Nick Vogt's alive. And that's a miracle.
It's a dramatic story of heart-stopping injuries and inexplicable survival—and a simultaneous testimony of tenacious faith and the power of prayer. Nick's horrendous suffering touched the hearts of his hometown community, the far-flung military family, and Catholics everywhere. And the mysterious interplay between setbacks and miraculous interventions has swelled the ranks of spiritual warriors praying on Nick's behalf, all around the globe.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let me tell you about Nick.
A handsome, athletic young man, Nick turns 24 today (December 13th). He has the lean muscles of a runner and the kind eyes of a big brother—his four younger siblings think he's “one of the most amazing human beings” ever. One of those rare people liked by everyone, Nick reflects his parents' strong values of family and faith. Devout Catholics, Nick's parents—Steve and Sheila—wove faith into the normal fabric of life: a crucifix in every room, nightly prayers together at bedtime, and grace before meals. “God has been a part of our everyday life since day one,” says Olivia, Nick's 22-year-old sister. And He remains so, now more than ever.
One month ago, the young lieutenant with the strong jaw and easy grin led his platoon on patrol in a still-dangerous corner of Afghanistan. It was a mission cut short. Nick stepped on a pressure-triggered explosive device (IED) hidden in the dirt beneath his feet. The lethal trap—purposely set for American soldiers—exploded under Nick, tore off his legs, and left his life hanging in the balance.
Nick should be dead, the doctors told his family later, if not from the explosion then from the precarious surgeries that followed. He suffered such severe wounds that his heart stopped several times as doctors operated to stanch the massive bleeding.
Medicine rejoices in miracles, but doesn't expect them.
Even as his family sent that first urgent message—begging for prayers for Nick—to friends, parishioners, and neighbors in Bethlehem, Ohio, God surrounded Nick with exactly the people he needed.
A skilled medic, Spc. Thomas Underhill, saved Nick's life in the intense aftermath of the blast. The military surgeons in Afghanistan, forced to amputate the torn limbs, fought tirelessly to stabilize Nick as he continued losing blood. Soldiers on base, responding to an emergency midnight appeal, sprinted over to give blood for Nick. The urgency of saving one of their own overcame their exhaustion, and the line of war-weary soldiers stretched a city block. (Before leaving the war zone, Nick needed 400 units of blood, 100 more followed later—the highest total of any wartime patient.)
Miraculously, Nick survived.
Parents will tell you that the thought of a son or daughter suffering alone is almost unbearable. The planes fly too slowly, the miles stretch too far, and the war zone delays their bedside vigil. But while Nick lay unconscious in critical care, God was there. According to his sister Olivia, “Soldiers who did not even know Nick would sit with him for hours just holding his hand …just so he wasn't alone. All for my brother who had been there not even 3 months… The amount of love from hisand other soldiers there was unbelievable.” Nick needed comfort; bonded by war, his brothers in combat took turns by his side. The faith of his family and the prayers from back home brought angels to keep watch.
As people prayed, God answered again and again, in awesome power and love. In the days just after the explosion, Nick needed repeated surgeries. His sister Olivia said. “Every doctor…said he should not be alive after all he went through.” But God was not ready to call Nick home.
In fact, Olivia says, Nick's dad jokes that Nick himself must have insisted on more time. As an officer fiercely protective of his men, Nick “was famous for going up the ladder of superiors until he got the answer he wanted.” It's not hard to imagine that “when his heart stopped in the operating room, Nick must have gone straight to the top and respectfully asked God, ‘With all due respect, Sir, I'm not done down there, so could you please send me back?'”
Nick is back—resilient Nick, powered by a loving heart, a tenacious will, and the vigilant prayers of hundreds, even thousands, of people he's never met.
Last week, Sheila Vogt posted this glimpse of Nick's indomitable spirit: “He has a big day in the OR today. He was ‘chomping at the bit' to get in there and just kept looking at the surgeon teams coming in his room and mouthing the words, ‘Let's do it.' Even as injured as he is, he still seems to be the Nick we all know and love.” Thumbs up, powering through the pain, determined to do what it takes—that's Nick.
Never afraid of hard work, Nick excelled in school, sports, and the Army, always doing more than was asked. Why serve? Because it was his dream, his calling:”When he was six years old he wanted his first flat top hair cut,” said Olivia, “He had already decided he wanted to be in the army. From that point on he never second-guessed that.”
