AUGUSTA, Ga. – More than half an hour passed with no success as Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Tyciak attempted to reach his Marine via repeated telephone calls. Sgt. Landon Rios, a 25-year-old recruiter with Recruiting Substation Augusta, Recruiting Station Columbia, did not arrive to work on time the morning of June 20. Tyciak, the RSS staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, listened to Rios’ voice mail message repeatedly until an unfamiliar voice finally answered the call. It was a nurse here at the Georgia Regents Medical Center, and he informed Tyciak that Rios was in very bad shape.
Rios’ story began in Fort Myers, Fla., during the fall of 2006, where he met a friend from high school who recently returned from Marine Corps Recruit Training at Parris Island, S.C. The young Marine informed Rios of intangibles he embraced during his initial training, such as pride of belonging and physical fitness. The two young men played football together as freshman at Fort Myers High School, where Rios developed a passion for physical fitness.
Rios viewed the Marine Corps as a viable career option for the future, which influenced his decision to enlist in November 2006. He departed for recruit training less than one month later, where he realized his full potential for physical strength and endurance.
“The Marine Corps sets the bar for physical standards,” Rios said. “Whether running or strength training, the experience taught me to challenge myself and help others where they need improvement.”
He graduated recruit training on March 25, 2007, and later attended the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., where he studied as an avionics technician specializing in integrated modular avionics-level electronic countermeasures for helicopters. Rios relocated to Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. following graduation from his military occupational specialty training school and began his military career maintaining global positioning and radar systems, night vision goggles and in-flight communication equipment for CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. In July 2010, he became a collateral duty inspector and crew supervisor responsible for 15 Marines in support of seven squadrons and an array of rotary-wing aircraft.
Although he served an important purpose in keeping aircraft electronic systems functioning, he also dedicated a considerable amount of time to his Marines’ personal and professional development. As a physical fitness enthusiast, he explored new ways to help his Marines reach their peak performance physically through a strenuous training regimen. His experience in leading Marines prepared him for the next chapter of his life in a deployed environment.
He deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011, where he served at Camp Leatherneck in the same capacity with seven Marines under his supervision. Rios described this period as a key time of his career, in which he was responsible for the wellbeing of other Marines within a combat environment.
“It’s important to ensure that they are taken care of,” Rios said, referring to his Marines during the deployment. “The smaller teams allow for better oversight for the Marines and their safety. It also helps to produce good quality work and keep morale high during a difficult time.”
His mentorship experience influenced his decision to volunteer for recruiting duty after he realized the ways in which he could positively affect the Marine Corps’ future. Shortly after returning from Afghanistan in August 2011, he earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Health Care Management from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He also attended the Basic Riders Course and Sport Bike Course before purchasing a brand new motorcycle. Rios proceeded to the Basic Recruiter Course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in July 2012 and graduated the following month.
He arrived at RS Columbia in August 2012 to begin his 36-month tour of recruiting duty with RSS Augusta. He attributed his success thus far as a recruiter to his communication skills and sharp appearance in uniform.
“It’s imperative to show people what a Marine looks like, to show the intangibles by being the prototype Marine,” Rios said. “Promoting these values encourages young enlistees to strive harder to achieve their goals.”
He displayed his commitment to physical fitness during multiple workouts each week while preparing enlistees for recruit training. Tyciak, a native of Blackwood, N.J., said Rios sets a high standard for his enlistees, one that helps the recruits when they arrive at Parris Island. Tyciak, who served as a recruiter in Fort Pierce, Fla., and Naples, Fla., from 2005 to 2009, said Rios provides a significant proof source of physical fitness and discipline for others to emulate.
However, Rios’ fortune took a turn for the worse the morning of June 20 on his way to work. Approximately two to three miles from his office, Rios noticed gravel and debris covering the roadway while riding his motorcycle onto an interstate bypass. He maintained his distance from the cars around him and attempted to slow the bike using a combination of the front and rear brakes, but he knew it was too late. His bike fell to its left side while traveling an estimated 25 mph and slid with Rios attached for an additional 20 feet before he finally broke lose.
Dazed and confused, he picked himself up and walked slowly toward the mangled bike. He then sat down against the side wall of the bypass and waited. Several motorists stopped to assist.
“Are you hurt,” one person asked, as Rios recalled the event. He responded, “I’m OK.”
