Two years running, the co-founders of a Wisconsin veteran advocacy organization have been named as recipients to an award that recognizes both outstanding military and volunteer achievements.
Officer Candidate Nicholas Gries, an infantry team leader with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, is the seventh recipient of the Thomas E. Wortham IV Achievement Award, named after a Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldier and Chicago Police officer slain off-duty in 2010.
He and last year’s Wortham Award recipient, Staff Sgt. William Kocken, are co-founders of the Wisconsin chapter of 4th HOOAH, Inc., a national non-profit organization dedicated to support for forward-deployed service members, their families and returning veterans.
Gries, 33, and a Green Bay, Wisconsin native, said he is honored to receive an award that isn’t like most in the military, which primarily awards members for military achievements, and recognizes his passion for volunteering in an organization that helps military veterans.
“I like the uniqueness of the award that recognizes civilian volunteering achievement as well,” he said. “It also shows other Guard members how important the outreach is for our other service men and women.”
In addition to his work with the non-profit organization, Gries developed a program called Kids Connect, which brings children to the Veterans Home at King to play games and visit with elderly veterans. He also volunteers at the annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon and is a member of the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, City Council and city school board.
1st Lt. Lonnie Roy, Company B commander, was a platoon leader with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry in Marinette, Wisconsin when he first met then-Sgt. Gries, who was acting platoon sergeant for a very undermanned unit at the time.
What stood out to Roy at the time was how much Gries cared about the Soldiers in his platoon and how that effort has translated into his current volunteering passion.
“He’s always been there for his Soldiers,” Roy said. “And I see that now with his efforts [with HOOAH], and I see Soldiers feeding off that energy. As he got more involved with HOOAH, more Soldiers from throughout the battalion were getting involved.”
Gries, until a month ago, served as the Wisconsin chapter president, with fellow Wortham Award winner Kocken as vice president. He said stepping down from his post gives him more time to do what he enjoys most about the organization, which places an emphasis on assisting veterans with personal and financial issues and providing them a safety net while directing them to a more positive outcome.
“I can help out veterans one-to-one more now by not being president,” he said.
Gries joined the Army in 2002 as a U.S. Army Ranger in the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, the service’s premier direct-action raid force. He deployed three times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan before separating from the Army in 2006.
In 2012, he joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a full-time administrative noncommissioned officer, and is currently an assistant readiness noncommissioned officer while attending Officer Candidate School, which concludes in October.
His wife of seven years, Tianna, said it’s great seeing him recognized for his achievements, one among many others — husband, father, officer candidate, non-profit chapter president, full-time Army Guard Reserve and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay student.
“The schedule makes it busy,” she said with a laugh, “juggling a family with all of that, but I’m happy to support him for something that he loves so much.”
The Wortham Award is named after 1st Lt. Thomas “Tommy” Wortham IV, most recently a team leader for Troop A, 105th Cavalry, during the unit’s 2009 deployment to Iraq and a member of the Chicago Police Department. He routinely sought out the most challenging assignments, working night shifts in the most dangerous parts of Chicago’s south side. He was murdered May 19, 2010 — shortly after returning from deployment — outside his parents’ home when four men attempted to steal his motorcycle.
In addition to his military and civic service, Wortham was the president of the Cole Park Advisory Council, a group of Chicago residents concerned about the growing violence in their neighborhood.