JEFFERSON PARK — When the mortar round exploded near him, Nick Spencer recalls feeling his legs propel backwards over his head.
Spencer was working as a staff sergeant in the Air Force at Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan in late 2001 when the base was attacked. The enemy was shelling the runway where several C17 Globemaster 3s — huge transport aircraft — rested.
"My job was to get those multi-million dollar planes to safer areas, but then the mortar round went off next to me," said Spencer, 47, a Humboldt Park native and Jefferson Park resident.
"I remember diving into a ditch, and I landed all screwed up. I crushed three discs in my back and broke three vertebrae. But then adrenaline kicked in, and I somehow walked to the last C17 at the airport and was able to evacuate."
This year, Spencer will serve as Grand Marshal for Monday's Norwood Park Memorial Day Parade — as a hero.
Spencer was a 10-year member of the Army infantry, served four years in the National Guard and also was part of the 440th Security Forces Squadron — where he had tours of duty in 25 countries throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
"The places I've been, this is still the greatest nation on the face of the earth," said Spencer, a Lane Tech High School graduate. "I think we apologize too many times for being American, instead of celebrating it."
Before Spencer left for Afghanistan, he volunteered at Ground Zero following 9/11.
Retired from active duty, Spencer is now a Chicago Police Officer. For the past four years, he's been an explosive detection canine handler. He's worked with two Labrador retrievers, Ben and GGillis, who live with Spencer, his wife, Susan, and three of their five children: Liam, 13; Aidan, 11; and Ian, 10.
"Nick is very patriotic and proud of his service," said Susan Spencer, a Jefferson Park native and Resurrection High School alum.
Spencer was nominated as a Grand Marshal candidate by parade organizer Joe Giambrone, a friend and a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department.
At first, Spencer said he was hesitant to accept but now says he's "extremely honored."
Spencer will wear his desert combat uniform at the parade, which originated in 1922 and is considered a Chicago institution.
"Nick Spencer is a great representative of a true American local hero," said Bea McDonough, the executive director of the Norwood Park Chamber of Commerce.
Spencer's military roots run deep.
Spencer's stepson, Alex VanAlstin, is currently serving at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the 101st Airborne Division. Susan Spencer, a massage therapist Downtown, said she would have enlisted in the military, but the 46-year-old is "too old, and they won't take me."
Liam Spencer already knows he's going to enlist in the Army.
"I want to serve my country and continue the legacy of all the Spencers who went before me," the Christian Ebinger Elementary School eighth-grader-to-be said.
Spencer's brush with death left him without some feeling on the left side of his body, and he's supposed to take pain relievers up to four times per day.
But for the most part, Spencer is healthy — and he has no concerns with any of his children following in his footsteps.
"The military, it's a way of life for me," he said. "I think the military represents everything that is good in this country.
"And Memorial Day, it's a day to remember the heroes that didn't make it. You have to think of the guys who didn't come home and how lucky you are."
Monday's Norwood Park Memorial Day Parade begins at Onahan Elementary School, 6634 W. Raven. St., at 11 a.m.