SAN DIEGO – Since Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ryan Nicolai was a boy, he felt a calling to serve his country as a United States Marine.
But before he could follow his dream, he knew his duty was to take care of his parents. In the years before he left for recruit training, he gained the life experience that would propel him through the hard times yet to come.
In 2011, Nicolai lost his father, a retired Marine, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Months before the loss of his father, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after what he thought to be a turning point in his mother’s illness, Nicolai decided to enlist in the Marine Corps and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Nicolai joined the Delayed Entry Program, which allows recruits to enlist in the military and specify a future reporting date for entry. As his mother’s condition worsened, Nicolai postponed his ship date until he was no longer able to. He shipped out to recruit training Nov. 26, and joined Platoon 2151, Company G, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion here.
Three weeks after his arrival, drill instructors escorted Nicolai to the company office. “They told me that the Red Cross called, and my mom had died,” he said. “Losing my dad was the only thing that helped prepare me a little bit for losing my mom.”
Nicolai’s mother died the day before initial drill, an evaluation that tests recruits on their drill knowledge and skills, but he stayed and completed it before flying home to be with his family, said Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Enrique Lopez, his senior drill instructor.
Soon, Nicolai was on an airplane, headed back to the depot to finish his training.
“Coming to recruit training the first time was hard, but it was harder coming back the second time,” said Nicolai, a 22-year-old Medina, Ohio native. “When I got back, I was losing focus, and I was always frustrated. I didn’t want to get up anymore. I wasn’t the same.”
With the guidance of his drill instructors, Nicolai said, he realized that although he was struggling, he had to push through and continue. Through the hardship, he kept the position as guide that he had earned early on in recruit training.
“I’m pretty sure he still thinks about it, but he doesn’t let it get in his way of being guide,” Lopez said. “He motivates the other recruits, because they saw him stay strong through what he was going through. He set the example for them.”
Through his loss, Nicolai said, he gained a new perspective on life that helped him finish recruit training.
“I was sitting at medical and had a realization that I defined myself by what I gave up for my parents,” he added. “Taking care of my parents is who I was -- it’s what I did. When my mom died, that part of my life was over.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he continued. “I was at recruit training trying to become a Marine, but I hadn’t made it what defined me. All of a sudden, I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, I want to lead and take care of Marines.”
Through it all, Nicolai’s drive, knowledge, spirit and perseverance not only earned him the title Marine, but also led him to graduate as the company honor man, the recruit who demonstrated the highest level of leadership throughout recruit training.
Nicolai’s motivation and knowledge of the Marine Corps and life showed throughout training and set the example for all recruits, Lopez said.
“I am who I am today because of my parents,” Nicolai said. “If it wasn’t for my parents who were loving, strict and iron-willed, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”