Terrorist attack survivor earns 2 Army commendations

Posted March 08, 2011, at 9:31 p.m.
U.S. Army retired Major John Nelson (right) seen here participating in a religious service in Mosul, Iraq, will receive the military's Legion of Merit and Maine Silver Star awards during ceremonies in Lincoln on Thursday in recognition of his development and implementation of a mass casualties plan in Mosul that saved dozens of lives from a suicide bomber attack in 2004. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN NELSON.
U.S. Army retired Major John Nelson (right) seen here participating in a religious service in Mosul, Iraq, will receive the military's Legion of Merit and Maine Silver Star awards during ceremonies in Lincoln on Thursday in recognition of his development and implementation of a mass casualties plan in Mosul that saved dozens of lives from a suicide bomber attack in 2004. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN NELSON.

LINCOLN, Maine — Maine’s adjutant general will award retired Maj. John Nelson two commendations on Thursday for his outstanding career and his conduct during a terrorist attack in Iraq in 2004.

The event will occur at 1:30 p.m. at the VFW Avon D. Flanders Post 1438. The public is invited.

A Lincoln resident since 1995, the 57-year-old Nelson will receive the Legion of Merit and Maine Silver Star in honor of his 29-year military career, which he began as a private and truck driver and ended as a battalion surgeon doing detached service with Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion in Mosul, Iraq.

“His personality and his demeanor are central to the award,” U.S. Maj. Gen. John W. Libby said Tuesday, calling Nelson’s awards “well-deserved and long overdue.”

Nelson said he was grateful for the commendations.

“I am honored that the military has seen that my service warrants this recognition,” he said Monday.

It was Nelson’s relentless insistence that his forward operating base have a proper mass casualties plan, and his development and implementation of that plan with his team of eight medics, that saved the lives of Nelson and 105 others when a suicide bomber self-detonated in a mess hall tent that Nelson had designated a mass casualties center, Libby said.

“It was the absolute desire of the insurgency to hit that tent and inflict as many casualties as possible,” Nelson said. “They tried for over two years to hit it.”

Nelson directed emergency relief efforts despite shrapnel wounds that came from the explosion, which occurred  about 30 feet from where he was having a meal.

“Once I found I was able to get up, all I treated were airway problems, bleeding and breathing,” Nelson said in an interview several months after the attack. “I was determined that I was going to save as many men as I could and that they were not going to kill us.”

The attack forced the evacuation of 72 people for treatment. A total of 106 military, coalition forces and civilians were injured and 22 killed, said Nelson, who suffered back, shoulder and head wounds that caused disabilities that led to his military medical retirement.

Before his service in Mosul, Nelson had served a peripatetic military existence, and his wife, Hattie, and two of his children have served or remain in the Army. Born in Big Stone Gap, Va., Nelson has gone to Vietnam to try to help recover POW-MIA remains and served in Iraq during the first Gulf War, where he received a Bronze Star. He also served in Germany, Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, New York,  Maine and Texas during his 29 years in the service. He has college degrees in business administration, civil engineering technology, forestry and wildlife, earning at least a 3.2 grade point average.

Trained as a physician’s assistant at the University of Oklahoma, Nelson has dealt with everything from emergency medical care at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan to workers’ compensation claims and rehabilitation at the Occupational Health and Rehabilitation Center in Bangor.

He has directed medical training, serving as an aviation physician assistant and overseen preventive sanitation as part of the Army National Guard’s 112th Medical Company in Bangor.

His friends say that his wry humor and occasionally irascible tone mask a man dedicated to learning and doing the best he can for others.

“The folks that he served in his capacity as doc [a medic] know and understand that he is always looking out for them,” Libby said.

“My success in the military came from something I learned when I was an Eagle Scout — be prepared,” Nelson said Monday. “That’s what led to me doing outstanding work in anything I was involved in. That all came to fruition with the mass casualties plan for the dining facility.”

Nelson’s actions in Mosul already earned him a Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals and recognition as the Armed Forces’ Physician’s Assistant of 2005, out of 1,600 nominees, and further recognition as Maine’s Outstanding Health Care Professional of 2005. Slow paperwork processing delayed Nelson’s latest recognition, Libby said.

“One of our core competencies,” Libby said, “is not handling paperwork in a timely fashion.”

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