Nicholas Harrelson

Nicholas Harrelson first began powerlifting while he was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). 

He took to “like a duck to water.”

VMI had a very successful collegiate powerlifting team and in his first two competitions, he secured first place and second place respectively. 

While attending VMI, he enlisted into the Army National Guard as an infantryman putting his cadetship on hold and deploying twice in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. He served as a .50 caliber machine gunner on both deployments.

But as anyone in the military will tell you, things can change in the blink of an eye. 

“Unfortunately, my vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) toward the end of my second deployment and I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury and a fractured C2 vertebrae amongst other injuries,” Harrelson said. “I took these physical injuries in stride, initially, but upon returning to the States, began demonstrating signs of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which would eventually be compounded by three close individuals from my second deployment committing suicide in the span of two years.”

Nicholas went through several surgeries but continued having multiple issues stemming from his wounds in Iraq. 

“I suffered from syncopal episodes, wherein I would pass out without warning, I had hormone issues from the brain injury and eventually developed (and removed) a fist-sized fibroushistiocytoma tumor from my shoulder, which left a 10-inch scar and took a quarter of my trap muscle away.”

In an attempt to alleviate the physical and emotional pain, Nicholas went through a tough period of prescription drug abuse. He tried to hide his issues as he pursued a Master’s degree at Norwich and working for the United States Senate doing VA casework. 

“It all came crashing down and I was forced to confront my issues,” he said. “I am now clean from all mood and mind-altering substances. I have joined a gym and begun powerlifting again, having signed up for a meet in June where I hope to squat 550, deadlift 600 and bench 350 in the 231-pound open raw class. I want to qualify for nationals.”

In Nicholas’ case, suffering did, indeed, unleash greatness. 

“I’m working a wonderful job again, my wife and I are expecting our first child, and I was recently admitted into Duke University for Divinity School wherein I hope to commission as an officer in the Army and serve as a chaplain in order to help soldiers like my friends and I who felt so very lost in our experiences,” Nicholas said with pride. 

It’s been said that the night is darkest just before the dawn, and that sentiment couldn’t be more true in Harrelson’s case. 

“Powerlifting gives me goals,” he added. “It provides structure and keeps me focused on the present instead of swimming around in my own head. If there is one thing I’d tell others who are going through the valley, it’s that no matter how dark the night, the sun always rises.”

On behalf of APEMAN, thank you, Nicholas for your service. 

And for inspiring us every single day.