Ten years ago, 19-year-old Pfc. Nicholas Cook arrived for his first tour with the Army in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Two months later the Hungry Horse man would die in a fierce insurgency ambush and firefight.
Cook’s conduct in battle would end up saving his fellow soldiers’ lives at the cost of his own.
He was posthumously honored the Silver Star for gallantry in action, but longtime family friend and Air Force veteran Brian Hattem always believed Cook’s actions that day in combat merited the highest military award for valor available — the Congressional Medal of Honor.
A decade later, with the help of fellow veteran Norman Nunnally, Hattem is giving new voice to his conviction about Cook, by making his case to Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester.
Cook was raised by his grandparents Kathy and Chuck Taylor of Hungry Horse. Growing up in the Canyon, Cook was no stranger to the economic and social hardships that give the area its rugged reputation.
Hattem remembers him running around town in a tight-knit group of youngsters, with the kids tending to gravitate to Cook as the natural leader. A kind and loyal friend, he was quick to defend anyone he felt was being picked on. He carried himself with a mellow but quietly confident air, reinforced by an unrelenting toughness.
Cook was a natural -born athlete with a taste for adventure and action, ranging from travel and sports, to skateboarding and dirt biking, to eventually jumping out of airplanes while completing Army Airborne School, aka “jump” school, to become a paratrooper.
But it was snowboarding that really lit him up. Starting as early as age 7, Cook and his friends would get dropped off by his grandma in Whitefish to catch the SNOW bus for an epic day on Big Mountain.
“He was always deeply drawn to mountains,” Taylor said in a recent interview. “Eventually he got to travel the world to beautiful beaches, but in his mind they never compared.”
Cook became a father at 17 while he was still in high school.
Taylor said that spurred him to accelerate his schooling and graduate a year early in order to enter the workforce sooner and begin supporting his new family.
When prospects of local careers seemed anemic, the benefits of a military career became more of a draw, and in the April following graduation, he enrolled in the Army. After completing 10 weeks of basic combat training, plus an additional four weeks of “jump” school, he was back home on leave. The action and pace of the Army seemed to suit him well and he looked forward to the prospect of the military helping him earn a college degree.
Two weeks later, after a short visit with his family and infant daughter, he went to Europe.
Stationed at a base in Italy for awhile, Cook got to travel to several different countries on his personal time, an opportunity in which he seemed to revel.
“I am doing more now and have seen more already than I ever thought I would,” Cook said on MySpace at the time.
But it wasn’t long before he was sent to Afghanistan to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.
His deployment landed him in Kunar Province, a small region in northeastern Afghanistan defined by the summits of the Hindu Kush range. Immersed in these mountains on the other side of the world, Cook was reminded of the peaks that surrounded him back home, and would refer to them as Afghanistan, Montana.
“If he had a rucksack and a snowboard, he would have definitely gone down [those mountains]. He would have done that,” recalled Spc. Matias Garcia a soldier who served with Cook in a YouTube video.
Just over two months into his tour, on a routine patrol, Cook’s platoon was ambushed by insurgency forces. The 27-soldier platoon encountered a hostile force nearly five times larger than their own.
As they came under overwhelming gunfire the leading men in the first few advancing squads, including Cook, took cover and the rest of the platoon fell back.
Garcia remembers a hail of gunshots ricocheting around them. Concentrated amounts of fire were coming from an enemy machine gunner that kept the squads pinned down under minimal cover with several soldiers getting hit. During a slight abatement in fire, Garcia heard a soldier yell, “They’re running out of ammo, they need to reload.”
Cook located the Afghan machine gunner, stood up and exposed himself to a heavy firestorm of bullets, and opened up his own weapon, “with everything he had,” Garcia recalled.
Cook ended up silencing the gunner and drawing fire away from the squads, allowing them to move out of the kill zone and into safer positions.
But Cook was hit by enemy fire and died.
If not for his actions, there “probably wouldn’t be a lot of the guys from the first and third squads (alive) right now,” Garcia said.
Cook was awarded the Silver Star posthumously, the third highest military combat award anyone can receive, in 2010. Taylor was presented with the award a year later at a standing-room-only medal ceremony in Columbia Falls. Today, Hattem keeps Nick’s memory alive wherever he goes.
An unwavering advocate of American servicemen, Hattem does everything from giving presentations remembering the events of 9/11 across the Northwest, to serving home-bound veterans Thanksgiving meals through his Lost Heroes program, all of which he now does in the name of Cook.
Through that outreach, he met Nunnally, a Sgt. Major and Army veteran of 40 years.
Nunnally knew that, once awarded one of the top three medals for military valor, a recipient’s conduct is then automatically up for review for the next highest honor. Being struck by what seemed to him the paramount valor of Cook’s actions, he set about finding whether or not the review process had been impeded in some way. He found that in 2016, Cook’s Silver Star had been reviewed, with no change in outcome.
Cook’s award nomination is currently awaiting its latest stages of review and Nunnally has written both Montana Sens. asking for the help to move Cook’s case along.
Both senators have said they’re willing to help.
“Senator Tester and his staff are committed to ensuring American heroes like Private First Class Nicholas Cook are properly recognized for valiantly serving beyond the call of duty,” Tester’s office said in a statement.
“Nicholas Cook is a Montana hero, and theSenator is incredibly grateful for his sacrifice and service to our nation. The Senator is happy to play his part in honoring the life and service of Mr. Cook,” Daines staff said in a statement.
Taylor would love to see her grandson posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
She thinks of Cook’s 12-year-old daughter.
“I want her to have the knowledge that her daddy was that kind of person,” Taylor said.