Overcoming adversity is something Nick Kalt knows a thing or two about. He nearly got his hands blown off in a Marine training mishap at Camp Pendleton, was shot in the abdomen in Iraq during Operation Freedom and was one of 15 from thousands hired to become a Long Beach, Calif., firefighter.
Kalt was one of the keynote speakers at the Firehouse World opening ceremony in San Diego on Wednesday.
“My parents always said I didn’t have to be the best, but you do have to give it your best,” Kalt said in an emotional and inspirational address that left many with tears in their eyes.
Kalt, who considers himself a rookie with five years of on the job experience, said he grew up “in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin” and attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., from 1996 to 2000. Because of his creed to always try hard and do the best he could, Kalt decided to go into the Marines because he thought it would be the most challenging military option he had available.
Kalt became a combat engineer and a commissioned officer commanding a platoon of 40 men ranging in age from 18 to 25.
He said his mission was being forward operations in any military actions creating roads and passages for troops to advance.
“We blow sh-- up,” Kalt said. “You have a group of young kids and give them unlimited access to explosives, there’s going to be a lot of sh-- blown up.”
Three months into his platoon training, the attacks of 9/11 hit the nation and everyone in his platoon was glued to televisions, radios and any other means of communications to learn more about the tragic events.
“As professional warriors for our country, we knew we would be responding,” Kalt said. “So we made sure we were prepared. In the weeks and months that followed, we trained in combat deployment so everyone goes home safely.”
Unfortunately, a training accident forced Kalt out of action with his first platoon.
A primer detonated in his hands, leaving Kalt with severe injuries that kept him from deploying.
“I had dedicated my whole adult life to these guys and now they were going into combat without me,” Kalt said. “I was feeling pretty bad for myself. I couldn’t even wipe my own ass. I knew I would never play the piano, then I remembered I didn’t play the piano.”
Kalt pushed himself and did weeks and months of rehabilitation to get back into physical condition to serve his country. He worked so hard he was able to do pull ups with the one functioning finger on his right hand.
He impressed a physician sufficiently that he signed a release allowing him to go back into active duty, Kalt said, adding that he had wished for, and got another platoon to lead into combat deployment.
He said many people would not wish for combat deployment, but he said that’s exactly what he had been training and preparing for during the past seven and half years of his life and he was ready. He said it’s not unlike firefighters longing for fires.
“No sane firefighter wants to see a house with personal belongings burned,” Kalt said. “…But there’s nothing better for the morale of the department than a good structure fire.”
As a member of the nation’s military, with a sworn duty to protect and defend the country and to protect his brothers to the left and right, it was time to go into battle, Kalt said.
And his unit was deployed to Iraq during Operation Freedom to Najaf Iraq and then later to Fallujah. While he was deployed, his guys were assigned to collect all the materials in the region used to create Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).
On Nov. 22, 2004, Kalt said he and his unit encountered enemy fire and he was struck just under his ballistics vest in his abdomen with a round from an AK-47. The bullet traveled through his body and exited his buttocks.
“In the movies, it’s funny when someone gets shot in the ass, but I’ll tell you, it’s not,” Kalt said. He instinctively knew that his injury was “not good.”