GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Waking up to three men in uniform knocking on your door with somber faces and bibles is the last thing most military spouses would like to experience. For Jennifer Nelson, wife of Capt. Nathan Nelson, this moment was described as the beginning of her life as a wife of a wounded warrior, as she spoke at the Wounded Warrior Spouse Brief at the Airman and Family Readiness Center, Sept. 18.
“Nathan and I met close to 14 years ago, he was a long-haired freshman in college and I was a senior in high school,” said Jennifer. “We dated for a short while, but I was headed to college and he was in New York. Even though we broke up we stayed best friends for the next seven years via phone, email and social media.
“It was always the one phone call you wanted to take at the end of your day,” she added. “Nathan would always say “Jen I’m going to marry you one day,” and then he disappeared for about three and a half months. I didn’t know if I had said or did something wrong.”
It eventually came to light that Nathan had enlisted into the Air Force, and was going through tech school here at the 315th Training Squadron. With Nathan’s access to the outside world regained, their friendship rekindled and continued the same as before, until things changed seven years later.
“I was a flight attendant and he was stationed at Scott Air Force Base. He came to visit one weekend and decided to propose to me,” said Jennifer. “I said why not and three months later we got married in front of the justice of peace, six weeks later he deployed for the very first time.”
Jennifer mentioned how she didn’t know much about the military at the time, and as someone that was in her young 20’s, she wasn’t sure if she was for or against the war.
“All I knew was that I supported Nathan, I loved Nathan, and that I was going to stand by Nathan because he was a good man. He made me want to be better, because he was awesome,” Jennifer expressed.
After returning from his deployment safe and sound, Nathan put in a package to become an officer and was soon accepted into Officer Training School. After graduating Nathan returned to Goodfellow to train as an intelligence officer.
Once Nathan finished training here for the second time, he and Jennifer headed to Joint Base Lewis-McChord where he would become the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron director of intelligence. Things went as expected for the Nelson’s until Nathan went on his second deployment with the 22nd STS to Afghanistan, just six weeks after discovering that he and Jennifer were expecting a child.
“On the 23rd of September, 2013 at 6 a.m. three men showed up at my door,” said Jennifer. “They told me that Nathan, a few hours prior had been hit by 107mm rocket. It came in 18in from where he was sleeping and threw him out into the desert floor.”
Shrapnel from the explosion pierced Nathan’s back and legs in numerous locations which caused multiple spinal fractures, severe tissue damage, bruised organs and two collapsed lungs. While still conscious, he treated himself until an Army special forces medic arrived, opening up his lungs and addressing the other wounds to his body.
Nathan was quickly moved to a larger operating location where an Air Force special operations surgical team performed multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel and stabilize him for transport to Bagram Airfield and later to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he was rejoined with Jennifer.
From the catastrophic injuries suffered Nathan suffers from a paralysis from the chest down and lost most use of his right hand.
Instead of thinking of how her life would change, Jennifer mentioned that what first came to mind was what does this mean for Nathan’s active lifestyle.
“I am married to a crossfitter and a marathon runner, if he’s not at work he’s at the gym.” Jennifer asked herself. “This guy doesn’t just lay around on the weekend.”
Due to Walter Reed not being a spinal injury focused medical center, Nathan was given the choice of where to continue treatment. He chose Tampa Bay, Florida. He remained in Tampa for more than a year, going through additional surgeries, physical therapy and witnessing the birth of their first child.
Jennifer spoke upon the tough experiences she and Nathan had to deal with since the incident and that it’s a mountain everyone might have to climb, whether it’s a catastrophic injury or even a death in the family.
“You need positivity, you need faith and you need something you can reach into your gut for to be able to say I can do this,” said Jennifer. “You have to be able to muster up the courage and get it done.”
Jennifer mentioned, when Nathan doesn’t want to get out of bed or doesn’t want to do anything she finds a new opportunity to schedule him for. He now has been on several hunting trips, learned to throw a discus from a former Olympian and even learned how to shoot a compound bow with his teeth.
“How do you live a life without limits?” asked Jennifer. “You make the decision to do it. You have to make the decision to not let things hold you back.”