined the First Reconnaissance Battalion, the Marines' special forces unit. His recon platoon was deployed to Iraq, becoming the northernmost American platoon in the country at times during the invasion.

Some of Fick's greatest leadership challenges were moral ones, he said. He often had to choose between the safety of his men and accomplishing his mission. Fick realized that what was most important was to make sure that none of his men died needlessly and that they fought honorably.

"It's funny, the tactical leadership stuff, even a monkey can do it, it's not that hard," he said. "The moral and ethical part is much harder to teach."

Fick, a war and peace fellow at the Dickey Center, said that a background in liberal arts and the humanities helped him gain perspective on leadership.

"As a soldier, or anywhere really, you're like a horse with blinders on, and I think it's nice to have an experience where you can look at the world from 10,000 feet," he said.

After returning from Iraq and leaving the military, Fick began writing his book, initially for emotional release. But, as he continued writing, he realized that publishing the book would allow his friends and family to understand what he had been through and that it might help other soldiers communicate with their loved ones.

"I couldn't really talk to them about it during dinner or something like that," he said.

As a Dartmouth graduate and a former Marine, Fick also felt that he was in a unique position to foster informed debate about the war between the left and the right.

Fick, who said he would do it all again, believes it is important for people from top universities to join the military because, according to Fick, the military should be comprised of Americans from all backgrounds.

"We need people in the decision-making positions 20 to 30 years from now who have the experience to make smart decisions about this sort of thing, and this is the only way we can have that. One of my problems with the current administration is that they're not personally touched by this, and when they were younger they weren't personally touched by this," Fick said.