He remembers feeling OK at first, relieved that he survived the accident. But he soon realized the severity of the situation as the adrenaline subsided and first responders removed the sheared protective equipment from his left leg to reveal a crater where his left knee once was, now filled with debris and small bone fragments. He could also feel the excruciating pain of road rash along his forearms as paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. The same thought passed through his mind continuously: his career just met its end.
Rios suffered from a patellar tendon tear and severely damaged kneecap in his left knee, a broken toe, and road rash. Medical professionals determined that Rios’ condition warranted an emergency surgery to repair the knee and lessen the potential for infection. His surgery began within the hour.
Meanwhile, a nurse at the hospital spoke with Tyciak over the phone about the severity of Rios’ condition. Tyciak and his Marines departed their recruiting office immediately for the hospital.
“I was very concerned for his health,” said Tyciak, who served as an AH-1Z Cobra and UH-1 Huey power plant mechanic prior to recruiting. “We were all worried about him.”
Tyciak and his Marines visited Rios following the surgery, but he was unconscious. Hours passed when he finally awoke. He opened his eyes, disoriented, attempting to identify the figure next to him. It was Sgt. Maj. Anthony N. Page, the senior enlisted advisor of RS Columbia.
Hours before the accident, Page was conducting a command group visit in support of the recruiting substation in Greenville, S.C. He departed the Greenville recruiting office immediately after hearing the news of Rios’ hospitalization and emergency surgery.
“His well-being was more important than recruiting,” Page said. “He is one of ours. If a Marine is hurt anywhere, we go and tend to that Marine. He became my number one priority at that very moment.”
Rios said, according to his nurse, Page waited at his bedside for several hours as he recovered from surgery. Within seconds of waking up, Rios asked Page about the fate of his career. Rios said Page told him he was too great of an asset for the Marine Corps to lose and proceeded to provide words of encouragement.
“I thought my career was over,” Rios said. “For Sgt. Maj. Page to be there for me in the environment and personally check on me and reassure me, it was an overwhelming experience for me.”
Page’s reassurance fueled Rios’ journey to reclamation.
Rios spent the next two weeks in agony, but not solely from pain as one would expect. His doctor mandated that he remain off his feet in bed as often as possible. A cast covered the majority of his left leg, from his upper thigh down to his ankle. He couldn’t walk on his own even though he wanted to. Jokingly, he stated that some people referred to his recovery period as a vacation. He disagreed. To him, his bed was a dreaded island in which time seemingly stood still.
Disabled by his injuries, he relied on the support of others like his roommate and fellow canvassing recruiter, Sgt. Ashley Harrod. The Lexington, Ky. native helped guide Rios in the weeks after the accident. He continued serving as a recruiter with his own mission requirement, but he still found the time to check on Rios throughout the day. He prepared Rios’ daily meals and returned periodically each day to check him.
“He could do very little on his own,” Harrod said. “I didn’t mind helping him out because that’s what Marines do.”
Two weeks passed, and the heavy cast remained attached to Rios’ damaged leg. But that did not stop him from making his trips to the apartment gym. Harrod said Rios performed very light workouts at first with an emphasis on not bearing weight on his left leg. Harrod initially had doubts about his ability to maintain a workout regimen while recovering from his accident. However, after seeing his performance in the gym, Harrod knew that Rios would make a dramatic recovery.
Day by day, Rios returned to the gym. One familiar face approached him and asked, “Why are you in the gym now?” Another, “What happened to you?” Rios did not allow the perception of his incapacity to affect his path to recovery. He continued to push, day in and day out, to regain the physical strength and confidence that he lost in the accident.
Rios removed his cast after the six-week term mandated by his doctor. He continued his progression in a knee brace with the support of crutches. At 10 weeks, he put down his crutches and removed the large knee brace for the last time. He introduced leg activities to his workout regimen, to include leg extensions, leg lifts, rubber band squats, and parallel shuffles. At the 12-week mark, he completed his first jog on the treadmill. Weighted squats, lunges, leg presses, and leg curls entered the fray at week 13.
“I felt myself becoming stronger with each workout,” Rios recalled. “I am now doing everything I was doing before the accident, but I still feel that I can improve. My legs are strong, and I am running fast.”
The most difficult challenge of Rios’ life began on June 20. Many could have easily written him off as finished and beyond recovery. But those who mattered didn’t. His fellow Marines, from the recruiting office up to the recruiting station command group, remained by his side and supported him in his recovery. Rios reclaimed what he had lost, and he has returned to his role as a recruiter and as source of inspiration for those who take the challenge head on.