PORTAGE | When George Nickos landed in Vietnam in 1968, he wasn't sure what his role would be in the war.
He soon learned. A heavy machine operator for the U.S. Army, Nickos and his unit worked closely with the infantry. They were the guys, he said, who would go in before or after the infantry, clearing areas ahead or behind the troops.
"We'd clear a landing strip for helicopters. At the same time we were doing that, they were spraying us with Agent Orange," Nickos, 69, recalled recently.
But it wasn't only landing strips for which they'd clear swaths of jungle. They'd also trip booby traps with their dozers, find and destroy underground tunnels and provide a safe path for the infantry to move forward.
His time in country earned Nickos two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroism.
Nickos was born and raised in Chicago. After high school he took what he called "mediocre" jobs. The war in Vietnam was raging, and he figured he'd enlist, set on getting training and preparing for his future.
He joined in 1967 with the intent of being a mechanic, but his status was changed to heavy equipment operator. He reported to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic and advanced training and attended engineer school. He then went on to Fort Benning in Georgia, working in transportation.
It was Sept. 4, 1967, that he got the call that he was going to Vietnam, with his military occupational specialty changed to rotary tiller operator.
"I was surprised they needed that in Vietnam," he recalled.
In May 1968, he landed in Cam Rahn Bay, attached to the 595th Engineers.
The unit was assigned to "wherever the infantry needed us," said Nickos. That area ranged from Saigon south to the Mekong Delta.
Nickos earned his first Purple Heart after following a new lieutenant out into the field, he said.
"He decided to take a walk in a rice paddy. He stepped on a booby trap," said Nickos, adding he was hit with shrapnel on his right side.
Nickos landed in the hospital in Cam Rahn Bay for three or four days before being discharged and sent back to his unit.
He and some others were headed back to the unit, he said, when they were ambushed by the Viet Cong.
"The VC were sitting out in the middle of the road and ambushed us. I took a couple of rounds and shrapnel," he said, earning his second Purple Heart in less than a week.
But it was Nickos' activity following that attack that earned him the Bronze Star.
After the attack, the men didn't have a radio to call for help. Nickos, injured, went for help.
"After valiantly returning the fire and forcing the enemy to break contact, Specialist Nickos, without regard to his own safety, went in search of help. He ran a distance of over a 1/2 mile alone and through VC infested territory to reach an ARVN compound and call for help," according to the official citation awarding him the Bronze Star.
"Disregarding his own wounds and pain, he insisted on guiding the dustoff to the ambush site. Since the men who he had left had moved, the dustoff required to search for them for over an hour," it continues, saying Nickos' "heroic and valiant actions" saved the lives of the others.
After recovering from those wounds, Nickos said his commander didn't want him to tempt fate and kept him close at hand until his 15 months in country were up.
Nickos came home in December 1969 on a commercial airline. The pilot, he said, tipped the wing in honor of the servicemen on board as they flew over Oakland, Calif., to welcome them home.
While the men were suggested to change into civilian clothing because of the anti-war sentiment at home, Nickos said none of them did.
Upon his return, Nickos worked in a food store and then got a job with the Chicago Fire Department, serving seven years as one of the department's first emergency medical technicians. He then moved to Portage, where he served 20 years on the Portage Fire Department, including a term as its chief before retiring 15 years ago. Since then he's worked as a court security officer for the Porter County Sheriff's Department.
Nickos, who left the Army as a sergeant, said his time in the military led him to his career serving others.
"It made more of a man out of me. It made me more service-oriented," he said.
There is another lesson he learned.
"I learned what it's like to have a weapon and what weapons can do. It is really mind-opening," Nickos said.