Softball tourney

A co-ed softball tournament and home run derby hosted by ProPerformance Athletics will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project and honor a local Marine who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

The event begins at 6 p.m. Friday with the home run derby, then runs through Saturday and Sunday with the softball tournament.

It marks a confluence between two men, one a police officer who fought to save people amid the horrors of Sept. 11, the other a young Marine who nearly lost his own life in the war that followed.

Tim Gansrow, owner of ProPerformance Athletics in Mount Pleasant, is organizing the event to help injured service men and women and to honor Nick Riccio, who nearly died at age 18 in Fallujah.

"I saw that death and destruction when it comes to our shores," says Gansrow, a former New York Police supervisor and FBI task force lead for terrorism who had responded to the World Trade Center attack just before the towers collapsed.

Riccio plans to attend the tournament awards Sunday evening with his family. Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page will present trophies.

About 25 softball teams have registered so far. The fee is $400 per team. The event also will include a silent auction, jump castles, dunk tanks and prizes along with baseball, softball and soccer clinics, among other fun.

Money raised from registration fees and sponsorships will go to the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project. Money raised at the event will benefit Riccio, particularly to help with home repairs, Gansrow said.

The event will be held at the R.L. Jones Center, 391 Egypt Road in Mount Pleasant.

The registration deadline is Wednesday. To donate or register a team, call ProPerformance at 388-4673 or go to properformanceathletics.com/wounded-warrior-project.

It was June 18, 2004, and Fallujah had become a hornets' nest of snipers and insurgents planting improvised explosive devices in every crevice where American soldiers might go.

Nick Riccio was just 18, barely an adult, a Marine infantryman in a deadly hub of Iraq. After enemy fire hit their main base, Camp Fallujah, his unit set out to hunt the culprits.

The search turned up empty, so they stopped in a palm grove to rest from the searing heat.

After five months of combat, the West Ashley High graduate at times felt so exhausted he thought he might hallucinate.

He sat near a tree and unsnapped his helmet.

Just then, a mortar round struck a tree above them. A nickel-sized chunk of shrapnel blasted into the back of Riccio's head, shredded a path through his brain, and blew out his right temple.

Blood and fear sprayed everywhere. Riccio fell forward, slumped onto his automatic weapon.

Seven Marines were injured. One, severely wounded in the hip, screamed in pain.

Soldiers rushed the wounded over 25 miles to Baghdad's combat surgical center. A Navy corpsman held Riccio's skull together in his hands. Twice, his heart stopped beating.

Saving his brain

By time they reached the Baghdad hospital, Riccio's brain swelled, pressing against his skull. It cut off critical blood flow and threatened to leave him brain dead, even if the rest of him survived.

Surgeons performed an emergency craniotomy, removing a hand-sized section of skull to allow his brain room to swell. Then they implanted the chunk of skull into Riccio's abdomen in hopes a surgeon could reattach it later.

Yet, they had to leave shards of shrapnel and bone fragments so embedded in his brain tissue that removing them would only risk his life more.

Riccio lingered in a coma.

To be a Marine

He was born July 4 and grew up wanting to be like his dad and other family members dedicated to military and police service.

His father, now-retired Lt. Dan Riccio, worked in the Charleston Police Department. His uncles served on the Mount Pleasant and Goose Creek forces.

Riccio wanted to be a Marine.

So two weeks after graduating from high school in 2003, he did just that. He was 17.

He turned 18 during boot camp at Parris Island, went to infantry school, became a SAW gunner and was assigned to a unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"I wanted to be on the front lines," Riccio recalls.

So he did that, too.

Riccio was sent to Kuwait, then straight to Fallujah.

"I can't tell you where I'm going," he told his parents over the phone. "But it's where you didn't want me to go."

Dan Riccio knew. His son would be in the second wave heading into Fallujah.

The phone call

Dan Riccio was hurrying to leave their West Ashley home, locking the front door that evening just as the phone rang.

He almost didn't get it. But it kept ringing, a persistent nag.

