TAMPA — The morning after Mary Nicholson helped organize a church reception for the family of an Army lieutenant killed in Afghanistan, a Marine detail brought devastating news to her own doorstep.
Her 22-year-old son, Cpl. Michael Nicholson, had lost both legs and an arm to a blast from a hidden explosive in Afghanistan.
By that afternoon, July 6, a military ministry that Mary Nicholson had helped create at Christ the King Catholic Church to support families of men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq was at work on her son's behalf. More than 200 people gathered that day to pray for his recovery.
"It's a hard story," said the Rev. David Toups, pastor of Christ the King, "but it's the strength and beauty of people."
Ten days before he was wounded, Michael Nicholson, a 2007 Plant High graduate, had called the priest from Afghanistan.
One of Nicholson's best friends had been killed, Toups said. "He said he just had to talk to somebody."
Then Wednesday a week ago, Toups learned of Nicholson's injury. Toups got the word out to parishioners, who gathered at the church to pray that afternoon.
Nicholson is recovering at the Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C. His family arrived in Maryland on Monday and could not be reached for comment.
On Wednesday, Nicholson endured seven hours of surgery, Mary Nicholson wrote in a blog on the Caring Bridge website. She said he has several surgeries ahead of him and that the next few weeks are critical because his body is vulnerable to infection.
She described, too, her reunion with her son Monday. He could not talk initially, but had tears in his eyes when he saw his family.
"We were so pleased to see our Michael as he looked so good to us!" Mary Nicholson wrote. "His color was good, and he was happy to see us. Within the hour they had removed the ventilator and he responded well. This is a big yet baby step into his recovery."
Michael Nicholson had attended Christ the King's school. His parents, John and Mary, are among the parish's most active members.
Toups said the military ministry was "Mary's little brainchild" because MacDill Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Central Command, has brought many military families into the South Tampa parish.
One of those families recently lost a son — Army Lt. Dimitri A. del Castillo, a West Point graduate killed in Afghanistan.
A Mass for del Castillo was celebrated July 5. Mary Nicholson and two other "military moms" hosted the reception for mourners afterward.
"Less than 24 hours, she was notified about Michael," Toups said.
Michael Nicholson joined the Marines in June 2008, a year after he graduated from Plant, according to his Facebook page. He worked at Whaley's Market and played soccer in high school.
In high school, he had a reputation as an easygoing, respectful student, former Plant High principal Eric Bergholm said.
"He's a really nice kid, one of those kids with a perpetual smile on his face," Bergholm said.
On Wednesday, Mary Nicholson wrote in the blog that her son was in a lot of pain but able to speak in a raspy voice.
"Before we left his room tonight I said 'I love you, Michael' and he responded 'I love you too'!" his mother wrote. "We have our Michael home and for that we are so very grateful!"
Reach John Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383. Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.