Nearly a half-century after losing both legs in an ambush in Vietnam, Army veteran stays active through adaptive sports

In 1970, Army Pfc. Dave Nichols was just months into a deployment to Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade when his life changed abruptly. His unit was ambushed and, during the chaotic firefight, the 20-year-old triggered a Claymore mine.

Nichols lost both his legs in the explosion. In addition, he says he lost direction in his life.

“You go from being in the Army, and the best shape of your life and can handle anything and then the next thing you know you’re flat on your back with a life-changing injury,” explained Nichols. “You suddenly feel like you’re at the bottom of the barrel. You don’t like yourself in a way. This wasn’t supposed to be in the script.”

Nichols says the first few years of recovery were the toughest. He struggled to adapt to life as a double amputee, wounded in combat during an unpopular war.

“Then I met a girl, I went to college, started doing more things and realized I still have a lot to offer,” said Nichols, who went on to get married, have three kids and is now a grandfather.

While Nichols experienced much success in his personal and professional life after the war, he was still missing the active lifestyle he enjoyed during the Army.

As Nichols grew older, the importance of staying in shape became a priority. Decades after his injury, Nichols decided to get active.

“I was about 50 when I started adaptive sports. It changed my whole way of looking at myself and the world,” said Nichols. “You don’t have to be the best, but you can go out and give your best effort. And that’s how life is, too.”

The Stone Ridge, N.Y., resident stays active golfing or skiing, depending on the season.

Nichols is a stand up skier, using specially-adapted ski prosthetics from VA.

And he puts them to good use. In his free time, Nichols is an adaptive ski instructor at a local resort.

“It’s a way to give back,” explained Nichols. “If I can meet someone and put them on a good path in [adaptive] skiing or golf, it’s a positive emotional effect.”

While he enjoys mentoring others in adaptive sports, Nichols is still committed to personal growth as a skier. He is headed back to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo., joining hundreds of other ill and injured veterans. Nicholas has participated in the event more than 15 times.

He encourages other disabled veterans to seek out a healthy lifestyle at the DAV and VA co-hosted clinic.

“That’s what I like about these events,” said Nichols. “You can try different activities and with some assistance and adaptive equipment you are able to go out there and give it your all.

“The coaches, instructors and sponsors—they’re all on our side.”

The clinic is funded in part by nearly 90 companies, individuals and non-profit organizations that sign on as sponsors. More than 600 volunteers make the event possible by donating their time.

Nichols says the camaraderie among veterans is meaningful, too.

“It’s nice to go out there because you’re with people who are dealing with the same kind of issues and learning to adapt,” said Nichols. “You know you’re not in it alone, meeting people from all over and representing different generations.”

Whenever possible, Nichols tries to mentor younger veterans who have more recently become ill or injured and are struggling on the road to recovery—just like he did decades ago.

“I’ve been like this [an amputee] for 48 years,” said Nichols. “So it’s nice to let them know life moves on and there’s a lot of opportunities out there, both personally and professionally.”


About the event: Co-hosted by DAV and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic promotes sports therapy and rehabilitation through adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing, rock climbing, wheelchair self-defense, sled hockey, scuba diving and other adaptive sports and activities. The five day event in Snowmass, Colorado is a world leader in adaptive winter sports instruction for ill and injured Veterans and their families. Be inspired at