Maj. Nicholas Dockery’s resume stands out even among his fellow Special Forces officers.
The West Point graduate is enrolled in Yale University’s global affairs graduate program as part of the competitive Downing Scholars program.
He’s led an Operational Detachment-Alpha and commanded the headquarters company for 7th Special Forces Group before completing a tour as the aide-de-camp to the officer in charge of 1st Special Forces Command.
The former infantry officer received the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award in 2020, an honor reserved for the service’s top company grade officers.
Dockery also received the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal for his work to help foster children.
The rest of his recognitions tell another story — that of an officer who performs under fire.
He’s received two Purple Heart medals, and two of his other awards bear “C” devices that denote they were received for performance under combat conditions.
And according to Defense Department records, Dockery is the sole Army officer and one of only two U.S. officers to receive two Silver Stars for gallantry in the post-9/11 era, the other being Navy SEAL Cmdr. Seth Stone, who died in a 2017 skydiving accident. Dockery received the West Point Association of Graduates’ Alexander Nininger Award for Valor at Arms in 2017, as well.
Now, the Military Times Foundation has named him the 2022 Soldier of the Year. Army Times interviewed Dockery in late June, ahead of the award ceremony in July.
‘For several years, I thought about it every single day’
Dockery’s first Silver Star came during his first deployment to Afghanistan as a fresh infantry platoon leader assigned to 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
He was deployed immediately after arriving at Carson, joining an experienced platoon a few months into their deployment. His unit moved into Kapisa Province in late September 2012, Dockery said in a 2017 podcast interview.
Days later, on Oct. 2, 2012, his life changed.
Dockery’s platoon and a platoon of Afghan National Army troops were maintaining a security perimeter around the provincial governor’s compound during a high-level meeting when Taliban fighters attacked with machine guns, grenades and RPGs.
The lieutenant gathered half his troops and counterattacked, but as they continued to press their advantage, his weapons squad leader, now-retired Staff Sgt. Eric Mitchell, was wounded. That set off a close-quarters firefight in a compound where Dockery and a team of four killed several fighters. But a Taliban counterattack with a series of grenades and RPGs wounded all of the Americans.
As the dust settled, according to his Silver Star narrative, Dockery realized that one of his NCOs, Sgt. Jack Hansbro, was missing. The officer charged into a nearby alleyway and killed two Taliban fighters who were dragging away an unconscious Hansbro.
“[That day] was a very harrowing event,” Dockery told Army Times. “For several years, I thought about it every single day.”
He acknowledged that his desire to “instill...faith and confidence that I was a competent and deliberate leader” may have led him into “a little bit riskier situations than I needed to be [in],” but emphasized that the work of his soldiers in the compound was what carried them through the fight.
Both in the podcast and to Army Times, Dockery recounted how Mitchell (who nominated him for Soldier of the Year), Hansbro and the other two troops in the compound — Sgt. 1st Class Bill Nabinger and Sgt. 1st Class Roshan Baum — repeatedly saved each other’s lives.
“I was the fortunate recipient of some higher-level recognition, but those things are done with teams,” he explained.
Dockery recovered from his wounds and finished the deployment with his platoon.
Becoming a Green Beret, and a second Silver Star
After completing his platoon leader time and a tour as a company executive officer, Dockery deployed as a combat advisor, where his work along side Special Forces troops solidified his desire to become a Green Beret.
“That’s what drew me,” he said.
Following selection and his training pipeline, Dockery deployed again to Afghanistan with 7th Special Forces Group, with whom he would earn a second Silver Star.
The second valor award came from a fight in which about 250 Taliban fighters attacked a combined U.S.-Afghan force, and the then-captain’s decisions and rapid response were credited with blunting the attack. More than 110 enemy fighters were killed.
Since then, he’s continued to advance his career, collecting fellowships and accolades. After finishing his graduate degree in spring 2023, he’s likely to take command of a Special Forces company.
Dockery said he hopes to take some of the knowledge he’s gaining at Yale — including work on international diplomacy, cybersecurity and more — back to the special operations community.
Addressing mental health issues
Asked what he wants to see improved in the Army, Dockery expressed hope that a forthcoming overhaul of the service’s suicide prevention program can help to reduce the stigma sometimes associated with seeking behavioral health treatment.
He explained how the loss of some comrades who died by suicide affected him, describing it as “a phenomenon that’s [been] impacting [me] for years, and years and years.”
Dockery contends that although tragic, “it’s more palatable to understand” deaths in combat.
“It’s never who you would suspect [who dies by suicide],” he said. “When I think about what they must have gone through to get to that point, it’s so difficult.”
He’s optimistic that empowering commanders and getting them to understand the options and tools at their disposal will help. He pointed to the Army’s advances in understanding the science on brain injuries and “invisible wounds” as evidence of the potential “social impacts” of policy changes.
“I hope when they put [this] policy out, it kind of helps shape” and reduce some of the stigma and engrained worries about seeking behavioral health treatment, Dockery said.
Military Times’ Service Members of the Year
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.