As his West Point years drew to a close, Nick mulled over the next step: medical school or deployment. He opted to postpone medical school—for the sake of his future patients. He told his mom that he'd go to war first, so that when he treated wounded warriors in the future, he would know first-hand what they had faced.
In God's plan, there is no “what if?” He knows the “why?” and the “what comes next?” What we know is that God's promise endures: He “works all things to the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28). God's got a mighty plan for this selfless young soldier.
Our culture blindly denies the value of life “burdened” by imperfection, disability, or suffering. But that's not how his family sees it. They see the son and brother they love and for whose life they are profoundly grateful.
The Bible says, “give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess. 5:18) No easy task for us mortals; it requires divine perspective. In the midst of their grief and worry for Nick, his mom and dad gave thanks to God for the greatest gift—Nick's life. In a Thanksgiving Day post, Sheila wrote, “Steve and I went to Thanksgiving Mass today in the hospital chapel. Our prayers of thanks this year have…a much more powerful sincereness. God has blessed us with a most ultimate gift—some more time with Nick.”
Nick's life truly is a gift for others. When the time is right, I hope Nick discovers…
—The spiritual fervor he's inspired every day since his injury. Countless adults, children, and peers hit their knees every day to pray for him. Even people who haven't prayed much over the years hear Nick's story and reach out again to their Father in heaven. “God, Please heal Nick. Guide his doctors, comfort his siblings, and strengthen his parents. We're looking for miracles, Lord.” If only our lives drew others towards Christ with the same intensity.
—The gift of joy he gives his parents, doctors, and siblings each time he smiles, signals thumbs up, or delights in a favorite song. It's a gift multiplied and received by hundreds who check on him daily through Facebook, receive emails from the incredible network of military families, and read the posts on his parish's website. I wonder, do the rest of us give others such pure joy?
—The seeds of humble trust planted in the hearts of many, as God answers their prayers for Nick. On Dec. 7th, Nick's dad wrote: “Nick`s recovery has gotten more difficult. …It turns out that a blood clot had formed in his brain … He went into emergency surgery last night and the clot was removed. This latest injury had me praying hard for Nick and to give us strength against falling into despair. Within an hour of my prayer for strength we had a visitor, a friend of Nick`s who happened to be here for other business. [He] had this type of injury a while back and looks great. My prayer was answered again. I now see that this injury can also be overcome. Thanks for your support and please continue your prayers.” Would that we all trusted in God's strength, not our own.
—His impact on his siblings' faith. In the midst of her family's suffering, Nick's sister Olivia said, “In a situation like this it is easy to blame God and ask why did it have to happen to such a good person? If anything, this has brought us closer to God. We've seen miracles lately happening to Nick. When doctors themselves say he should not be alive, there is a reason he is. And our family and friends believe it's because of prayer…. For any one who has, is, or will go through this, you have to learn to trust in God and in prayer.” In pain? Trust God. Turn to Him.
—The inexpressible significance of his love. Nick awoke ten days after the explosion, the doctors stabilized him, and the military flew him and his parents to the U.S. for the next phase of treatment. Unable to talk, Nick looked at his parents next to him on the plane and mouthed to them the only words that mattered. “I love you guys!” Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). Lord, help us love like that!
To those of you just learning about Nick, Olivia says, “My family first and foremost would ask for prayers from people. They've got us so far already but he has a very long way to go.”
Nick faces the constant threat of deadly infection and many months of intensive rehabilitation. His family's journey will continue on its wild ride—the ordinary, the tragic, and the miraculous—but it's a journey they won't make alone.
Moved by the urgency of Nick's daily struggle, thousands of people will walk and talk with God more deeply today. They will thank God for the gift of life—no matter how broken and vulnerable—and beg mercy, healing, and strength for Nick, his family, and our military.
And you…will you pray too?
Will you share his story with friends, so they will pray too?
It's a small—but powerfully big—way to say thanks.
Financial support for wounded soldiers can be sent to Fisher House or the Wounded Warrior Project. Donations to support Nick's recovery can be sent to: Lieutenant Nicholas Vogt Hope Fund
c/o Sacred Heart of Jesus Church
5742 State Route 61 South,
Shelby, Ohio 44875
Mary Rice Hasson is a Visiting Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
© 2011 Mary Rice Hasson
Permission granted for republication, in whole or part, with attribution. Photos courtesy of Olivia Vogt.