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Honoring the fallen since 1963

By Deb Trygstad

It’s interesting how some people know what they want to be all of their whole life from the time they were little kids. Then their life has many twists and turns that bring them opportunities to prepare for their final destiny. When they reach that goal, they perform those duties with impeccable precision, expertise and compassion. It seems like that destination was meant to be, and their life has been in preparation to reach this place. That has been the case with Marvin Nicklay’s lifelong service to our country and then to veterans, first in the Army National Guard and upon retirement as Sergeant of the Guard, Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, Fargo National Cemetery.

Marvin was born in Barnesville, Minn., in 1940. He has a twin brother, Maurice. There were six children in the Nicklay family, two girls and four boys. Like most people of that time they were farmers, and they were working to update their practices with new technology.

“Even though we had tractors, daddy always had a team of horses that he used for farming,” said Marvin. “He used two horses mowing ditches and a single row cultivator for the garden. He had horses most of his life. He started out farming with nothing but horses. His mom said she remembers when he got his first tractor and he was plowing the field. He would scream ‘whoa, whoa, whoa you, (swear word) whoa.’ He would even drag the field sometimes with the horses so it didn’t leave tractor tracks.”

Marvin, from a very early age never wanted to be a farmer. Unlike his twin brother, Maurice, who came home with all of his school supplies on the first day of school and asked, “Why do I have to go to school, I’m gonna be a farmer?” Marvin’s interests were different.

Marvin Nicklay (right) leads the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard at a funeral for a fallen veteran last month. Photo by Deb Trygstad

“It started out as a kid,” he recalled, “ I remember watching combat shows, they had on this helmet. I wanted a helmet with camouflage and it looked like a piece of log, so I tried to make one, but that didn’t work.”

His parish priest, Father Hildebrand, was a chaplain in WWI. Military life intrigued Marvin.

“It was just something that I had to do,” he said.

In 1959, Marvin graduated from Barnesville High School. In 1961, he left the farm to attend Interstate Business College. He majored in Office Procedures and graduated the following year. When looking for a job after college, he was always asked if he had military training out of the way.

“I got tired of it, so on July 1, 1962, I enlisted in the North Dakota Army National Guard,” he said.

Marvin attended basic training at Fort Leonardwood, Miss., and then started out his military career as a clerk typist. This wouldn’t last long. He quickly moved into leadership roles. He served as Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, Company Operation Sergeant and First Sergeant. In July of 1991, Marvin graduated from the Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas. After 32 years in the North Dakota National Guard, he retired in 1994.

The history of the National Guard (from their website) states that they were founded in 1636 as a citizen force organized to protect families and towns from hostile attacks. It is a joint activity of the United States Department of Defense composed of reserve components of the United States Army and the United States Air Force. The mission of National Guard soldiers is to serve community, state and country. They respond to domestic emergencies, overseas combat missions, counterdrug efforts, reconstruction missions and more. Their primary area of operation is their home state. Any governor or the president himself can call on the Guard at a moment’s notice. Typically, Guard Soldiers live at home, where they can be near friends and family while holding a civilian job or attending college. Drills were scheduled just one weekend each month and a two-week annual training takes place once each year

The Fargo Memorial Honor Guard stand with guns in hand as the flag waves above. Photo by Deb Trygstad

Marvin met his wife, LaVonne Fankhanel, during the summer of 1961 and they were married in 1964. Marvin and LaVonne have two daughters and have spent most of their life in the Fargo-Moorhead area except for one year living in the Twin Cities. Marvin worked primarily in the tire business, working for Firestone the majority of his career. After working for Integrity Windows and Doors, Fargo, for 18 and half years, Marvin retired in April 2018.

Some of the experiences he had in his military career including helping out sand bagging with the numerous floods of the Red River Valley, the Wyndemere Hydrogen train derailment, the Milnor explosion, riot training and the Fairmont Tornado. The Washington Times retold the story in 2014, 50 years later...“This story by the Daily News of Wahpeton and taken from a May 7, 1964 edition of the Hankinson News: ‘There was no warning as children played outside and their mothers prepared the evening’s meal before high winds, hail and a tornado left a path of destruction in town. No one knew what was to transpire in the next few minutes as a sudden storm zeroed in on Fairmount. A low, dark cloud enveloped Fairmount Tuesday with tornadic winds and hail, causing severe damage to 11 homes and several businesses and leaving 11 injured. In the midst of a rain storm, a loud roar and a black cloud gave only seconds warning to the communities’ 500 residents. The tornado cut a four-block path through the southeast section of the village - though scattered damage resulted in other sections of the town. Five people were hospitalized as a result.’”

