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.”
His comrades got him back to the Humvee and as they picked him up, he realized the blood he was losing was collecting in his boots. In the rig, Kalt said he remembers giving one of the guys his dog tags and letting him know he had A Positive blood type.
“I figured I would need a little bit when I got to the hospital,” Kalt said, noting that the last thing he remembered was his rescuer telling him he may want to sit on his buttocks to stem the blood loss.
“I woke up two and a half weeks later in Bethesda, Maryland, and I remember the first thing I saw was my brother’s face,” Kalt said. “I asked him if I was going to die.” His brother responded that the worst was over but it was touch and go for a long while.
“I felt pretty terrible and I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
And he almost had died.
The doctor at the hospital in Germany where Kalt was initially evacuated to told his parents they should get to his bedside as soon as they could, or they may never see him alive again.
Kalt said his parents, who had never had passports in their lives, were winging their way to Germany and stayed at his side for the return trip in a military cargo plane for nine and a half hours.
Determined, once again, to battle back from adversity, Kalt said he went from being unable to chew his own food or move his lower body, to recovery, sufficiently well enough to become a firefighter.
“I was determined to walk again, so I went from wiggling my toes, to moving my legs to walking down the hallways with a walker, with my ass cheeks blown out, hanging out of my hospital gown,” Kalt said.
He progressed to walking with a cane, to just holding on to furniture at his parents’ home.
His recovery allowed him to welcome his guys back to base after deployment, having not lost one member, and bringing home 11 Purple Heart medals.
In 2006, Kalt was honorably discharged from the Marines and decided to join the fire service, largely because he was hooked on public service and the brotherhood firefighters share.
Kalt said he feels fortunate to have been chosen from among the thousands of applicants looking to become Long Beach, Calif., firefighters.
“Tell me that’s not luck,” Kalt said. “…I’ve heard people say that after you have a near-death experience, you start to appreciate the little things in life. From my experience, I have always appreciated the little things.” That, he said may have helped him overcome his adversities.
Kalt said even though he feels he is still a rookie to the fire service, he’s learned lessons that can help firefighters overcome adversities of almost any kind.
Whatever obstacles are placed in the way, such as budgetary constraints, or personal challenges, there’s just one thing to do.
“Each and every one of us who wears the badge will face challenges,” Kalt said. “You’ve got to figure out how to go over, around and do whatever it takes to get through it.”