He went in and answered.

"Your son has been badly wounded..." began a commander from Camp Lejeune.

Dan Riccio slid to the floor.

His wife, Margaret, arrived home just then. When she saw her husband, she knew. She ran out, screaming.

Finding Nick

Two days later, their phone rang again. It was 5 a.m., and the jangle woke the Riccios.

The voice on the line? It was Nick.

His parents sat there, stunned.

Margaret Riccio, a nurse, listened as her son, his brain damaged, body filled with pain medication and other drugs, babbled a bit like a baby. He was calling from a U.S. Army hospital bed in Germany.

Five days after being injured, he had been flown from Iraq to Germany where he'd awoken from his coma.

"Mama?" he said.

Just 10 days after he was almost killed, Riccio's parents waited in the lobby of Bethesda Naval Hospital for a first chance to see their son, to touch him.

They waited. And waited. Seven hours passed. Darkness settled in. The hospital hushed for the night.

Still, they waited.

Would Nick be awake? How would he look?

In a burst, people rushed in pushing gurneys, 20 or more transport teams moving injured soldiers, some bodies attached to giant machines, many in horrifying shape.

The Riccios stood in a surreal daze amid the commotion.

"That's Nick!" Margaret pointed.

As medical crews triaged the wounded, the Riccios followed their son's gurney.

But when a doctor hurried over, he immediately sent the young man to an intensive care unit.

A pulmonary embolism, a blood clot, had blown into his lung. It could kill him.

At attention

In the ICU, connected to myriad tubes and machines, Riccio fought again for his life. His parents slept in a chair in the hallway outside.

Finally, he stabilized enough to move to his own room.

On July 5, 2004, a day after Riccio's 19th birthday, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps walked into his Bethesda hospital room. Marine Lance Cpl. Nick Riccio struggled to stand using the arms of his chair to receive his Purple Heart.

The long haul

A Charleston C-17 Air Force crew flew Riccio from Bethesda to a Tampa hospital, the start of a long recovery. It felt like he'd fallen asleep in an Iraqi combat zone and awoken in the Florida hospital.

He remembers nothing about the blast or the hospitals in Baghdad or Germany. His memories trickle in when he learned to use a walker and relearned how to talk, write and perform daily tasks.

"They couldn't keep him down," his father recalls.

He also had to learn to knit together disjointed thoughts as his brain healed, all while a section of his skull remained implanted in his abdomen.

"When is this gonna stop?" he'd ask himself. "When will I be normal again?"

At last, he flew home to Charleston. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center brought in a specialist to reattach his skull.

"We call him a miracle, as many times as he could have died," says his father, now the city's director of livability.

Family man

Riccio became a family man. He got married in 2006 and started a family with his wife, Ashley, and lives near his parents' home.

Ashley is a stay-at-home mom with their two children: Aubrie, who's 7, and Anthony, 6.

Wearing a black Wounded Warrior cap, Riccio explains that he still grapples with short-term memory and peripheral vision loss.

But he is in remarkable physical shape, his blue eyes quick and alert.

"They say I'll be repairing my brain for the rest of my life," Riccio says.

Medically retired, now 29, he gets disability payments that help keep his family afloat while he's taken on work repairing industrial laundry machines.

At first, he still wanted to be a police officer. The brain injury claimed that dream.

So, he became a firefighter. But working as a first responder, witnessing the blood, injured kids and other traumas, proved too haunting. He still was coping himself with combat memories, the loss of friends and the near loss of his own life.

He often felt on high alert, edgy and anxious, wishing he had his machine gun back.

He avoided fireworks on July 4. He couldn't watch war movies and suffered flashbacks.

Then one day, he was home alone. A documentary about Fallujah came on TV.

Oddly, he wanted to watch it.

Before him flashed places he'd been, sounds he'd heard.

Letting himself become awash in the stimuli, he felt an acceptance flow over him. It marked a new understanding that what happened is done - and that his future still remains.