In October 2006, Major Anthony Nichols found himself and his small team of Iraqi soldiers on the outskirts of Sabaa Al Bour, Iraq, staring down yet another darkened cinder-block house. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the violence between Iraqi groups erupted, leaving the city of nearly 30,000 deserted. Only a handful of people remained, and they were ready to fight. “We were searching every house in the town. We came to a three-story house, and as soon as we kicked the door in, we knew something was wrong. The religious art was Sunni, but the men in the house were wearing Shia rings. We knew they were fighters.”
Nichols looked into the distance, speaking with the urgency of a man describing a scene happening live. “While we detained them on the first floor, I heard gunfire. I ran up to the third floor with my interpreter following behind to get up to high ground and get a better shot.” Sprinting across the roof, Nichols felt the unmistakable crunch of broken glass, shards splintering beneath his boots as he ran. “I see who is on the other side, four men being held by fighters and about to be executed. My rifle comes up.” He motioned with his hands, the ghost of his weapon forming between his fingers. His hands come together and move toward his face, as if looking through the scope. “I shoot.” Click, click, click. The sound of his weapon discharging. His hands return to his side. “We kept those men from being killed that day.”
Along a quiet street in downtown Manhattan, Kan., a friendly, 1920s style home with a subtle art deco motif faced an original strip of red brick sidewalk. Open windows on either side of the house welcomed in grey, winter light, and wind chimes clanked a frozen greeting to strangers from the porch. Two colorful glass mosaics in repurposed window frames caught the morning light as they swung from the porch ceiling. Wicker furniture awaited warmer weather, while a stiff American flag shivered over the icy ground.
The front door swung open, and two barking dogs rushed ahead of Nichols into the entry. “This is the welcoming committee,” he laughed as he attempted to shoo them out of the walkway. Hardwood floors striped the length of the first level, with a staircase at the center. “Come. Come eat some pizza,” he called to the dogs. Walking to the kitchen counter with the dogs trailing behind, he held out tiny squares of pizza to each of them, which they hungrily consumed. “I ran out of dog food,” he stated, matter-of-fact.
He motioned toward his workshop, tucked into the front corner of the house, and pointed to a yellow glass sunflower taking shape beneath his work lamp. On a nearby table, jars of various colors of broken glass surround another piece of art in progress. “This is one of the pieces I’m working on right now. My main customers are military wives. I am getting calls from other bases now though,” he added proudly. In a buttoned down cardigan, dark blue jeans and an easy smile, he seemed at home here.
After 23 years in the Army, Nichols now owns a glass mosaic artistry business, Kickin’ Glass Kansas. His work with glass did not start as a business, however. “I did my first mosaic windows in 2005 to decorate a crappy rental we had in Fort Jackson, SC. I discovered I liked it, then I made so many, my wife made me sell them at a craft show the summer before I went to Iraq. After I got out, I couldn’t get a job, and we decided I would do the art and sell it. Then she got a job as a military liaison to Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. She is excellent at her job,” he bragged.
Nichols, a retired Army officer and former tank commander, refers to himself now only as an artist. “When you leave the Army, you don’t have a sense of purpose. I got out, and people asked me what I do. It took me three years to have an answer. I’m not a combat veteran. I’m not a retired Lieutenant Colonel. I’m an artist. So, my time and my effort and my mind is going to be on something else.”
The son of a celebrated veteran, Nichols recalled the enduring reminders of his father’s accomplishments formed an early drive to impress his father, eventually laying his own path toward the military. “My father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. Right after the Korean War, he was a reconnaissance pilot and flew over North Korea by himself at 60,000 feet. He didn’t have enough gas to get back, so he shut his engine off and glided into the landing.”
“He won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and I grew up with that on the wall,” Nichols said, referencing the environmental expectations of a successful parent. Yet he smiled proudly as he spoke of his father. “He will be 90 next month. He still walks three miles a day and wears a sport coat every time he leaves the house.”
While a military career may have been an obvious choice for the son of a veteran, Nichols viewed his venture into military life as a course correction. “I was a spoiled country club kid, a bit of a screw up. I was going to college and was engaged to this girl, but I didn’t want to get married. I felt like, ‘I am meant for something else. I need to go swashbuckle.’ So I enlisted in the Army.”
Yet Nichols did not realize his intent to become a fighting Soldier would be so quickly realized. “When I got out of basic [training] in August 1990, people were hanging American flags on a bridge as I drove beneath it, and I didn’t know why. It turned out, while I was in basic, Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. I got deployed right away, and I was a scout on a Bradley [tank].”
After deployment, Nichols decided to spend the rest of his military career as an officer. “After I graduated Officer Candidate School, my dad pinned the Second Lieutenant bars on me. OCS was brutal, but it was worth it.” What meant most to Nichols after graduating OCS was making his father proud. “My dad finally saw me as a man.”
It would be over a decade before Nichols would deploy again, returning to Iraq in 2006. “I was 40 years old the second time I went to Iraq. I was a tank commander, and I was given nine support soldiers, and we had to build an Iraqi unit. I lived with the Iraqis for the entire year I was in Iraq. I had to train them how to do combat everyday, sometimes three times a day,” he recalled. “We became an amazing team.”
He pointed to a framed Bronze Star award on the wall. “Now I have that on the wall,” he said, a subtle reference to his own accomplishment mirroring his father’s. “That is my Bronze Star medal from Iraq. I got one in Afghanistan too, but this one is my favorite.”
For Nichols, his mosaic artistry is not a divergence from military life but rather a new expression of his experience. “If I ever wrote a book about my time in combat, I would call it ‘The Artist’. Combat is a problem-solving art. If you don’t have an imagination, you’re going to get into some trouble.”
The sounds of combat still haunt Nichols, but in a surprising way, his art is his redemption. He stood with a piece of glass between his pliers, pulling his fingers together until the glass snapped in half. “When I am standing here clicking glass with my glass cutters, it is the same rhythm as when a weapon is firing shots. Click, click. The bullet makes that same sound.”
“In combat, it feels like little pieces of you break off. You know what you just saw was really fucked up, and you can feel it breaking. Click, click, click.” He compared his own internal shattering to the sound of glass breaking, to the sound of his weapon firing. “Something inside you is breaking, and you will have to deal with it later. You can’t deal with it now.”
Nichols knows for him, the process of piecing together a mosaic is perhaps even more valuable than the finished product, a quiet yet revolutionary act of putting himself together as well. “I process the memories as they come up, but I am working on something while I do it. I live my life 24 hours at a time. Fight the fight you are in right now. Right now, I am going to do this,” he said of his art. “It keeps me from getting overwhelmed. Little pieces turn into a big piece, but it’s one little piece at a time.”
To commission Tony for work, email email@example.com or visit his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Kickinglasskansas/
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.
Photography by: Blade Mages