Tragedy and triumph, two words normally opposite from each other, describe a 19-year journey of a Fort Bragg Soldier and his wife. By telling their story, the retelling not only helps with the continuous healing process but also makes sure a particular day on Green Ramp will never be forgotten.
“On a day I jumped I always said, ‘This is a good day to die,’ reflecting on the words of Crazy Horse at the battle of Little Big Horn. That was always my dark humor joke about throwing myself out of an aircraft,” he said.
Now a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Fort Bragg Warrior Transition Battalion, Nelson didn’t know how close to death he would come that day.
“I heard two popping sounds and I looked behind me and I could see the F-16 coming at us. It looked like it was broken in half and on fire. I took two steps and dove for the ground and the whole world at that point turned orange. It was literally so hot, the air was sucked out of my lungs and I blacked out. I woke up and I was on fire,” said Nelson.
Covered in JP-4 fuel, the lieutenant rolled around on the tarmac to put out the fire.
“I could feel the heat from the flames licking at my face so I pulled off my top and threw it away from me. I still remember that highly-starched BDU top as the buttons popped off it in little flaming button fireballs. It landed in a little hump in the middle of Green Ramp,” said Nelson.
His legs were still on fire so he continued to pat out the flames, burning his hands in the process. Finally, he had to use a handful of dirt to extinguish himself, and then jumped up to see who needed help.
“There is a kid next to me, a young trooper, he was literally an arms-length away from me. He was bleeding from a head wound and was starting to turn that gray color that folks turn when they’re dead. At that point I realized something very, very serious, very, very bad was happening,” said Nelson.
At that moment, ammunition from the F-16’s 20mm gun in the wreckage began to go off. Nelson and other paratroopers ran for cover. A staff sergeant took one look at Nelson and had an Air Force lieutenant with medical training check his condition.
“She looked me up and down and did her head to toe assessment and she looked me dead in the eye and lied, ‘Hey, you’re going to be all right. I’ve seen guys burned much worse. You’re going to be just fine, don’t you worry.’ That was the first chance I had to pray that day,” said Nelson.
“Jay said, ‘Please call Beth and let her know that I’m not going to be as pretty as I used to be, but I’m going to be okay,’” said Beth.
The chaplain was able to reach Beth and tell her the news.
“I was thinking, ‘Do I leave work?’ I was supposed to be taking care of students, working with them,” said Beth.
Some of the students’ parents were coming in, talking about the accident.
“(They were saying) ‘Do you see this big cloud of smoke over there? Do you know what’s happened?’ I remember saying, ‘Yeah, I heard about it. I just got a call, my husband was hurt in that.’ A mom said, ‘What are you doing here?’” said Beth.
“I think there’s a certain amount of shock that goes with being a Family member close to it, which you go immediately into, which I guess is good,” she said.
She called a close friend to go with her to the hospital.
Before Beth left for the hospital, she answered a call from one of the wives from Nelson’s unit, trying to get information about the accident.
“I told her to go (to the hospital) and that’s where she found out that her husband had died,” said Beth.
She made it to the hospital to find that Nelson was in surgery to relieve the swelling from the burns. She was led to a room with other Family members.
“This young Soldier with a PT outfit on kept going back between the doctors and me to tell me what was going on with Jay. I don’t know who he was but he stuck with me for the afternoon,” she said.
Beth went home to wait for the hospital staff to call her when they would move Nelson to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Around 10:30 or 11 p.m., she received a call from Anne McChrystal, wife of then Lt. Col. Stanley McChrystal, 2nd Battalion commander.
“(She) said, ‘They had to take Jay back into surgery, do you want to come down?’ I said, ‘Can I see him?’ She said, ‘Probably not.’ I asked her, ‘Just tell me what to do.’ She said, ‘If I were you, I would want to be as close to my husband as possible,’” said Beth. She went back to the Family member waiting room at Womack.
“I remember she (Anne) came in to the Family member waiting room and had the same look on her face that I had seen on other people’s faces delivering the message that a Soldier had died. I looked at her and I said, ‘Just tell me he’s alive. That’s all I want to know, I don’t care about anything else.’ She said, ‘He’s alive.’ We found out when we got back from San Antonio that she had come to tell me that they didn’t expect him to live through the night. He did, miraculously,” said Beth.
She did get to see her husband that night.
“I remember he didn’t look anything like Jay. We were talking and I told him everything about my trip to the grocery store and how I made French onion soup in the crock pot,” she said.
Beth said she went home that night and prayed all through the night. The next morning, Nelson and his wife, along with 10 or 11 Family members, flew to San Antonio that day and didn’t come back for two months.
