Conducting testing in an extreme tropical environment comes with a multitude of challenges, not least of which is keeping personnel safe from dangerous animals and plants.
Fortunately, U.S. Army Tropic Regions Test Center (TRTC) has a uniquely qualified jungle survivalist on staff: Eric “Nic” Nicolaisen.
“If you want to know anything about the jungle, Eric is your guy,” said Julio Villegas, electronic engineer for TRTC. “He is the jungle.”
“I love this job,” Nicolaisen said. “It does everything I always wanted to do as a retiree. There is plenty of work and adventure, and you get to travel and spend a lot of time in the jungle.”
Born and raised in Colon, Panama, in his previous career Nicolaisen was a mortician and forensic identification specialist for the U.S. Army, retiring as chief mortuary officer for the Southern Command. The origin of his unique career was in early childhood.
“When I was growing up, I had a neighbor who was the local undertaker for the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama,” Nicolaisen said. “His children had everything. I thought that if he was able to provide so well for his family, I wanted the same job when I grew up.”
As he prepared to graduate high school, Nicolaisen applied to schools in the United States with mortuary science programs. As part of the application process, he needed a letter of recommendation from a licensed funeral director and embalmer.
“When I asked my neighbor for the reference, he said he had no license,” Nicolaisen said. “He explained that he had been head of housekeeping at the hospital, and took on undertaking duties during the Great Depression for an extra 10 cents per hour.”
Undaunted, Nicolaisen took the train to Panama City to meet with another mortician.
“He said, ‘Young man, are you sure you want to get into this business? I don’t recommend it to anybody,’” Nicolaisen recalled with a laugh. “He very briefly described the kind of things I would be doing, but my mind was set, so he signed my documents.”
Nicolaisen went to the Kentucky School of Mortuary Science, working as a laborer in an oil depot to pay his expenses. Upon graduating, he worked in a funeral home in Indiana for several years before returning home to Panama to work for the Canal Zone’s health bureau, and then the U.S. Army. For five years he was overseas as a forensic identification specialist. Wherever he served, he would occasionally meet people with an excessive fear of his occupation.
“I’d run into people who absolutely would not shake my hand,” Nicolaisen said. “Or I’d be in the commissary or PX and encounter people who would see me and then move two aisles over to make sure I wouldn’t cross their path.”
Nicolaisen experienced far worse things than this, however. When 241 American servicemen were killed by a terrorist attack against a barracks in Beirut in 1983, he was among the forensic specialists working to identify remains. In his career he was responsible for the remains of over 7,000 people, including those who died extremely young, in combat, or in other horrific accidents. Despite this grim reality, he maintained his zest for life.
“I never dwelled on my work,” Nicolaisen said. “If I had taken my work home with me, the neighbors would have complained.”
Nicolaisen continued his outdoor activities throughout his career. In the mid-1980s he hiked and canoed through the Darien Gap, a harsh and completely undeveloped 60-mile region of mountains, swamp, and dense rainforest that is infamous as a lawless haven for drug traffickers and armed bandits. Though not threatened by guerillas, along the way he was sought out by locals to treat a variety of medical ailments, from an infected thumb on a small child to a large skin rash on a guerilla.
“People would walk two days to intercept my course thinking I was carrying medicine,” Nicolaisen said. “You should never stay more than one night in a place like that. It is too dangerous.”
After retiring, Nicolaisen acquired 20 acres of land and built an eco resort, trimming back the thick jungle canopy and carrying in building materials by hand. Today, the resort has a restaurant and helicopter pad, as well as hiking trails and a natural arboretum.
“I collect fruit trees, medicinal plants, and flowers,” Nicolaisen said. “I have over 135 species of tropical fruits, over 80 medicinal plants and trees, and over 500 flowering trees and plants.”
Not content to stay at his resort in retirement, Nicolaisen was hired to do occasional contract work for TRTC reconnoitering potential test sites. Eventually he was offered a full-time job, which he eagerly accepted.
Though busy with work, Nicolaisen still teaches jungle survival courses in his spare time, and has also written a book about jungle plants and trees. Whatever he is doing, service and adventure are his constant motivations.
“If I can teach people one thing that will help them survive or save their life, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something,” Nicolaisen said. “I don’t seek adventure to escape life, I seek adventure to keep life from escaping me.”