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Special Operations Soldier Refuses to Give Up After Tragic Accident
Discussion Board on this Respect item
By U.S. Army Spc. Jennifer J. Eidson / U.S. Army Special Operations Command
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (February 2004) - Ten years ago next month a tragic midair collision of two military transport aircraft at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., resulted in 24 deaths and more than 100 injuries. One survivor, Army Maj. Jay P. Nelson, has his burns to remind him daily of the accident.
Nelson was a lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division during the March 23, 1994, crash that caused a ball of flames to sweep over him, leaving more than 45 percent of his body burned so badly that medical personnel thought he wouldn’t survive overnight. Today, he is a major with the U.S. Army Special Operations Support Command (Airborne) here.
For the paratroopers, like Nelson, that were conducting sustained airborne training at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., the day was going to consist of an easy static line jump that would allow them to quickly return home. Instead, it turned into a day that many will never be able to forget or fully recover from.
“Recovery is a long process,” said Nelson. “I am still recovering.”
Although Nelson is still dealing with the aftermath of the accident, he said his family does not let it control their lives.
“You don’t let one bad thing govern the rest of your life, because then you are a victim,” Nelson said. “I am not a victim, nor is my wife. I am a survivor. There is life after traumatic events, whatever they might be. In my case, it was an aircraft incident where I was burned terribly. I am not going to sit here and let that be the only thing that happened in my life - there are still other great things to do here.”
Nelson said that after the accident a lot of people told him they didn’t think he should even consider staying in the Army, but he thought differently.
“It felt like I still had a lot of good years left in me,” he said. “I have always wanted to do this. I loved being in the 82nd. I love jumping out of airplanes. I love being a soldier.”
SOSCOM Executive Officer Lt. Col. Robin Akin said Nelson hasn’t let his injuries hinder his success, and he works hard to keep up the unit’s morale.
“He is always striving to do a little bit better physically so he can continue to prove he is a serious soldier,” said Akin. “He has been able to put his injuries aside in order to do his job. He always tries to reach out and advise other people when they have problems.”
Because Nelson enjoyed being airborne before the accident, one of the things he desired to do again was to put his jump boots to use.
“There were a whole lot of doctors that were totally against the idea of me putting a harness on, because of the heat, because of the cold, because of the fact they were worried my grafts would get torn up on my back, and a lot of them just didn’t want me throwing myself out of an aircraft,” Nelson said. “They were just not keen on the idea, and basically I finagled my way into rigger school.”
Nelson said he just showed up one day at the school and lucked out when there were extra slots.
“It was great for me, because I got to work so much with my hands,” Nelson said. “To get the parachute packed right, get all the lines straight and tying all that stuff on there, that was great therapy for me in and of itself. I got to jump, and I am still jumping now.”
Nelson said being on airborne status again is not where his aspirations for his military career end.
“I certainly need to get through jumpmaster school, that is one of the big things,” he said. “When I got hurt, I was either going to jumpmaster or ranger school. Coming back here to Bragg … was a victory, and jumping … was a victory, and going to jumpmaster school and being able to tell those stories like my buddies do … is what it is all about.”
Although Nelson is able to pull a full workload now, he said his wife waited on him hand and foot in the beginning -- when doctors told them he wouldn’t be able to recover from his injury.
“They were convinced I wasn’t going to make it, first of all,” he said. “Then they were convinced because of the damage to my legs that I wouldn’t be able to walk again.”
Nelson said he didn’t let himself believe that he wouldn’t be able to walk on his own and felt pride 63 days later when he was able to walk out of the hospital.
"I wasn’t moving real quick,” Nelson said. “I kind of shuffled out, but I got out of there under my own power, and I am extremely proud of that to this day.”
Nelson’s actions showed that he has a great will to survive and do well in life, said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Garate, who was in charge of the mortuary affairs team at Pope that day and is now SOSCOM’s mortuary affairs senior noncommissioned officer.
“I remember looking at names in the paper and seeing Lieutenant Nelson had fought his way back, there were a lot of guys fighting their way out of it,” Garate said. “I just think it shows how strong he has proven himself to be. I wouldn’t think he would be in the Army, but he still wants to do great and wonderful things. I know he has come a long hard road with permanent reminders.”
Nelson has not let the tragic Pope accident stop him from setting goals or achieving success in his life or in the Army, but he said he knows that someday the time will come when he will have to end his military career.
“One day, I am actually going to have to retire and get a real job,” Nelson said. “Until then, I’m going to do this. I truly believe that what we do is vital to the security of our nation and to the security of our way of life, and if I did not believe that I would not be here. This, to me, is a calling, and I have been called to do this.”