They also speak of the close community of Soldiers, Family members and civilians who helped them through the rough parts of recovery. A Family assistance center was set up on Fort Bragg after the accident. At San Antonio, the 82nd Abn. Div. sent a liaison team to help Family members of wounded Soldiers. Fort Sam Houston’s Army Community Service set up a Family assistance center for the Families who traveled with their Soldiers to the Brooke Army Medical Center. They provided donations of books and other items from community members and groups such as the American Red Cross.
“I think it’s a testament to how close we are and the kind of people that make up that community,” said Nelson.
Beth said she was able to get housing on post so Nelson could be closer for his daily therapy sessions. Nelson’s unit with the help of Anne McChrystal, moved all of the Nelson’s belongings to their new home.
“So when we got home from the hospital, there were banners everywhere. The unit helped us and got us on the right track,” said Beth.
The question of staying in the Army was raised early during his recovery at Brooke, Beth said.
“Once we got back here, it appeared that he would be able to stay in the Army, not to be a paratrooper 11 bravo. That wasn’t a fear or question like it is for many Soldiers today,” said Beth.
Nelson began a regimen of therapy three times a day — a healing process that he said he struggled with one day, sometimes one minute at a time.
“I was working both range of motion for my joints and my hands for occupational therapy. That was just a smoker. By the time I got home after being there and back again, around four in the afternoon, I would lay on the couch and hurt,” he said.
Some of the best therapy he received was going back to work, said Nelson.
“That really helped me because I was part of the team. They started seeing that they could rely on me and I could be relied on,” he said.
He also credits his leaders, then-Maj. Gen. William Steele, 82nd Airborne Division commander, then-Col. John B. Abizaid, 1st Brigade commander and McChrystal, with helping him achieve his goal of staying in the Army.
“There are certain triggers that come with certain injuries. It’s a much more formalized thing now compared to what I went through,” he said.
As commander of the WTB, Nelson said he has seen the success stories of Soldiers who have overcome obstacles to continue serving in the Army. He uses his experience as a fellow injured Soldier to remember that everyone experiences pain and tragedy in different ways.
“I can tell you what it’s like to experience (being burned) but I can’t tell you what it’s like for you to experience what you’re going through. You can’t get inside my pain; you can’t get inside my experience. Those of us that have been through these things try not to use this as a club on other people just because ‘you weren’t there,’” said Nelson.
“One of the things I think the WTB does right is we try to build that sense of community. When Soldiers understand that they’re not the only one, there are similar people with similar circumstances, similar experiences, similar injuries, (they learn) ‘I’m not unique or isolated. I can draw from the collective wisdom and experience of these other folks who have similar experience and a similar injury,’” he said.
This also helps Family members, said Nelson.
“One thing we did learn over time is that we were not alone. To be able to reach out to other people who were in similar circumstances helped us find meaning for ourselves. To know that we’re not alone in this is something that helped things make sense over time and helped us to back away from the ledge of stress,” she said.
Healing for loved ones of wounded, ill or injured Soldiers is also a continuous process, she added.
“You get to acceptance and something comes up, there’s an anniversary or something happens in life and you feel like you get bumped right back. You feel the anger and the loss again. I remember my mom said, ‘It’s going to be like a scab, you’re never going to get rid of it.’ You bump it up against the coffee table and you’re bleeding again. I thought this was healed, what’s wrong?” she said.
Prayer, experiences and distance from the accident helped Nelson achieve new goals in life.
“For me, Bragg will always be the place where I almost died but also the place I came back upright. The place I went to Jumpmaster School and deployed three times to war for my country, (something) that I always wanted to do,” he said.
“I think the mistake that we may make or where we go wrong is to fall down that rabbit hole and not reflect on what we’ve done since then or not find that victory in what happened. It’s about the reflection; it’s about choosing to define the event, not letting the event define you. Pulling those good threads out of it; making some good things come out of that,” said Nelson.
Telling his story to others also helps ‘pull the good threads’ out of his experience, he said.
“A big part of our being able to share is being vulnerable to people who haven’t had those experiences or want to hear about something outside of themselves. I am continually stunned by people who tell us, ‘If you can do that, I can do whatever it is I’m going through.’ It is good to hear that folks are inspired by our story. It gets back to there’s something good coming out of it. If we can all find that within ourselves, we would do a lot better,” said Nelson.
He also wants others to know while there are things in life people can’t control, they should take charge of the things they can control.
“Do it, get after it. Don’t be a victim. People like to talk about burn victims and I can’t stand that. I’m a burn survivor. I came through the fire,” he said.