WEEKI WACHEE — Rick Cicero doesn't remember much about the explosion.
A former Army sergeant and retired police officer working as a private military contractor, Cicero was in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010 with members of Canadian forces. His assignment: Teach soldiers to work with dogs trained to sniff explosives.
That day in July, Cicero was on foot patrol in Kandahar Province when a Canadian engineer stepped on an improvised explosive device. In the ensuing chaos of enemy small-arms fire, Cicero helped ferry the man to safety.
His actions would earn him a commendation from the Canadian defense minister. But his memory of the incident is hazy because a few days later, there was another blast.
This time, Cicero was the victim.
The son of a police officer and grandson of a World War I veteran, Cicero, 43, knew at a young age that he was destined for military service and police work.
He served four years of active duty, then another three in the Army National Guard as he started a career with the Hamden Police Department in Connecticut.
When the department formed a police dog unit, Cicero volunteered to work patrol and bomb-detection duty.
"There's no better partner than one of these guys," Cicero said last week, reaching down to stroke the black fur on the head of his German shepherd, Soldat. "They will go to hell and back with you and not even blink."
In 2003, Cicero joined Virginia State Police, became head trainer in 2005, and retired two years later after a training injury destroyed his knee.
He spent his first tour as a private contractor training U.S. Marines and their dogs in Helmand Province. A few months later, he returned in June 2010 to work with the Royal Canadian Regiment as part of Task Force Kandahar, a NATO security mission.
Cicero was just feet away from the engineer who stepped on the IED that summer day. The blast claimed the soldier's leg, but he survived, thanks in large part to Cicero's help, said Col. Paul Keddy, incoming commander for the Canadian forces task force at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
"It probably meant the difference between losing his life or not," Keddy said.
A few days later, Cicero was once again on foot patrol with the Canadians when Nancy, the German shepherd he'd been working with for the last six weeks, pulled him toward a berm at the side of the road. She was on to something buried under the sand.
"I found out the hard way that she took me directly to it," Cicero said.
After the explosion, he remembers trying to stand up and falling flat on his face. He doesn't remember the firefight that followed. Nancy survived, but he never saw her again.
He woke up in a German hospital a few days later. A teary-eyed chaplain broke the news: His right arm was gone, and only 9 inches of his right leg remained.
A nurse assured him that technology and hard work would allow him to lead a normal life. His son, Army Spec. Dylan Cicero, who was on active duty in Kabul at the time, helped keep him focused.
"The last thing I was going to do was cry in my beer and be anything different than the person I had been my whole life," Cicero said.
With the help of prosthetics — some cutting edge, others of his own design — the divorced father of two runs, swims, rides a recumbent bike and totes 40-pound bags of salt from his truck to his pool. He reconnected with a high school crush, Lynn La Roe of Riverview.
Last year, Cicero starting volunteering at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa Hospital and with the Wounded Warrior Project. It's rewarding, he says, to motivate veterans who find themselves in the same position he was in three years ago.
Canadian forces leaders will present Cicero with a Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation during a ceremony at MacDill on Tuesday. It's a rare honor for someone outside of the forces.
Cicero says he was just doing his job that day, but that doesn't diminish the award's value.
"This one comes at a time in my life when it means more to be recognized for my effort than you can imagine," he said. "Not just for me, but for the guys who are over there every day."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.