Thomas Nikirk describes himself as a “hometown Frederick boy.” On Nov. 10, the Vietnam veteran will be sharing “The Vietnam Experience in Photographs” at the Urbana Library at 1 p.m.
Nikirk graduated from Frederick High School in 1964 and headed to the University of Maryland to study pre-law/history.
When he graduated in 1968, he enrolled in the University of Baltimore School of Law. Nikirk was curious about the war and he knew that he was “prime meat for being drafted,” but he decided to continue with school and see how the war played out. Two weeks into his first semester, he received his induction notice. “I partied for three weeks,” he admitted, “and then was drafted, on the day after Veterans Day.”
After training at various domestic installations, Nikirk deployed to Vietnam as a member of the 23rd Infantry Division, more commonly known at the time as the Americal Division.
Nikirk carried a Kodak Instamatic in his ammo pouch. When he finished shooting a roll, he would send it home to his parents; he wouldn’t get to see the photos until he returned from duty. Nikirk wrote home frequently. His father, an attorney, asked his secretary to type up Nikirk’s letters. “I didn’t hold back,” Nikirk said of his accounts. Now, copies of those letters are on file at C. Burr Artz Public Library, and Nikirk uses his photographs to deliver slide presentations about his experiences in Vietnam.
In the 1990s, Nikirk served as president of the Frederick County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee. Dedicated in 1995, the memorial obelisk standing at the intersection of 2nd and Bentz streets displays etchings of Frederick’s sons lost in the war.
“Including my friend Jimmy,” Nikirk said of former classmate James Atchison. “He played sax … in our rock ‘n roll band.” Nikirk played electric guitar and bass in their high school band, The Shades. Atchison was serving in the Army as a helicopter pilot. One day, Nikirk learned that Atchison had piloted one of his flights.
“He spotted me, but I didn’t see him. … It wasn’t but a few days after, that I heard (Atchison had died).”
Vietnam was filled with dangers. “There was the enemy to deal with,” said Nikirk, but in addition to the enemy, “there were snakes, the tropics and typhus.” Nikirk wasn’t sure if he contracted typhus from rat feces or from a rat that bit him when he rolled over on his back, but he found himself being medically evacuated to a hospital where he was stripped down and laid on a bed of ice to bring down his 107-degree fever. For several hours, staff poured ice over top of his body as he listened to cries from a soldier who had spent nearly 18 hours on the bed of ice. “‘Just let me die,’ (the soldier in the next bed) screamed.”
Once the fever broke, Nikirk was moved to a bed with clean sheets. He was fed three square meals a day instead of the dehydrated food he’d been eating from his pack, making the hospital one of his most pleasant stays in Vietnam.
“Vietnam followed me home,” Nikirk continued. “The mosquitoes (in Vietnam) were horrid—especially at night.” Despite taking his malaria pills three times a day while deployed and then taking his two-week supply after his return home, Nikirk contracted malaria. He suffered from three different strands in rapid succession, spending a year in and out of the VA hospital. “I had so much going on with malaria,” he said, “there was no time to be caught up emotionally (in the experiences of war).”
“Vietnam, it is a beautiful place,” said Nikirk, “even with all the damage we did defoliating it.”
Nikirk eventually finished law school and practiced for over 35 years in Frederick before retiring. He has given slide presentations about the Vietnam War many times in the past to high school classes and other groups. “I have no problem talking about it,” he said. “To me, it was quite an education.”