US Army Sergeant First Class Nick Lavery, a decorated Green Beret, was honored Thursday by his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he delivered a speech at the seventh annual flag ceremony.
Lavery, a 2007 graduate and 2017 inductee into the university’s Military Alumni Veterans Hall of Fame, is the first above-the-knee amputee in the Special Forces to return to military combat.
Lavery said he wasn’t thrilled about speaking before a crowd of more than 100. But the reception he got, as well as a chance to see his old school and his loved ones, was worth it.
“Everything was phenomenal,” he said. “It’s truly humbling to be here today ... And what I like most about it, not to take anything away from this production, is to see my family.”
Lavery’s service story began with his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. He was injured there in October 2012 when “a lemon-sized hole” was blown in his shoulder by a rocket-propelled grenade.
He was injured again a month later when his unit was ambushed after one of their trucks hit a roadside bomb. Lavery was struck in the face by a bullet while rushing to rescue his commanding officer in the flaming vehicle.
And in March 2013, Lavery was injured a third time and lost a portion of his right leg when his unit came under fire while training local forces. One of Lavery’s fellow soldiers froze, and when Lavery put himself between the soldier and the gunfire he was shot several times in the leg, severing his femoral artery.
Following an evacuation from the scene, more than 20 surgeries, and extensive prosthesis rehabilitation, he declined medical retirement, opting to continue to serve.
In 2014, amid ongoing rehab and assessments, Lavery taught as a “hand-to-hand combat and close-quarters-battle instructor” at Fort Bragg while working to return to operational status, which he did in July 2015. He redeployed to Afghanistan in August 2015.
“It was extremely satisfying to me,” Lavery said of his return to active duty.
“I had spent about two years with that exact goal in mind,” he said. “I prepared the best I could prior to leaving, knowing what it’s like to work over there.”
He soon settled in back to work. During rare down time, he said, he tinkered like a “mad scientist” on equipment including his prosthetic, vehicles, weapons, and tactics, “developing ways to do it better.”
Lavery redeployed to Africa in 2016 and returned to the United States in March, and is set to redeploy again in January to a confidential location. No matter where the next mission takes him, though, he’s just glad to be back.
“Regardless of where it is, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference in terms of my fulfillment in deployment,” he said. “It’s just that I’m going again that matters to me.”
And while Army officials and medical staff believe him to be the first Special Forces above-the-knee amputee to return to combat, Lavery says his motivation is his work, not his story.
“It really doesn’t play a role into why I do what I do,” he said. “It’s my responsibility.”
“While I am extremely humbled and grateful to be given any kind of recognition, I still have a difficult time being recognized,” he said. “I’m still getting accustomed to being recognized for my actions and my career.”
Lavery delivered keynote remarks at the Mass Lowell flag ceremony, which is held annually before Veterans Day to honor university and community veterans. UMass Lowell says it currently enrolls more than 1,000 student-veterans.
Lavery gave a brief rundown of his service, but used his time on stage to talk about an often-overlooked aspect of miltary life.
“The focus of today, I kind placed it toward the families of service members,” he said.
“It was focused on families and the struggles and sacrifices that they go through that can easily go unnoticed,” Lavery said of his speech. “It doesn’t get recognized as often as it does when I walk around on the streets.”
Lavery‘s wife is active duty Army, which he said gives him a “unique perspective” on that aspect of service.
“I know what it’s like to look at it from both sides of that spectrum,” he said.
While Lavery said there was “nothing but positivity all around” Thursday, his focus remained on his family, teammates, commanders, and medical staff that made his trip to Lowell possible.
“While people may thank me and clap their hand at words I say ... There are a lot of people not standing next to me right now that have played a role in what I do,” he said. “Granted, I’ve had to work my ass off myself, and I do every single day, but it’s been a team effort.”
The event featured other speakers including UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, the unfurling of a 36-foot-long “garrison sized” flag, the presentation of colors by the UMass Lowell Air Force ROTC Detachment No. 345, and a performance by the UMass Lowell Marching Band.
“It’s awesome,” Lavery said. “It was a great day.”Ben Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Thompson