A Veteran’s Days

Tillman Award-winner Patrick Nelson’s pre-University time was spent in combat.

When his phone rang, Patrick Nelson was walking the halls in between classes at Minnesota State Mankato. He answered, and found himself listening to several people on the other end, talking to him via speaker phone.

Straining to hear, he eventually learned he had been selected as the country’s first recipient of the NFL-Tillman Military Scholar Award. The scholarship is named after the NFL star Pat Tillman, who quit pro football to enlist in the war shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Tillman’s death during an ambush in 2004 prompted his wife and others to create the Tillman Foundation, a scholarship program to aid military members and spouses with funds to pursue college and futures in leadership. Several are awarded it each year, but in 2010 the NFL signed on with the Foundation to select one recipient among them all – Patrick Nelson, attending Minnesota State Mankato following nearly seven years of war duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nelson enlisted in the Army to be part of history, he said. “It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

Pursuing a double-major in history and sport management, Nelson had been was an Army paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Brigade based out of Vicenza, Italy.

His service included three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and getting wounded in a rocket strike on the Pakistani border between two fellow soldiers who were killed in the attack.

Nelson  left the military with a Bronze Star medal, Purple Heart medal, three Army Commendation medals, Parachutist Badge and the Combat Action Badge. While in Afghanistan, he applied online to Minnesota State Mankato, chosen because of its proximity to his girlfriend—now wife—who attended nearby Bethany Lutheran College.

“When I left the military, I struggled to find my purpose,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got out and I’m sitting in a classroom at MSU and I reflected on my experiences and how they were so much bigger than me and how I was part of something that was really special, and I kept trying to figure out how am I going to replicate that in any semblance.”

He interned for University athletics, which included stints with the Minnesota Vikings during their training camps. He laughed recalling one of his earliest tasks shortly after enrolling.

“I was in the military, I was a staff sergeant, had the highest rank I could achieve, I was leading soldiers in combat and my first job outside the military was watching kids jump in an inflatable football helmet at Vikings training camp,” he said. “It was the moment I needed to let me know where I was at and what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be… I interned at training camp, then interned with the Vikings the next few years. It was a phenomenal experience but made me realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”

A Reason to Fight

His life prior to 9/11 had not been the best, he said. He would not have been identified as Most Likely To Receive a National Scholarship From An American Hero. He was only sporadically attending community college when he dropped everything and enlisted.

 “Three weeks into the first semester 9/11 happened, and two days later I dropped out and joined the Army,” he said. “I was already skipping classes three weeks in. I was going nowhere fast. Unfortunately, a tragic event like that was a wake-up call for me.

His enthusiasm to enlist was largely from wanting to be involved in something historic.

 “I didn’t want to miss anything,” he said. “I wanted to be part of something historic. And obviously very motivated by the patriotic reasons. It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

An Outlook Shaped

His worst moment came June 8, 2005 at the Pakistani border where special forces and others were at a base ready to receive an ammunition shipment.

Wounded warrior.

 “The fighting was starting to get into full swing,” he said. “We had some ammunition coming in on the helicopter. So we went up the landing zone to take some of the ammunition off of the helicopter.  A group of 10 of us were standing next to the aircraft, and a 107-millimeter rocket landed right next to us [fired by the Taliban from the Pakistan side of the border], right next to the aircraft. And in the circle of ten of us, two were killed and eight of us were wounded. The two guys killed were to my right and left. I literally could have put my arms around each of them, that’s how close we were standing to each other.”

Nelson took shrapnel to the back and still has remnants that couldn’t be surgically removed. He considers it minor compared to what happened around him.

It’s a perspective that he has carried throughout the years, one he’s grateful to have obtained through his time in the military and across the world.

“The experiences I had in the military certainly shaped who I am today,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world….It’s truly made me a more empathetic person, really being able to see things from different perspective.”

It comes in handy at a time when the country is growing increasingly polarized, he said.

“Especially the political climate,” he said. “I’m probably more of a centrist, but I really pride myself on keeping an open mind and seeing different sides of a story, whether it’s political or not, whatever it is. Because there’s not a lot of people who seem to be able to do that in this day and age.”

Leadership training

For the past five years, Nelson’s leadership capabilities have been his bread and butter.

Patrick Nelson today: A Leadership expert.

Today, he’s a senior consultant Lead Star, a firm that offers professional leadership development to businesses large and small.

“I cannot believe they pay me money to do it, he said. “I am absolutely in love with my job. Seriously, I’m a leadership geek.”

On past Veterans Days, he has given talks at ceremonies but this year will simply be part of a local observance, he said.

Given all that’s come before, what will he be thinking about during the talks? Likely his brother Troy, who enlisted when Nelson left the military. Troy served his entire military time in the same unit as Pat Tillman and went to Afghanistan six times.

“That was great for me too, as a veteran, having a brother with similar experiences,” Nelson said.

“I’ll definitely be honoring him.”