Nick Birger: From the Arch to Africa
by Justin Kischefsky
Nick Birger’s two-decade journey through life has taken him from the banks of the Mighty Mississippi in the suburbs of St. Louis to the shoreline of the Severn River in Annapolis. He has roamed the halls of the Supreme Court and the State Department in Washington, D.C. He has visited villages in the economically-challenged Central American country of Honduras and in war-ravaged Uganda on the African continent. Through his travels and experiences he has seen how internal conflicts can leave a country in shambles, removing even the basic needs for its citizens to survive. The rebuilding of countries after periods of turmoil takes time and effort, but being there to assist with that work is where Birger wants to be.
“I want to work in post-conflict reconstruction and international development, both when I am in uniform and when my military career ends,” said Birger. “It can enhance struggling countries as well as the national security of the United States.”
Now a senior at Navy and the captain of the tennis team, Birger’s hometown of Belleville, Illinois, is located within sight of the famed Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Though he shares his hometown with tennis legend Jimmy Connors, tennis was not one of the many sports that Birger initially competed in while growing up. That was until a younger cousin placed second in a local tournament.
“After hearing that Jordan (now a freshman at Army) made it to the finals, I said I could do that, too, and wanted to play tennis” said Birger.
He quickly took to the game and, despite not committing to the sport until age 10, soon ranked as the top player in St. Louis and among the top-five players in the region at age 14. Even with that success, the sport left him unfulfilled.
“I loved the competition, but junior tennis is a very high stress environment,” said Birger. “I hoped tennis could help me receive a free college education, but I questioned if it was worth it if I wasn’t enjoying myself. Everything changed once I began playing on a team.”
It was while attending Belleville Township West High School that Birger developed a passion for the sport.
He and another classmate were battling daily to see who would play No. 1 singles. It was an intense rivalry between the two, but they eventually decided they could help each other if they formed a doubles team. The duo would eventually become the first tandem from the southern half of the state to earn first-team all-state laurels in three consecutive seasons. They would go on to place fifth in the state as sophomores, third as juniors and second as seniors.
The feeling of teamwork rekindled Birger’s enjoyment of the game. Soon, the second part of his plan fell into place when he received a letter from Navy head coach John Officer.
“He said in his letter that if I kept improving I might be able to play at Navy,” recalled Birger. “I really didn’t know anything about the Academy, so I made an unofficial visit as a junior in high school. I then attended Summer Seminar and realized there was no other institution I’d rather attend. It was perfect for me. Navy allowed me the chance to serve my country, surround myself with hard-working people with similar values to my own and it was by far the best academic institution I could attend.”
Birger arrived on The Yard during the summer of 2007, just a few short weeks after the tennis team had won its first Patriot League title in eight years.
“It was great to join the program when our class did,” said Birger. “The bar was set high for all of us. We wanted to win another championship, so we all knew that it was going to take a championship-level performance from anyone who wanted to play on the team.”
After leading the team in singles wins during the fall season, Birger found himself teamed with Jason Hill at No. 3 doubles in the spring. The tandem posted a 7-0 record against Patriot League foes and won 22 matches in all as the Mids completed the “repeat” of conference titles.
As a sophomore, Birger and Hill again proved to be a formidable duo. They tallied a 12-1 record at No. 2 doubles, were again 7-0 against league foes and tallied a 20-9 record over the course of the entire year to help Navy win a third-straight league title.
The 2009-10 Mids would have a vastly different look to the team than the previous few years had. On Commissioning Day in 2009, Navy said goodbye to a senior class of Hill, Nate Nelms and Johnny Waters, a trio that had combined to win over 300 matches during their four years at Navy. Additionally, the lone senior starter on the team, Ramsey Lemaich, who had received all-league honors as a junior and was a perfect 35-0 in career spring matches against Patriot League opponents, had suffered a serious knee injury that left his availability for the year in doubt.
Despite the mass changes that left a lot of unknowns, the team still set its sights on winning the league championship.
The Mids entered their April match with Army on a seven-match winning streak in the series with the Black Knights. For the fourth year in a row, the annual showdown for the Star on the outdoor courts of The Yard would also decide the winner of the regular season title in the league.
Birger and a now relatively-healthy Lemaich had formed an impressive doubles team all spring. But on this day the duo lost an 8-6 decision at No. 2 doubles. Despite the loss, wins at Nos. 1 and 3 doubles had given Navy the doubles point over the Black Knights.
Five of the ensuing six singles matches between the rivals were extended into three sets, two of which included third-set tiebreakers. When all was said and done, Army had won four singles matches to defeat Navy by the score of 4-3.
“We really wanted to win that day,” said Birger. “But you have to credit Army; they wanted it even more. They came down here and took it to us.”
Two weeks later, the Mids and the Black Knights squared off once again. This time it would be in the championship match of the Patriot League Tournament, with the winner moving on to the NCAA Tournament.
Facing the same duo they had lost to a fortnight earlier, Birger and Lemaich turned the tables and came away with an 8-6 win at No. 2 doubles. Navy’s No. 1 doubles team also won, so just as had taken place in the first meeting of the year, the Mids entered the singles portion of the match with a 1-0 lead. Army won the first singles match to be completed to tie the score, then won the next match, as well, to take a 2-1 lead. But the Mids buckled down and won the next three matches to claim their fourth consecutive league crown.
