Nearly seven years passed while Andover resident Patrick Nelson was in the Army and, at the time, it felt like a job. He had daily tasks, a duty to fulfill—much like your average Minnesotan in a 9-to-5 career does.
It wasn’t until he got out and looked back on those seven years that he realized just how amazing the experience was, how much he went through and how much it was unlike a regular job. “I am in awe of what I did,” Nelson says, adding that joining the Army in 2001 was the best decision he ever made.
His interest in the military started in second grade, when Nelson’s pen pal, a soldier from Desert Storm, came into his classroom to speak. The presence of the soldier made an impression on Nelson that stuck with him throughout his childhood. Then on September 11, 2001, Nelson heard his calling—he was 18 years old and just a few weeks into his first semester at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn. Two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, when the local recruiting office opened its doors, he decided to put his degree on hold and join the Army to help defend his country.
Nelson’s first role was as a colonel’s driver in Germany, and he quickly realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do. “I wanted to be in the fight,” he says. He began to take an interest in parachuting and was fortunate to have an opportunity for reassignment, which is not common in the Army. Soon he was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and heading into his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, where he spent 12 months.
Two years later, Nelson was re-deployed, this time to Afghanistan. On June 8, 2005, he set out to help another gun section with ammunition re-supply, and while he and several others were standing next to a deafening Chinook helicopter, they were hit by a rocket. Nelson was thrown by the impact and wounded by shrapnel in his back. Two men were killed in the attack. Loading those fallen heroes onto the plane for their final trip home was the hardest thing Nelson says he has ever had to do. After that, he chose to stay in Bagram while his injuries healed, and then he re-enlisted. Nelson’s third and final tour was in Afghanistan for 15 months, bringing his time in the Army to a close in December 2008.
The journey was a short but important one that has helped to shape the course of Nelson’s life. After the Army, he attended Minnesota State University in Mankato and double majored in history and sports management, then continued on to receive a master’s degree in sports management. “I was fortunate to have a plan in place,” Nelson says, adding that often vets have an idea of what they will do after they get out of the military, but no firm course of action, which makes it hard to transition back into civilian life. Realizing the struggles that veterans go through has motivated him to help support those that are still serving and those that are transitioning. One way is through a website he created called Real Combat Life.
When he returned home from his final deployment, Nelson felt overwhelmed by people asking questions about what his experience was like in a war zone. He felt ambushed, in a way. But being a history buff, he also understood the importance of telling his story and educating the public that not all war stories as negative as they might seem.
Real Combat Life started out as a personal blog in 2009. A friend assisted Nelson with securing the domain name and getting the design up and running. “It was very therapeutic for me,” he says, adding he soon found out that writing as therapy is a shared pastime of some vets. Shortly after its launch, Nelson received many positive responses from visitors to the site, and he decided to open it up for others to contribute their stories as well.
Frequent contributor Mike McElmeel of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, started writing stories of his more than 20 years of experience in the military after he retired in 2004. “For me, personally, it’s a way to remember as I get older,” McElmeel says. He stumbled across Real Combat Life when it first appeared online and reached out to Nelson about possibly publishing his stories there, too. “I enjoy writing, and it was nice to have a place to put my stories so others could read them.”
Some contributors share intense combat stories while others write more lighthearted pieces that give readers snippets of what daily life is like in a war zone. The experiences span decades, including those from veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam. McElmeel hopes the website gives viewers a bit of insight into what people in the military go through and perhaps teaches them something they didn’t know before.
Nelson receives emails through the website daily, often from people who want to submit a story or from family members of vets and active military members who appreciate the avenue of expression the site provides for their loved ones. He has even received messages from students using the site for research. Nelson reviews all submissions before they are published and responds as quickly as possible.
In January, Nelson and his wife Shanna were married. Currently, he is focusing on following his dream of becoming a public speaker. His hope is to visit schools, clubs and other events to share his story and to talk about his experiences—perhaps to inspire another young person just as he was inspired by the soldier who visited his long-ago second-grade classroom.
Click here to read a speech given by Patrick Nelson.