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Wounded warrior Cpl. Michael Nicholson returns to huge Tampa welcome

Marine Cpl. Mike Nicholson enters a reception honoring his return to Tampa on Sunday at Christ the King Catholic Church’s parish pavilion. He has undergone 23 surgeries, recovering at a naval hospital in Bethesda, Md. In October, he started walking with prosthetic legs. He is home for a one-month leave from therapy.
Published Feb. 20, 2012

TAMPA

A voice shouted through a crowd of hundreds.

"Here he comes!"

And a roar of cheers ripped through Tampa International Airport on Sunday afternoon, a building wave of applause for a young Tampa man in uniform.

Everyone wanted to shake his hand. Everyone wanted to hug him. This homecoming, they said, was an answer to their prayers.

Marine Cpl. Michael Nicholson, 22, rolled his wheelchair down the aisle. He wore three prosthetics under his uniform, but when people thanked him, they looked him in his eyes.

Serving in Afghanistan last July, Nicholson lost both legs and part of his left arm in a blast from a hidden explosive. He has undergone 23 surgeries, recovering at a naval hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Nicholson arrived Sunday in Tampa for the first time since being wounded, flying in with his family for a month-long leave from therapy.

At the airport, strangers lingered as long as they could before their flights, curious about the color guard and bagpipes. Friends and supporters, including the Marine Corps League, carried banners and waved flags.

"He needs to know what he did was worth it," said Leanne Bivens, 19, a freshman in the University of South Florida's Navy ROTC program.

Valrico resident and Air Force reservist Travis Lemon brought along his daughters, ages 3 and 4.

"These guys need to see what a real hero is," he said, "because we watch a lot of Disney."

His wife, Lydia, explained to the children that a war hero — the real-life version of their fairy-tale cartoon good guys — was coming home.

• • •

Over the last several months, Nicholson has adjusted to a new life.

"Mike has come a long way," his family wrote in a blog post earlier this month.

In October, Nicholson started walking with prosthetic legs. In November, he danced with a date at the Marine Corps Ball. In January, he cycled from Miami to Key West with the Wounded Warriors Project.

"He's kicking butt," said close friend Megan Jensen, 23. "He's ready to live his life the new normal way."

Like always, his friends say, they plan to take Nicholson to MacDinton's Irish Pub and hang out in his parents' South Tampa home, newly renovated by volunteers for accessibility.

Gone for nearly a year, Nicholson's first wish was to see Bayshore Boulevard. Outside the airport's baggage claim, motorcycles and patrol cars waited to escort him there, where people had been invited to come out and wave flags along the route.

Amid a very public welcoming came a moment of privacy:

His family and friends circled his wheelchair protectively as Nicholson moved to get into the car. Inside the shield and blocked from the view of cameras, Nicholson adjusted his prosthetic arm. He stood, with a little help. He took a step toward the curb and another step down before getting into the car — a still-new transition.

"It's a whole new world," explained Bobby Puckett, 38, a St. Petersburg resident and Air Force veteran with Amputees Together. "It's a new self-image."

At a reception in the pavilion of Christ the King Catholic Church in South Tampa, fellow Marines in dress blues surrounded the car again. Nicholson soon reappeared in his own dress uniform, decorated with a Purple Heart.

"I can't tell you how good it is to have you home, Michael," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who attended as a Christ the King parishioner.

Nicholson's mother thanked the church and community before Nicholson took the microphone.

"I want to thank everybody here," he said. "You guys have been with me since the start ... You guys are family."

As he paused, the crowd bolstered him with shouts of "God bless you!" and the Marines' "Oorah!"

"Y'all have done so much," Nicholson continued, "and I just ask you to do one more thing for me: Keep praying for the guys over in Afghanistan right now."

He stayed on stage as hundreds lined up to greet him. They told him they were proud of him, showering him with gifts of flags, posters, mementos and even Gasparilla beads.

When it was time to leave, they still crowded around him.

Nicholson rolled his wheelchair back to the car, back behind the line of Marines.

He rode a couple of blocks away to a quiet flag-lined street, and then he was finally home.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

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