This story was first printed on Aug. 16, 2018. It is reprinted here as part of our year end coverage.
As students head back to school, some will scoff, roll their eyes, kill time on their iPhones and ditch class because, well, it’s school. But for some, school is solace. A temporary, hours-long haven from horrors that occur at home. For Nolan Wiley, currently a lance corporal in the Marines, his high school experience at Samohi saved his life.
Speaking on the phone with the Daily Press, Wiley is amiable, confident, and borderline brazen. As he discusses his job as the VIP tour guide at the Pentagon, he says his love for history was his safety net for applying to the job but primarily his “height, natural charm, and glowing smile” that got him the position, he says in a joking-not-joking manner.
It’s this overflow of confidence and amiability that makes it difficult to believe that Wiley struggled with suicidal thoughts during his march to adulthood.“It was…tough,” Wiley says, reflecting on his past. “I think to a lot of people, and to me, it was evident that I didn’t care about anything, really, or myself.”
Wiley describes a childhood fraught with uncertainty and constant chaos around him.
When he was 10, Wiley’s parents divorced, Wiley’s father gaining custody of Nolan’s older brother and sister. Not wanting to lose custody of her son, Wiley’s mother found a job in real estate in Laguna Beach, uprooting Nolan and his little brother from Maryland to the west coast.
The real estate market soon crashed, forcing his family to move again, this time to Ventura. With his mother unable to make ends meet, they bounced around motels, eventually becoming homeless and living out of their car.
With his mother unable to provide for the family, many duties fell upon the adolescent shoulders of Nolan, including taking care of his little brother. He’d walk him to school, take him to the library, “anything to help continue his education, keep his head up” in an uncertain time for all of them.
After yet another move, this time to Santa Barbara to live with his mother’s friend, Wiley hit rock bottom; he learned that his father, estranged from he and his brother due to the divorce, had died.
“He was a big part of my childhood,” Wiley said, a momentary tremble to his voice. “I just lost my drive. I put on a lot of weight and stopped caring about myself. I did so poorly in school that they recommended we move somewhere that I could get help.”
A high school counselor at Santa Barbara recommended Wiley and his family move to Santa Monica and enroll in Samohi, a school the counselor said provided a supportive environment. Wiley moved, again.
In new surroundings, he struggled to adjust.
Wiley often kept quiet, isolating himself completely from students and teachers in an effort to minimize more hurt. Why engage when this new environment, these new people, could very well be temporary again?
He was a raw, open nerve, a young man made of porcelain and “on the edge”. His brother was usually the motivating factor to keep going, but around this time, Wiley said he was beginning to lose his will to live.
“When I got to Samohi, I just kind of existed,” he said. “I didn’t care. Some people noticed.”
A counselor at the school talked Wiley into taking an auto class where he soon met Connor Williams, a student that took to Wiley. The two immediately hit it off.
“He came up to me and started talking to me on his own,” Wiley recalls. “I never knew it then, but he ended up becoming a brother to me. He kept me going and was always there when I needed him to be. He was the only person I was ever actually ever to open up to because he never judged me…He brought me back from the edge, by being my friend.”
In addition to his lifesaving friend, Wiley credits Samohi staff for saving him, a broken boy who just needed someone, anything that resembled stability in his life. He says some teachers, specifically Berkeley Blatz and Matthew Flanders, took notice of him in a caring way.
“I always had a problem with people asking why I was down. [Flanders and Blatz] didn’t question, they just offered me support.”
He says the teachers would have small but meaningful interactions with him, asking Wiley where he was going and what he was up to lately, and would even stay after school with the young man to assist him in navigating life and schoolwork.
“They were always there when I needed help.”
After graduating, Wiley worked at a restaurant in Brentwood, unsure what to do with life post-high school. He said he became “kind of a drone,” working and going home. Working and going home. Working…
“One day I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I wasn’t happy with me or my life,” he said.
Wiley slipped into a depression and began putting on weight again.
During a walk in a mall, a couple of Marines noticed Wiley alone on a bench, unhappy. They struck up conversation and felt maybe getting into shape would make Wiley happier. Wiley declined, but eventually warmed up to the idea.
Besides feeling that the two Marines genuinely had his best interests at heart, Wiley says the idea of joining the military intrigued him.
“I wanted to do something better. I knew I wasn’t the best version of myself.” Additionally, Wiley says, his father served in the Navy as a pilot, solidifying his decision. A way to honor the man he was unable to say goodbye to.
The decision brought Wiley something he never had growing up: A consist loving and caring environment. Finally, stability.
“They’re my family. A brotherhood and sisterhood, and I love them,” he says, emphasizing the word ‘love’. “They accept me for me. They’ve been there for me, I’ve been for them. Even the people that I don’t like best or vice versa, they’d take a bullet for me and I’d do the same for them.”
During his role as an infantryman (“the tip of the spear, ground force guys you see in the movies,” he says), Wiley marched in funerals and different events for both the Obama and Trump administrations. Impressing his superiors, he was chosen to be a tour guide.
After memorizing a 36-page document in 15 days and charming people with his storytelling ability, he was moved up from regular tour guide to VIP tour guide, now at the Pentagon. “Again, my good smile landed me here,” he jokes.
During his stead as VIP tour guide, he’s shown the Pentagon and provided historical stories to tourists, sports teams visiting the area, a Secretary of Defense and Pearl Harbor survivors.
Not too long ago, he found some more stability in his life — he met his wife during a break from a tour.
“We met at a cafe in the area. She comes from a Navy family…We both had difficult childhoods, so we were able to connect on a lot of things,” Wiley says, his enthusiastic voice slowing to a crawl. After a momentary silence, Wiley flashes his amiable personality. “I like to think my smile and charm went a long way there, too.”