Marvin’s Unit, Company C, 141 Engineer Battalion, was mobilized by Governor Bill Guy, and sent to Fairmont, ND, to perform security of the town and start the cleanup operations. Marvin remembered cleaning up after that tornado.

“I saw straw stuck right in the siding of a house, not even bent or anything, it was right in the wood. Tornadoes do weird things. It will take a tree or a building and leave the next one to it alone,” he said.

Marvin spent two tours (summer training) in Honduras when there was conflict with the Hondurans and the Nicaraguans. This on the job training was a humanitarian project to help build roads and create infrastructure. Then he remembered Desert Storm in 1991 when he was in his 50s. He was on active duty for six months at Fort Bliss, Texas. When asked what he liked about serving in the National Guard, Marvin said, “I liked everything about it. It has it’s up and downs. After my first six years of my enlistment I liked what I was doing, so I signed up for three more years. Once I got to the 10 year mark, I said, I might as well stay ten years longer.” In the National Guard, you can retire at the age of 60. Marvin retired in 1994.

The Fargo Memorial Honor Guard. Photo by Deb Trygstad

This was not the end of Marvin’s service to our country. In September 1996 he started as a volunteer ROTC Drill and Ceremony Advisor at North Dakota State University. In this position he was responsible for teaching upcoming officers the movements and procedures for saluting, drill, ceremonies, reviews and parades. After 20 years of volunteer service with the Army and Air Force ROTC programs, Marvin retired in 2016.

Marvin has participated as an Honor Guard/Color Guard member since 1963, performing military honors at funerals and marching in local parades. Last year, Marvin became Sergeant of the Guard for the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard. This group conducts all the military burials at the Fargo National Cemetery. Marvin took on this brand-new position at 79 years old. He had to help come up with all the policies and procedures. Marvin’s duties include contacting families to set up an honor guard ceremony, coming up with a duty roster so there is adequate staffing for all military burials, presenting the flag, the Veterans Coin and shell casings to the family. Marvin is the one that organizes the events. He sometimes fills in as Squad Leader for the rifle team. Before each burial, he tries to go and meet with the family and explain to them what they do and how they do it. If there is a gap in the rifle squad, Marvin is the first one to fill it.

Recently, Marvin was nominated for Bethany Senior of the Year. This is an award ceremony held once a year in Fargo Moorhead. The Senior of the Year Award program sponsored by Bethany Retirement Home and hosted by the Forum and WDAY TV “celebrates the contributions that seniors have made – and continue to make – to the fabric of our community.” To be nominated you have to be 65 or older, be a resident of Cass or Richland Counties in North Dakota or Clay County in Minnesota and have made an impact in your community. Marvin was nominated by Jason Hicks of the United Patriot Bodies which is an organization comprising all of the veterans’ communities.

Marvin Nicklay and the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, in action. Photo by Deb Trygstad

Jason Hicks said this about Marvin in his nomination at the Bethany Senior of the Year Award Ceremony... “I nominate Marvin Nicklay for his never ending support of our veterans’ community. Marv has a very deep sense of duty and patriotism. He is a never ending source of motivation for those around him. Marv is a very humble man, and he doesn’t expect praise or ‘atta boys’ for anything he does. Marv, you do an absolute wonderful job and I appreciate all of the effort you put into the National Cemetery. Without you, our operation would not be what it is today.”

All of these duties Marvin has taken on require a lot of organization, coordination and skill. He is not afraid of trying new things and has gotten pretty good on the computer, communicating with everyone using email and coming up with forms and duty rosters. He is extremely organized but humble and always doing everything with a joke and a smile. You can tell he is highly respected by the other Honor Guard members. The comradeship and connection within that group is apparent and that is fostered by the leadership of Marvin. When asked how long he would continue doing this, Marvin said, “One day at a time.”

Marvin’s life has come full circle, back to what he always wanted to be when he was a kid. His life has been one of service, unconditionally. He has spent most of his retirement years volunteering for something that he really believes in and something that provides a huge service for veterans and their families. As the squad leader, Marvin presents the Veteran’s coin and shell casing to the family at each burial. Marvin said, “I try not to be the hero or anything, but I (still) choke-up when I say this at the end of the Memorial Service to the veteran’s families. “On behalf of the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, I present you with the North Dakota Veteran’s Coin. And, on behalf of the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, to you and your family, you have our condolences.”

Author’s Note: I was honored to write this story because Marvin Nicklay happens to be my uncle. It just goes to show that there are heroes out there in your own backyard. If you want to read more about the wonderful service that the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard provides and about the Veterans National Cemetery, please check out the Aging with Purpose article below.

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