“That first loss to Army was a huge wake-up call for us,” said Birger. “Everyone showed a lot of character in our preparation to play them again.”
Birger concluded the 2010 spring season with a team-high 17 doubles victories. That raised his career dual-match (spring season) total to 53 wins, which places him just 10 away from tying the school record set by Jim McHugh in 2000.
“Nick is the consummate team player,” said Officer. “He has a great desire to see the team win. He is willing to take on whatever role he can to help the team attain that goal.”
In addition to his tennis accolades, Birger also received one of the more prestigious honors in the Patriot League last spring as he was tabbed as the league’s scholar-athlete of the year for men’s tennis. The honors political science major who carries a 4.00 cumulative grade-point average and is ranked first on the USNA’s Overall Order of Merit is just the third Mid to garner the honor for the sport.
“I don't know anyone who comes close to Nick in terms of his ability to work hard,” said his classmate Owen Bullard. “He is obviously interested in doing a large number of things during the summer and the school year, and is willing and able to do the work that it all requires. I think it is apparent that Nick is very talented in a lot of areas –– academics, leadership, volunteering –– but he really sets himself apart from the rest of us through his capability and willingness to work hard.”
Now in the opening days of his senior year at Navy, Birger is examining what the future holds for him when he graduates. Convinced since Induction Day that he wanted to enter the Marine Corps, he now is strongly considering submarines. His decision will come down to which service he feels will allow him to have a positive impact on the greatest number of people.
“Both the Marine Corps and submarine officers conduct very important missions to support our national security,” analyzed Birger.
“What I like about the mission of the Marine Corps is that it gives you the chance to interact with people and build positive interpersonal relationships that will show them our genuine commitment to their well being. I also think there is a lot of value in obtaining a background and experience in engineering, communication technologies and nuclear power. This knowledge can truly benefit a developing country, and you aren’t going to find a better place to obtain those critical skill sets than in the U.S. submarine community.”
Birger’s interest in development work started during the 2009 Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference on global poverty, during which he was placed onto a discussion panel for the topic of poverty in education. It was an experience that he called an “eye opener.”
Later, to gain first-hand knowledge, Birger traveled on a mission trip to a village in Honduras where he helped build a residence for young girls so they could avoid a two-hour (one-way) barefoot-walked commute to school each day.
“It would be very easy for someone in Nick's position to just take it easy when he gets the chance to because of how hard he works during the year, and maybe pass up opportunities to go on mission trips,” said Bullard. “But Nick genuinely wants to help those less fortunate than him, and he always shows concern for others. The fact that he takes off his only true free time during the summer to go on mission trips to help others is an obvious testament to his selflessness.”
His interest in the subject was further piqued when he received an internship through the political science department at the State Department.
“I worked in an office that was acting as the United Nation’s secretariat for the global counter-piracy initiative,” said Birger. “That led me to read a lot about Somalia and other African conflict zones. Through that I began to see that it is the children in post-conflict zones who are the most disenfranchised.”
He was again sent into our nation’s capital when he received a James V. Kimsey (founder of America Online) Scholarship that allowed him to work at the Supreme Court for three weeks. On his own, Birger also has worked with a non-profit organization called The Mission Continues.
“Eric Greitens is from St. Louis and was a Navy SEAL,” said Birger. “After visiting some of the wounded Marines he commanded in Iraq, he founded the organization to give wounded and disabled veterans public service challenges through a fellowship program. These challenges allow them to work full time for a charitable organization for eight months as a return to their communities.”
Birger experienced another big eye opener when he visited Uganda to assist a non-governmental organization called The Child is Innocent.
“Uganda has been in a perpetual state of conflict since the late 1970’s, and it is just now starting to enjoy peace and stability,” said Birger. “For years, the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped young boys and girls, forced them to do inhumane things and conscripted them into their army.
“The Child is Innocent matches sponsors from the United States and Canada with children in Northern Uganda and pays for them to attend school. They also provide leadership training to these kids, with the idea that they soon will be the leaders of their communities. Having a good education and good leadership skills keeps conflict from starting and provides a strong economic development.”
With having spent time on the African continent, Birger would relish the opportunity to work with AFRICOM, the newest of the six U.S. regional military headquarters, and one that is devoted solely to Africa. AFRICOM’s focus is slightly different than the other headquarters in that the focus for it is on “war prevention” in the 53 African nations as opposed to “war fighting,” while at the same time serving the U.S. interests in the region.
“I would love the opportunity to work with AFRICOM when I am a junior officer,” said Birger. “I hope to attend graduate school to pursue a Master’s Degree in development studies. I would like to combine what I learn in my years of academia with the skill sets and experiences that I will gain in the Fleet to be an asset to AFRICOM and to help further the goals of that command.”
“Nick excels at whatever he does,” said Officer. “He has an excellent mindset and is not easily satisfied. He is a great example of the whole-man concept in action. He will certainly be a superb Naval Officer.”