TAHLEQUAH — As he lay there in the rice paddy mud, life ebbing away from four bullet wounds, Don Nichols resorted to something he normally would not have.
He started praying.
“I wasn’t raised necessarily to go to church,” he said. “But I told the Lord ‘if you let me live, I’ll do something for you.’”
The 19-year-old Marine, who’d been wounded in an enemy ambush, didn’t have to wait long for a response.
Rescued shortly after, he received medical care just in time to save his life.
Nichols never forgot his promise to God. Over the years, he’s tried to keep it by serving his fellow veterans. Most recently, it’s been through a project that he hopes will live on well after him.
A memorial — for all veterans, but dedicated to Cherokee Nation Purple Heart recipients — is currently in the works at the studio of Cherokee sculptor Troy Jackson.
Expected to be completed for dedication in November 2020, the outdoor memorial will have a permanent home in Tahlequah at a site near Muskogee Avenue and Bertha Parker Bypass.
The memorial will come with a modern twist: Using their smartphone’s QR scanner, visitors will be able to access videos of veterans telling their stories.
“We’re calling it a ‘living memorial,’ ” said Nichols, commander of the Tahlequah chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“It’s for this and future generations. We’ll start with a few interviews, but add more. We want to be capturing the stories of veterans 20 or 30 years from now.”
Nichols said the plan is to start reaching out to veterans through local service organizations soon about being interviewed. The interviews will be collected in an online database, and accessed through an app.
“I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the U.S.,” he added. “And we hope as word gets out, it will draw people from around the country.”
Nichols worked for 30 years for the state Department of Veterans Affairs and is a former national officer for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
He’s met a lot of veterans through his work, he said — “World War II veterans, Korea, code talkers, POWs.”
“And I’ve heard some amazing stories. I always thought it was too bad other people couldn’t hear them, too.”
The 14-foot-tall bronze memorial depicts two warriors on the battlefield, one who’s been wounded, the other signaling for a medical helicopter.
The concept, which Jackson came up with, hits close to home for Nichols.
On Sept. 14, 1966, he found himself in exactly the position of the wounded man.
A self-described “country boy” from near Morris, Nichols hadn’t been in Vietnam long when, while serving as pointman for his patrol unit, he was caught in an enemy ambush.
Cut down almost immediately by artillery fire, three of Nichols’ four wounds were life-threatening, he said.
“One hit me in the hip and shattered my pelvis. Another one in the right leg severed an artery,” he said.
However, the worst was the shot to the chest, he said.
Like the wounded man in the memorial, Nichols was aided by comrades and evacuated by helicopter.
Jackson said his goal is that the memorial will serve as a “daily remembrance” of what veterans like Nichols have done for the country.
“This freedom we enjoy did not come easy,” he said.
So far, fundraising for the project has brought in $106,000, which will cover the cost of the memorial. Nichols said they are seeking another $24,000 for the base on which it will sit.
Jackson, who was named a Cherokee National Treasure in 2018, did a previous project with Nichols — a bust of late Medal of Honor recipient Jack C. Montgomery which is at the Cherokee Nation Veterans Service Center.
After that one, “we decided wouldn’t it be great if we could do something to honor all veterans,” Jackson said.
Nichols emphasized that, although dedicated to Cherokee Nation Purple Heart recipients, the memorial “is for all veterans — native or non-Native Americans” and their stories.
“Something I’ve always wanted to do is capture these stories,” he said. “Now, the technology is there to do it.”