A New Day

  • Published
  • By Maureen Smith
  • Space Launch Delta 45

Retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Nathan Nelson spoke to the Airmen and Guardians of Space Launch Delta about his life story and the importance of resiliency at the National Prayer Day luncheon hosted March 15, 2024. This is his story…




The dictionary defines resiliency as the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressive stress; the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.


Nelson believes the definition falls short. The characteristics of resilience have similar attributes and much more. Generally, people would agree they don't think about how strong they are until faced with a situation when they have to rely on resiliency to survive, rebuild, and overcome.


By 2013, Nelson had two successful deployments to Afghanistan as an Air Force intelligence officer working alongside special operations forces. He knew Afghanistan was dangerous and insurgents hid in the rough and jagged mountain terrain. Despite this, Nelson anticipated this mission going much like the previous two operations. With only two weeks left before going home to his wife, pregnant with his first child, things went drastically sideways.


"I had just woken up and looked down at my watch, it was 7:00 a.m., and breakfast wasn't for another few hours," Nelson recalls. The incident report stated the building was hit at 7:05 a.m.


“I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I was sitting up and the cot, my body armor, and medical kit had been blown away about 15 feet,” said Nelson.


The explosive impact from the enemy rocket blew a hole in the wall above Nelson's bed. The force of the blast collapsed his lungs. Shrapnel from the missile sent a barrage of razor-sharp metal shards deep into his back and legs.


Nelson, shaken and injured, instantly realized he couldn't breathe.


"The panic sets in really quick," recalled Nelson.


Gasping for air, he knew he had to focus and keep a level head to survive, as he tried to remember his traumatic injury training. 


"It was at this time, I could see the silhouettes of my team entering the doorway to help,” said Nelson. “I remember thick red blood pooling around my body as the medical team began to insert tubes into my chest.”


As the team worked on his injuries, their faces couldn't hide the shock and horror of his shredded body.  At that moment, he realized the severity and seriousness of what was happening.


"The adrenaline kept me from feeling pain, but I knew it was really bad,” said Nelson.


As terrifying as the situation was, Nelson was thankful he was not alone. He was on the base with trained, professional medical support.


"I was in the best spot I could be," Nelson recalled. " I knew they would do everything they could to help me."


In the face of adversity, the significance of "wingman" takes on a deeper dimension, and the resilience of that relationship solidifies the importance of these bonds. During intense stress and emotion having robust connections with people is essential to overcoming hardship.


Nelson stated, "The people who crossed my path in that moment empowered, encouraged, and comforted me. Even if they were unaware, they had that kind of impact at the time."


Nelson suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury with no movement or feeling in his legs and only limited mobility in his hands. Resiliency took on a new meaning when faced with rebuilding his life with a disability and a wheelchair.


"I didn't think about the long-term effects of my injuries. I was just so excited that I was alive because I knew I should've died there,” said Nelson. “The process and implications of a lifetime of paralysis came later."


Four days later, sand still in his hair, a barely stable Nelson was wheeled down the C-17 Globemaster III ramp, unconscious, for the ambulance ride to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Hospital in Maryland. He would spend several years in active recovery, relearning and rebuilding.


The months and years ahead would be filled with frustration and weariness among small triumphs. Although his brain remembered how to do things, his body wouldn't cooperate.


"I can still remember being in the best shape of my life, strong and athletic, and now picking up a cotton ball was a challenge," Nelson recalls. "I had to start looking at life in a new way, poking fun at the ridiculousness of the circumstance, just to keep a positive mental attitude so I could rebuild and start completely over."


During his recovery, talking through problems played a crucial role in not giving up. Honest, candid dialogue between medical personnel and family kept his anger focused on the process and not the people in his life who were there to support him.


Nelson hopes that sharing his story will get people to re-evaluate the strength of their resiliency. He wants to spark private reflection and commitment to building stronger, robust bonds.


Nelson still faces stress, tough times, and never-ending physical therapy.  He now considers "resiliency" a process instead of a description. The idea of strengthening anything, even resiliency, may seem insurmountable if tackled all at once.


“Make a plan, focus on one area to start, move the cotton ball first, then tackle the next thing,” said Nelson. “If I could travel back in time, I would tell myself as a new Lieutenant that you are not invincible. You can’t imagine what life-changing events will come your way.”


In the beginning of his career, Nelson didn't think a lot about resiliency. He pushed through his daily routines and didn't give resiliency a passing thought when it was emphasized during briefings and commander's calls.


Today, Nelson doesn't take anything for granted, choosing to strengthen his life and relationships with purpose helps recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.


Resiliency didn't mean a lot, until it meant everything.