Back in the hunt: Soldier who lost leg in Afghanistan recovering with help of family, admirers
By Kevin Bonham
Forum News Service
GRAND FORKS — It’s been 11 months — and 21 surgeries — since Army Capt. Seth Nieman lost the lower half of his right leg and shattered his left leg in a roadside bomb explosion while he and five fellow soldiers were on mounted patrol in Wardak province near Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 27, 2012.
While his recovery continues — he has physical therapy virtually every day — the former all-state high school football star from Calvin, who also was a two-year starting offensive lineman for Army, is marching ahead with the same determination that drove the Green Beret as the leader of a 12-man Special Forces team.
“It’s been kind of a long journey,” he said in a telephone interview from Maryland. “I’ve had a lot of little setbacks. Both legs have been infected, which kind of slows down the progress. So, really, it took me a long time to walk, because my left leg was holding me up.”
He wears a prosthesis on his right leg, and has a dozen rods and screws holding his left leg in place.
“My left leg was pretty much powder down in my (fibula),” he said. “We considered amputation of my left leg several times. It’s always going to give me trouble, but I’m happy I still have it.”
Nieman found time during his rigorous rehabilitation to get married in May. His wife, Amy, is an attorney with the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which provides legal services to soldiers, officers and their families.
“She’s amazing,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without her.”
A West Point graduate, Capt. Nieman plans to enter graduate school next fall, studying kinesiology at the University of Maryland.
No return to war For a while last winter, Nieman’s main goal was to return to Afghanistan and rejoin his team. But that changed March 10, when an assailant wearing an Afghan National Security Forces uniform opened fire on the group, killing two Americans, including one Green Beret, and wounding 10 Americans.
“The captain who replaced me got killed, and a bunch of the guys got shot,” he said. “So a lot of them came back.”
The entire team returned to the U.S. in April, and it had an impromptu reunion at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“That was a pretty incredible day,” he said. “One of my guys is now an amputee as well.” Nick Lavery, originally from Massachusetts, is the soldier who pulled Nieman from his armored vehicle after the roadside bomb exploded.
“When my vehicle was on its side, on fire, he was the only one big enough and strong enough to pull me out,” Nieman said.
“He got shot, too. He got up five minutes later — that was his second Purple Heart — and got me out of there. He’s the closest thing to an actual monster I’ve ever seen. They gave him six units of the wrong type of blood, and he survived that. He’s a freak.”
Help from home Tony and Jayne Nieman flew to Bethesda last Dec. 1 to be with their son.
Jayne, who teaches family and consumer science at Turtle Mountain Middle School in Belcourt, stayed until January.
Tony, who is the Sarles, N.D., substation manager for CHS Milton Group, based in Milton, stayed with his son until April 15.
“I was out there pushing Seth around, going to this, going to that, therapy, the doctor’s office,” he said. “I’m just glad I work for a good company.
“He’s coming around. It takes so dang long. He’s getting around on his prosthesis. It’s his other foot that got real broken up.”
Tragically, family hardships were not new for the Nieman family.
Their daughter, Savannah, died of leukemia six years ago.
“So, we’ve had our battles,” Tony Nieman said. “But Seth is strong. He’ll do what he sets his mind to do.”
N.D. deer hunt Nieman’s story, which first appeared in the Grand Forks Herald last December, has been retold in newspapers and magazines all over the country, he said.
And it has sparked interest among people and organizations who have reached out to him in recent months.
An avid hunter, he’s experienced two hunting excursions in recent weeks: shooting a mule deer near Killdeer in September through the Injured Military Wildlife Program of North Dakota, and bagging a trophy bull elk with a muzzleloader this month near Spokane, Wash.
“It ends up being a lot of people giving up a lot of time to make this happen,” he said of the western North Dakota trip.
One of the coordinators was Ben Murphy, a Killdeer resident who was a starting offensive lineman for the University of North Dakota football team when it won the Division II national championship in 2001.
“We have a lot in common,” he said.
Murphy, who is in the U.S. Navy, based at an Air Force base in Ohio, is expected to retire on disability before year’s end, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year ago, according to Nieman.
Successful elk hunt About a month later, the Army captain bagged a trophy bull elk in Washington state.
That trip was arranged and paid for by Scott Marvin, a Warroad, Minn., resident who works with Hosted Hunts, a personalized hunting booking service owned by his brother, Conway Marvin.
“After I read that story in the Herald last December, I just couldn’t help but focus on the fact that this guy is the same age as my twin daughters,” Marvin said.
“That was the catalyst. My twin daughters love to hunt and fish. They go to school, go to college, and live their lives. That’s the normal life for so many young people.
“Here’s this guy the same age from Calvin, N.D., a West Point graduate, and a captain with the Green Berets, leader of a Special Forces team in Afghanistan.”
Nieman responded to Marvin this past January, saying he and his father always had wanted to go elk hunting, he said. So, they spent the next few months arranging the trip for Nieman and his father.
Marvin killed a 5-by-5 bull elk the first day of the hunt mostly on public land about 90 minutes from Spokane.
It took a bit longer for Nieman, who spotted a large, 7-by-7 bull elk early in the hunt.
“We got there Friday, and I didn’t kill him until Wednesday morning,” Nieman said. “We had seen that bull Monday evening. The guide I was with saw it at about 20 yards. He said it was the biggest bull he had ever seen in the wild.”
But Nieman couldn’t get a clear shot.
He passed up several other bulls, hoping to find the trophy again, which he did on Wednesday morning.
“We saw him on Wednesday morning, but he had the antlers broken off on one side,” Nieman said. “He had a lot of blood on him. He had fighting wounds that looked almost fatal, but he was still moving around.”
D.J. Carter, his guide with Archery Outwest Outfitters, used a lost calf call to bring him closer. Nieman bagged him with a Thompson/Center .50-caliber muzzleloader from about 60 yards.
They estimate the bull elk weighed about 900 pounds. It yielded 469 pounds of meat.
“He has antlers broken off on one side, but he’s still a trophy in my book,” Nieman said.
Nieman ended up hunting on private land, an elk refuge owned by a Vietnam War veteran who also was a Green Beret.
“You couldn’t have written a script any better for what happened for Seth,” Marvin said.
“The stars and the moon lined up. The Green Beret from Vietnam met the Green Beret from Afghanistan. When it was all over, they were hugging. It was pretty special.”
Army career After he graduates from Maryland in the summer of 2016, Nieman has a job waiting for him as executive officer for the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point.
The center focuses on two areas — academics, including time management, and performance, specifically on athletics.
“You’re helping a person with goal setting, things to help make people more successful,” he said.
Nieman, who started 24 consecutive football games for Army, credits the program with his becoming a dean’s list student his senior year at West Point.
“That department is truly the reason I did so well at West Point my last year,” he said.
He said it helped him to manage time, juggling academics, athletics and life in general.
“At one time, football was the most important thing in my life,” he said.
That program taught him to schedule his time. For example, he said, in order to study after football and still get eight hours of sleep each night, he scheduled his study time, 37 minutes on one subject, 42 for another.
“I’m a believer in the carryover effect,” he said. “You have to prioritize your life.”