He was born on July Fourth, and perhaps that says it all. Nick Riccio was an 18-year-old Marine barrelling into adulthood when a massive brain injury from enemy fire in Iraq nearly killed him.
Yet, he survived to live another decade, to marry and leave the world with two young children including a 7-year-old son who loves to wear his father's medals and tell friends, "My daddy was in the war!"
Riccio died suddenly overnight Tuesday, in his bed, his wife and children at their West Ashley home - an embodiment of all that young military servicemen can face returning home from war. He was 29.
Like so many, Riccio survived only to battle chronic physical pain and combat nightmares.
"In my opinion, he's a hero and was instrumental in our ongoing freedom," said his father, retired Charleston police Lt. Dan Riccio.
The family doesn't know his cause of death yet and is awaiting results of an autopsy, his father said. Riccio's funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Ashley.
Riccio's wife, Ashley, had been caring for their sick 8-year-old daughter that night. Aubrey finally fell asleep, along with her brother, Anthony. When Ashley headed to bed shortly after midnight, she found her husband unconscious, blue and not breathing. She performed CPR and called paramedics, family and friends said.
"It's definitely heartbreaking," said Gerald Weatherford, a neighbor and close friend. "Nick was a great friend and a great father. He loved his country and loved his family."
Riccio grew up wanting to be like his family members who embraced military and police work, including his father and uncles.
But, in the way he approached life, Riccio took on what he saw as the greatest military challenge: Two weeks after graduating from West Ashley High School in 2003, he joined the U.S. Marines.
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 told The Post and Courier last summer wearing a black Wounded Warrior cap.
Just 10 years have passed since that searing hot day in 2004. Fallujah had become a hornets' nest of insurgents planting improvised explosive devices in every crevice where American soldiers might venture.
Riccio was a Marine infantryman when enemy fire hit their main base, Camp Fallujah. His unit set out to hunt the culprits.
After a fruitless search, they stopped in a palm grove to rest from the heat. Riccio sat down and unsnapped his helmet. Just then, a mortar round struck a tree above them. A nickel-sized chunk of shrapnel shot into the back of Riccio's head, blasted through his brain and blew out his right temple.
Riccio slumped forward onto his weapon. A Navy corpsman held his skull together as the group raced over 25 miles toward safety and medical care. Riccio's heart stopped beating twice.
At a Baghdad hospital, surgeons performed an emergency craniotomy, removing a palm-sized section of his skull to give his brain room to swell without killing critical tissue. Then they implanted the chunk of skull into Riccio's abdomen with the hope a surgeon could reattach it later.
Shards of shrapnel and bone remained, too embedded in his brain tissue to risk removing, permanent reminders of the trauma he endured.
'Nick was Nick'
On July 5, 2004, a day after Riccio's 19th birthday, shortly after he awoke from a coma, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps walked into his Bethesda hospital room. With his father and mother, Margaret, in the room, Riccio struggled to stand to receive his Purple Heart.
He learned to do basic life activities again. He underwent surgery to reattach his skull.
And he returned home, married and had two children. Still a muscular man with piercing blue eyes, he became a firefighter. Yet, his own post-traumatic mental health and the lingering physical effects of his brain injury stood between him and that dream.
"They say I'll be repairing my brain for the rest of my life," Riccio said last summer.
His father recalled Riccio's ongoing physical pain, although he wasn't aware it had gotten worse or changed in recent days, anything that might indicate why he died. "He had always been feeling badly," Dan Riccio recalled.
Migraines had become part of his son's daily life, along with flashbacks to combat. Riccio struggled with losses to his short-term memory and peripheral vision. He described feeling edgy and anxious, wishing he had his machine gun back.
Ultimately, he found work at a friend's business repairing industrial laundry machines while Ashley was a stay-at-home mom. Mostly, like his fellow veterans, Riccio just wanted to be normal.
"They want to live their lives like anybody else wants to. But it's more challenging for combat-wounded veterans," Dan Riccio said.
Last summer, Nick Riccio told The Post and Courier about reaching a point where he could watch military movies and play combat video games. Ultimately, he found them almost therapeutic.
The young father loved movies, comic books and Xbox games like "Call of Duty" and "Command & Conquer." While he never came to peace with explosions and avoided Fourth of July fireworks, Riccio remained as high-intensity as ever.
"Nick was Nick," Weatherford said. "I never met anybody like him."
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