People rally for wounded Marine

October 11th, 2011

By Howard Altman | Tampa Tribune | Tbo.com | October 11, 2011

For Rob Barrow and Richard Hartmann, perhaps the hardest part of trying to build an addition to the home of a severely wounded Marine is finishing a sentence.

"Every time I tell someone the story of Cpl. Mike Nicholson, I get ready to start a sentence asking for help, but I can't finish it," said Barrow, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. "Can you help with the conc?… Can you help with the dry wa? … I can't finish the sentence because people have been so eager to help, and they just jump in and offer."

Hartmann, a South Tampa architect, said he has had the same experience.

"I have not been denied one time on any request," he said. "People tell me they are onboard as soon as they hear about Cpl. Nicholson. It is very inspirational to see the community rallying behind this young wounded warrior."

About six weeks ago, Barrow and Hartmann embarked on an effort to upgrade the home, at 3316 Barcelona St., South Tampa, where Nicholson grew up.

On June 6, Nicholson, 22, a Plant High School graduate, was severely wounded while on patrol in Afghanistan. He lost both legs below the knee and his left arm above the elbow. Since then, he has undergone 21 excruciating surgeries. But his parents, John and Mary Nicholson, are hoping to bring their son home by January to recuperate.

But to do that, they will need to rehab Nicholson's room and build an adjoining bathroom to accommodate his wheelchair.

Barrow and Hartmann figure the family has been through enough. The community will step in to help them.

A former operations officer for U.S. Central Command and the Marines at MacDill Air Force Base, Barrow said he learned about Nicholson like a lot of people have — through a friend.

Barrow got a call from Annie Okerlin, a yoga teacher involved in a project called Exalted Warrior, which provides yoga services to wounded veterans.

"Annie called me from leaving Bethesda," he said. "There she ran into this severely wounded Marine named Mike Nicholson who was from Tampa. She knows I am a general contractor and do work at VA-involved charities. I said, 'I got it.' "

Barrow broached the concept of rehabbing Nicholson's home to his partner, who told him to reach out to Hartmann.

Hartmann was familiar with Nicholson. Though they never met, the two attend Christ the King Church. He said it was his duty to help.

"We hit it off right away," Barrow said of Hartmann. "His head and heart are in the right place. I jokingly call him the pied piper. I have been making a few phone calls, but he is working at 10 times my speed."

Hartmann said he will "never forget the day, Monday, Aug. 22, that Rob responded to my email response. He said, 'I will see you at 16:45.' I said to myself, 'Oh, gosh, I've never been in the military. What time is that? I have learned a lot of military jargon in the last six weeks."

It wasn't long before the idea of rehabbing the Nicholson house caught fire, said Barrow and Hartmann. The two reached out to friends. The friends called friends.

Barrow talked to the Semper Fi Fund. Home Depot had given the charity $500,000 to reconfigure homes of disabled veterans across the country. The fund offered $50,000 for the Nicholson home.

But the outpouring of support has been so great, they may never use all that money, Barrow said. "The labor has been donated," he said.

"Almost every subtrade that we need is volunteered," said Hartmann. "We are also hitting up a number of South Tampa restaurants and sandwich shops, who have been stepping up to donate food for people doing the volunteer labor."

Though there is plenty of help to rehab the house, there is still a major hurdle to clear.

To accommodate Nicholson's needs, Hartmann's design calls for an attached addition, including a bathroom that meets Americans With Disabilities Act standards. But that requires a variance from the city's zoning board.

The board meets tonight.

Barrow and Hartmann have reached out to the public, asking for help, this time with letters in favor of the project and people showing up at the hearing. Once again, several people responded with letters of support, including those from the Nicholsons' next-door neighbors. Still, no one is taking chances.

"I have been dealing with construction for a long time with variances and zoning, and you don't know until that night what will happen," said Councilwoman Lisa Montelione. "Opposition seems to come out of the woodwork."

Like many others, Montelione found out about Nicholson by a phone call from a roofing company asking if her fiancé's construction company, Rising Force Construction, wanted to help.

Montelione doesn't represent Nicholson's district. But she wanted to do what she could for the wounded Marine.

John Nicholson said the family is grateful for the support.

"We are so honored to see so many people come forward."

Nicholson continues to improve, according to a note sent by his mom, Mary Nicholson, in a weekly report circulated by Barrow and Hartmann.

"Michael has officially moved into the outpatient barracks, a separate building, and away from the hospital environment," she writes. "He is now able to enjoy Mom's home cooking on a regular basis. He continues to heal and is working hard in therapy. … This has been uplifting for his spirit and determination and is one more step on the long road to recovery."

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