Human Interest

In South Korea, in 1953, Pfc. William D. Nicholoff sat at the bottom of a trench dug at the foot of a hill as mortar fire rained down from enemy combatants. As long as he kept himself hidden, he would be relatively safe. What he did not know is that the man next to him, a new recruit, had gotten scared enough to consider running.

In a moment, the young man did more than consider it — he bolted for open cover.

Nicholoff made it to the recruit in time to grab his foot, but by then the mortar had already hit. Shrapnel tore into Nicholoff’s lower right leg and knee. Through the shock, he stared down at his own hand and realized that he had come away with just a small portion of the recruit’s body.

Sixty-two years following an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Nicholoff sat in his Village of Oak Creek home, gesturing with his hands as he explained: “It was just a boot and this much of an ankle.” When a senior officer later asked him what had occurred, Nicholoff answered simply.

“I just said, ‘I tried.’”

The act of heroism went unrecognized until Thursday, Dec. 17, when Nicholoff received his Purple Heart decoration. The reasons behind Nicholoff being overlooked are complicated, however, beginning in 1982 — the year a military building went up in flames in St. Louis, taking Nicholoff’s service records with it.

Over the years, while Nicholoff made a career as a welder and then as an audio-video store owner in Illinois, he would inquire about receiving his honorable discharge papers and his justly-deserved Purple Heart.

Nine times out of 10, the Veterans Affairs office would tell him they had no record of him serving oversees.

Nicholoff would answer, “Well, then how’d I get all this shrapnel in my leg?”

About four years ago, Nicholoff’s daughter-in-law Sandy Urban got involved in the effort to get her father-in-law his proper due, but she ran into the same problems. She pressed on regardless, pouring her heart and her pen into the effort, writing senators on Nicholoff’s behalf.

“It was awful,” Urban said. “The senators wouldn’t even look at the letters.”

Enter Paula Pimentel, a social worker with Compassus Hospice in the VOC. She had taken on Nicholoff as a patient in April, after the prognosis that his heart was only functioning at 10 percent capacity. Nicholoff, who had come from the Chicago area in February, told her his last wish was to finally receive his Purple Heart.

“As hospice workers, we try to do all we can to honor our patients’ wishes,” Pimentel said. “And that was his wish.”

Despite good intentions, Pimentel said that initially she encountered the same resistance Urban had. “There’s so much red tape,” she explained. “The VA can be very hard to work with .... It seemed like every place I tried, there was no acknowledgement that he’d even served.”

Eventually, however, Pimentel had a breakthrough — or rather, a series of breakthroughs with state military personnel. She finally received word that Nicholoff would receive not only his Purple Heart, but also his discharge papers. After more than six decades, the war hero would be honored.

Nicholoff’s family and the hospice team agreed to surprise him with the decoration, and on the cold Sedona afternoon of Dec. 17 — the kind of day a veteran of many Illinois winters shrugs at — a crowd gathered at Nicholoff’s home to honor him. Northern Arizona’s highest-ranking military officer, Lt. Col. Anita Benson, Garrison Commander of Camp Navajo, pinned the decoration herself.

Nicholoff had no idea, not even a clue, that anyone was coming that day.

“Oh, my goodness,” Nicholoff laughed. “I thought I was going to get my hearing aid checked. That’s all.”

“I was a little worried,” Pimentel said. “I didn’t want to give you a heart attack .... I’m just so moved by all of this. It means so much to me that you’re happy.”


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