Surviving perilous combat missions in Afghanistan and a horrific helicopter crash, Army veteran Nicholas Pilozzi,’17, pursued his college degree in memory of fellow fallen soldiers.
Nicholas Pilozzi, ‘17, Won’t Quit.
Before attending Daemen College, Pilozzi experienced harrowing Army combat in the mountains of Afghanistan and personal tragedies that would have stopped anyone in their tracks. But Pilozzi carried on with fierce determination and dedication, motivated by the memory of good friends lost in a complicated war.
“I attended Daemen College for much more than a degree,” explains the former U.S. Army scout in the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment (Recon), 10th Mountain Division. “I did it for my friends who died in Afghanistan and never got the chance to come home and further their education. I owe it to them.”
A City of Tonawanda native, Pilozzi earned a degree in history at Daemen and hopes to continue his education to become a college history professor. Having taken part in U.S. military history in Afghanistan, he envisions bringing his personal experiences to teach students about the war. That includes some traumatic experiences beyond imagination for even the most hardened combat soldier.
Makings of a Survivor
Pilozzi enlisted in the Army right out of Tonawanda High School where he had played football, baseball and lacrosse. His athleticism would serve him well as a scout in the rugged Afghanistan mountains where combat missions could last for months at a time. In 2006, he was deployed to the Kunar province of Afghanistan – specifically the Korangal and Chowkay Valleys – some of the roughest areas of the country, on the border with Pakistan, and a favored crossing point for insurgents fighting the U.S. troops.
Only four months into his service, Pilozzi and his fellow soldiers in Able Troop were being picked up to return to base from a two month long reconnaissance mission high atop a mountain in the Chowkay Valley during Operation Mountain Lion. A Chinook helicopter made a difficult landing on a mountain cliff and hovered while the soldiers loaded hundreds of pounds of gear. Pilozzi had loaded his gear and felt the nose end of the aircraft suddenly drop. As the pilots attempted to regain their position on the narrow cliff, the rear rotor blade of the helicopter struck a tree.
Instinctively, Pilozzi jumped out the back of the helicopter, slamming his face into rock and badly injuring his knee. “It felt like someone pushed me off that helicopter,” he recalls. “I had my grandfather’s prayer book in my uniform pocket, so who knows?” As he picked himself up, he watched in horror as the helicopter tumbled hundreds of feet down the side of the mountain and exploded into a giant fireball.
Just 18-years-old at the time, Pilozzi was the only soldier who was able to escape from the helicopter prior to the crash. Ten other soldiers, including three of his close friends and his squadron commander, were killed in the explosion. Pilozzi and soldiers from his platoon slid down the mountain to the fiery scene but there was nothing they could do. They secured the site overnight and in the daylight helped carry the remains of the 10 fallen soldiers out of the helicopter wreckage.
Pilozzi and the crash story are featured in the 2012 national best seller, “The Outpost,” written by CNN anchor Jake Tapper about the war in Afghanistan.
Back into Action
Pilozzi’s Army service did not end with the crash. Even though injured, he immediately returned to the front line, fighting the “bad guys” as he calls the opposing forces. “We were well-trained and the Army couldn’t afford to lose experienced combat veterans,” he explains. “Plus, the loss of my friends made me want to fight even harder and keep going.”
Including combat patrols, Pilozzi estimates he participated in hundreds of missions, all made more difficult by his badly injured knee. About a year after the crash, he was wounded during combat by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), suffering shrapnel wounds. He was awarded the Purple Heart but his additional wounds made it next to impossible to return to battle. He was retired by the Army in 2008.
Wounded Warrior At Home
Debbie Pilozzi says she and her husband, Rich, never knew where their son was when he was deployed to Afghanistan. “We would go months without hearing from him. It was torment every day,” she recalls. “We saw on the news that a helicopter had gone down, and, as a mother, I just had this feeling. I knew Nick was involved. The phone rang a short time later.”
Pilozzi’s parents leaned on their Catholic faith for support during his deployment, and when he returned home he had tremendous support from family and friends. In constant pain, Pilozzi owned a home and took care of house maintenance himself. One day, while cutting the grass, his bad knee gave out and he fell, causing the lawn mower to lurch up and come down on his foot. Tbe accident caused an extensive injury that led to amputation of his foot. With strength and determination, he recovered from the accident and carried on.
“I am in awe of what Nick has accomplished after all he has been through,” his mother says. “He works so hard and never asks for or complains about anything. He has always been an awesome kid.”
Following the lawn mower accident, a determined Pilozzi enrolled at Niagara County Community College (NCCC). “It was hard, because keep in mind, he had suffered a brain injury and was still recovering,” his mother says. “He set out to prove the doubters wrong and he certainly did so.”
After earning an associate’s degree at NCCC, Pilozzi enrolled at Daemen to pursue a history degree. In his senior year, he was selected as the first recipient of the Karamanoukian Scholarship, established with a generous gift from Daemen board trustee Dr. Hratch Karamanoukian and his wife, Karen Karalus Karamanoukian. “Dr. Karamanoukian is a strong advocate for veterans returning from war,” says Pilozzi. “His support and encouragement were invaluable in helping me earn my degree at Daemen.”
Pilozzi says he worked closely with a number of faculty members during his history studies at Daemen, including Dr. Lisa Parshall, associate professor of political science, Dr. Aakriti Tandon, assistant professor of political science, and Dr. Andrew Wise, professor of history. Pilozzi wrote his senior thesis on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and, with the guidance of Wise, worked to bring his own Afghanistan experience to the capstone project.
“We were headed down the same path as the Soviets, and I wanted to explore what we can learn from them about our involvement in Afghanistan,” says Pilozzi. “It is a very complicated situation in a tribal society where, when they are not fighting us, the age-old tribes are fighting one another.”
According to Wise, Pilozzi was able to incorporate his military understanding of the country’s terrain and cultures and nation as a whole into his work while remaining objective in his research and the final paper. “Nick did a great job on his thesis and set a very good example for the other students, demonstrating how to be passionate about a topic while remaining open-minded and unbiased,” recalls Wise. “He was extremely dedicated to working on his senior thesis, even when his academic courses and research extended into the summer months.”
Not surprisingly, Wise describes Pilozzi as a highly disciplined self-starter who did a lot of work independently. “Nick showed that he understands he has a lot to learn – a good sign as he continues his education,” says Wise. “He was always a constructive member in the classes I taught, and it was very heartening to watch him develop.”
Pilozzi says he was pleased with the support he received as a student veteran at Daemen. As a designated Military Friendly School, the college provides various services and support for student veterans, including the Nancy Haberman Gacioch Center for Veterans. He notes that his studies involved a lot of work, which became progressively more challenging, but skills he learned in the military such as discipline and time management, combined with support from Daemen faculty, helped tremendously in being successful in his studies.
“I thank God every night that Nick made it home,” says his mother, Debbie. “After seeing how badly he was injured, to now see him as a college graduate continuing his education, I am so proud of him.”
Pilozzi has not yet decided where he will attend graduate school. He says the friends he lost continue to be the inspiration for pursuing a career as a history professor.
“Graduating from Daemen is like a shout out to my guys,” he concludes. “I will never forget them. I am doing this in their memory, and I won’t quit.”