If you had asked me coming out of high school, I would not have said I would have gone into the military,” said SSgt. Nicole G. Richardson. But the woman who said she wasn’t ready for the “real world” after high school and joined the Air Force as an opportunity to travel the world while she figured life out is now a recipient of an Army Commendation Medal with Valor and a Marine Combat Action Ribbon for her heroic efforts during a mission in Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2012, Richardson (then SSgt. Nicole Nellist) deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, as a member of the 966th Operating Location-D Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight to support a Marine combat engineer unit. She was the only female either in or supporting the Marine 1st Combat Engineer Battalion the same summer the USMC announced that females would eventually enter Marine combat engineer units.
Her job, along with the rest of her team: Clear the route and destroy any improvised explosive devices.
In early September 2012, she and her team were sent to head out for a patrol base in Helmand’s River Valley. The team had been on missions around the area before. It was a pretty hot area, one of the main insurgent strongholds in the province. In each of the previous five or so missions into the area, the team had experienced IED strikes or received small-arms fire.
True to form, along the way the team entered into a draw leading down into the river valley and suffered several IED strikes against the vehicles in the convoy, including one that killed a marine and wounded two others.
“Everything just seemed to slow down. What was probably only an hour seemed like days,” Richardson said. “When we heard the explosion go off, we were all holding our breath waiting for the guys to come over the radio and say they were OK. It never came. We turned our vehicles around and that’s when we saw how bad the truck was.”
“We could see one of our marines lying on the ground and we knew we had lost him. As sad as that is to experience we had to press on and worry about the other two marines in the vehicles. When we got out of our vehicle, we could hear the other marines yelling for help,” she said.
Richardson helped get the two injured marines from the disabled vehicles and applied basic first aid while awaiting the arrival of a medevac to transport them to help. “The biggest thing going through my mind [was finding a] way to keep them safe and alive,” she said. “As the other personnel were extracting equipment out of the damaged vehicle and clearing a landing zone, I stayed with the two marines and made sure they kept breathing and talking. You don’t really stop to think about your personal safety when your friends are injured on the battlefield.”
Richardson recalled, “Once we got them on the medevac, it was eerily quiet. Nobody was talking and [everyone was] just sitting there reeling over what just happened. It’s a very somber moment when you can see the same emotions in 30 faces. We had realized we just lost one of our men. I will never forget those three days.”
On the third day of the mission, after completing recovery operations, Richardson and the rest of her team stood outside their vehicles trying to decide how to get all of the other vehicles out of the IED-saturated area. Suddenly, they found themselves in the midst of what Capt. Daniel S. Long, Richardson’s downrange commander, described as “a rather sustained, heavy ambush” from a group of approximately 30 insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades, launching mortars, and shooting small-arms weapons.
One of those mortars struck and injured then-TSgt. Jason Kreider, Richardson’s team leader, along with four others. The insurgent troops continued attacking with heavy small-arms fire and added machine-gun fire to the mix. Richardson and an EOD team member, SSgt. Christopher Broyles, “sprinted across open terrain back to their vehicle, got in, dismounted their M240 machine gun, and began maneuvering to try to find a location where they could best employ their fire power,” Long recalled. “At the time, [it was] the only dismounted machine gun. All vehicles, including all Marine vehicles, were kind of stuck where they were, due to the IED saturation of the area.”
Long said Broyles and Richardson navigated the uncleared field for the next “45 minutes to an hour or two,” returning fire against the insurgents in the attack. Richardson returned to her vehicle across the field, dodging fire and other planted IEDs to retrieve more ammunition from the vehicle for Broyles.
“All I was thinking was that we needed to get bullets downrange,” she said. “The most important thing is to have your biggest weapons firing downrange. [Knowing] my teammate needed ammo to help us win the fight was the most important thing on my mind.”
The biggest weapon that day was the M240B Broyles was operating. Continuing to fire off rounds of ammunition from her M4, Richardson repeatedly went back to retrieve the additional ammunition to keep feeding Broyles what he needed.
The pair was able to ward off the insurgents. “They eventually beat back enemy assault … and were able to get all of the remaining vehicles and personnel out of that draw later that day,” Long said. Richardson’s efforts in the mission were particularly important because they enabled the safe evacuation of the handful of injured marines and of Kreider, their EOD team leader, by Air Force pararescue teams.
Richardson served as team lead for “the remainder of the deployment—which was about a month, month-and-a-half,” according to Long’s memory.
“I was concerned about my team leader [the injured Kreider] and making sure he got the medical attention that he needed,” Richardson said. “He had been teaching me throughout the entire deployment how to take over the team, since I would possibly be a team leader on my next deployment. I was nervous but knew I had been taught what to do very well and could handle the pressures of being a team leader.”
She assumed the role of team leader almost seamlessly, channeling the words of her grandfather, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and told her as she prepared for her first deployment: “Always remember your training. The Air Force will never send you to do a job they haven’t trained you to do.”
Back Into the Fire
Richardson would go on to lead the group in what Long called an impressive display of leadership, including in another “particularly nasty” mission later that month. The team was tasked to support a route clearance mission in support of a time-critical resupply of some Afghan National Army posts in the northern Helmand River Valley.
During the five-day mission, the convoy came under intense heavy small-arms fire. Long recalled that the team fired close to a thousand rounds of ammunition, saying the mission required “multiple rocket, artillery, and air support attacks to beat back” the insurgents.
“Nikki’s team, and the convoy they were supporting, fired enough rounds that day that we had to pull all available ammunition at the main [forward operating base] to airlift out to them for an emergency resupply that night,” Long said.
He said Richardson and her team cleared approximately six IEDs, with limited resources—while under fire. “The convoy’s main IED-interrogation tool, a Buffalo MRAP [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle] was inop, leading the EOD team to creatively utilize their robotics packages to fill the gap,” he said. “The sustained enemy fire and heavy IED saturation on the route meant that the convoy had to return to the FOB that they started the day at, having only traveled a few miles in total.”
Throughout that mission and over the course of the deployment, Long said Richardson “performed the duties of team leader, a position she would normally have been excluded from” as a staff sergeant. Long added that she carried out these duties “exceptionally.”
“Nikki is very, very hard-driven. She does not take no for an answer. She definitely is the sort of person who, if you give her a task, she’s going to find a way to do it, one way or another,” Long said.
Kreider said Richardson’s presence on that mission, one in which women generally would not have participated, brought a sense of stability to the team. As the only female on the team from either service, “one of the things that she definitely brought to that situation was a calmness for the guys,” Kreider said. “With that situation happening, most of the marines that we were with, it was the first time that they had experienced anything like this and with her experience throughout her military career, she was able to bring some calm back into that situation and help focus the marines back on the mission at hand.”
Now stationed back at JBSA-Lackland, Texas, Nicole Nellist has since married Joseph Richardson, who previously served as an airman for eight years and in the Army for five.
She is hoping to be assigned as an instructor for Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal (NAVSCOLEOD) at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. NAVSCOLEOD is the joint-service schoolhouse that trains the next generation of EOD techs.
Richardson allowed that her job is “really cool because I get to blow stuff up” and travel a lot. Since joining the Air Force, Richardson has certainly achieved her goal of traveling the world: In 10 years of service she has visited Belgium, Brazil, Peru, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq and is hoping to one day be stationed in Germany so she can tour Europe.