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Updated Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 11:48 PM

Wounded Moses Lake Marine has 'a crazy tough spirit'

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

Cpl. Nick Kimmel, once a standout baseball player at Moses Lake High School, was back in the infield a couple weeks ago.

It was different this time.

He stood in the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park not as a player, but as a wounded Marine there to throw the ceremonial first pitch of Game 2 of the World Series.

When Kimmel tottered on his prosthetic legs after placing the ball squarely over home plate, pitcher Barry Zito and Hall of Famer and Army veteran Willie Mays helped the smiling Marine keep his balance.

That tribute to U.S. service members and veterans was a high point for the baseball-crazy Kimmel, who lost both legs and his left arm in Afghanistan last December.

As Veterans Day approached, Kimmel, 22, spoke about his experience in a phone interview from San Diego, where he expects to spend most of the next year in physical rehabilitation at the Naval Medical Center.

Kimmel was just three weeks into his second tour in Afghanistan when his world turned upside down.

A member of the Okinawa-based 9th Engineer Support Battalion, he was on a fork lift inspecting the roof of a guard post under construction in the Sangin Valley, Helmand province.

Kimmel jumped off the rig — "and woke up four days later without my legs." He had landed on a roadside bomb.

Medics and doctors kept him alive and airlifted him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where he spent a month before he was transferred to San Diego. He has gone from bed to a motorized wheelchair to short prosthetics known as "stubbies" to full-length artificial legs.

The wheelchair he rarely uses now is a manual one he moves with his strong right arm. He lives with constant "phantom pain" that feels as though it comes from his lost limbs.

After graduating from Moses Lake High, Kimmel was accepted at Arizona State University but chose to join the Marines so the government, not his father, would pay for college.

Being in the military and serving in a combat zone was nothing glamorous, he said — "just plain and simple, a job."

Despite his life-altering injuries, Kimmel says he would again enlist in the Marines if he had it to do over.

He has received support from many directions.

His parents, who have remarried, and his sisters have traveled to two hospitals to visit him. His father, Rick, put his pipe-fitting job on hold to stay with him in San Diego until last week.

Civic groups in Moses Lake and the family's previous home of Ellensburg have held fundraisers for Kimmel and his family.

Strikeouts for Troops, a nonprofit founded by Giants pitcher Zito, gave him season tickets to San Diego Padres games, and he went to nearly every home game with his father. Kimmel threw out the first pitch at a Padres game and at a regular-season Giants game.

Steve Poltz, a singer-songwriter friend of Kimmel's, said the Marine drove himself in a Jeep to meet him at a restaurant for dinner Thursday night — "less than a year after losing both of his legs — I'm talking all the way up. ...

"He's got a crazy tough spirit," Poltz said. "We talked about how he's going snowboarding next month. He's not letting it stop him."

Kimmel and Poltz met in March when Strikeouts for Troops took a group of wounded service members to Arizona for Major League Baseball's spring training. Poltz performed for the troops on his way to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

Poltz was "so haunted" by Kimmel's story, he sat in his hotel room in Austin and wrote a song about him, "The Days Are Beautiful."

After Kimmel completes his physical rehabilitation and receives his expected discharge from the Marines, his plans are unsure. He wants to go to college and he's thought about trying to work in professional baseball.

He hasn't made those decisions yet. "There are too many options now," he said.

Kimmel's determination to return to an independent life is just the way he approached baseball as a youth who wasn't a natural but who "gave 500 percent," his father said.

"He doesn't do it halfway," Rick Kimmel said. "He goes all the way. Even if things were tough, he would just never give up. He's continued that throughout this experience. He's an amazing person."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com



San Francisco Giants' pitcher Barry Zito escorts Nicholas Kimmel, who gets ready to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series.




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