U.S. Army retired Maj. John Nelson’s long career as a combat medic and battalion surgeon has taken him all over the world, from Vietnam to Germany, Iraq to Alaska and back again. A survivor and hero of a 2004 mess tent suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq, he was awarded the military’s Legion of Merit and the Maine Silver Star for his actions that saved lives and minimized injuries in the attack.
Nelson’s injuries in Mosul resulted in permanent disabilities that ended his military service, including severe damage to his shoulder joints, hearing loss in one ear, loss of short-term memory and lingering post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I came back in 2005 a different person,” he said. “I haven’t ever fully reacclimated to society.”
He no longer can practice medicine. Beyond that, the effects of traumatic brain injury resulted in difficulties with basic skills such as organization and multitasking.
These days, Nelson, 63, is serving closer to his home in Lincoln, Maine. In May, he opened a new center there, the Master Sergeant Gary Gordon Veteran Center. The center is named for Gordon, a Lincoln native killed at the age of 33 during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia while defending the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. The deadly incident was made famous in the 2002 film “Black Hawk Down.”
Gordon’s valor and the deep loss to the hometown community that loved him were his inspiration for opening the veterans center, Nelson said.
“When I came home, I was lost. I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself,” Nelson said. “Gradually, I realized that a lot of former military members here were having trouble with claims for medical care and other veterans’ benefits.”
“I knew the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] system and I knew medicine,” Nelson said. He figured he could help.
With only local donations, including community fundraisers and a GoFundMe page, he opened the new center in May in a small storefront on Main Street. Services, all provided free of charge, include benefits eligibility assistance, hands-on help with paperwork and referrals to other vet-friendly agencies and resources in the state. Two small apartments upstairs are available to homeless veterans on a temporary basis. In the future, Nelson plans to offer peer support groups and other activities.
The center is a nonprofit organization overseen by a board of directors.
Among those who were having problems accessing support from the VA was former U.S. Navy Corpsman Joe Quill of nearby Passadumkeag. Now 78, Quill had learned that a medication he had been prescribed in the past by the VA for a service-related hearing loss might have been responsible for his loss of bone density and advanced tooth decay. If he could obtain his medical records and prove he had taken the drug, he said, the dental care he needed would be covered by his veterans’ benefits.
“I was working with the VA in Bangor and Togus to get my records,” he said. “I had been waiting a year and a half. I met [Nelson] at church and asked him to help me. Three weeks later, I had my records.”
Janice Heath, 78 of East Millinocket said Nelson has been a great help since her husband, Ivory, died last August from complications related to dementia. Ivory Heath served in Korea as an artillery specialist.
“I was just swamped with all the VA paperwork,” she said. “He really helped a lot.”
As a surviving spouse, Janice Heath was eligible for a small stipend. Her husband’s benefits included the cost and placement of a memorial stone in a small cemetery in Sherman. There were letters of commendation to collect. Nelson helped her fill out and submit the complicated paperwork successfully and also researched and delivered a meaningful eulogy at her husband’s memorial service.
“A lot of people try to work with the VA and don’t get any results,” Janice Heath said. “Maybe he just knows how to state things the right way.”
Other Lincoln-area vets said Nelson has helped settle medical claim disputes, determine their eligibility for disability stipends and in other ways navigate the thickets of the federal veterans bureaucracy.
While the VA funds and administers five “official” Vet Centers in Maine — in Bangor, Caribou, Lewiston, Portland and Springvale — those centers serve a specific mission of post-deployment readjustment counseling, bereavement counseling and support for victims of military sexual trauma.
At the VA’s Togus Regional Benefits Office near Augusta, spokesman Phil Black said there are a number of organizations and agencies that, like Nelson’s new vet center, help veterans and their families file claims for benefits. Many vets work with one of seven field offices run by the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services or with one of several veterans service organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and others.
“We do encourage the use of accredited organizations,” he said, meaning groups such as these that have been trained and updated by the VA to provide accurate information, observe privacy regulations and fully understand the processes of the federal agency. But, he said, freestanding organizations like the Master Sgt. Gary Gordon Veteran Center have a role to play, too, in serving veterans at the most local and personal level.
Although he was only passingly familiar with the Lincoln center, Black said, “It sounds like they’re trying to be an effective conduit for quicker response.”
John Nelson said he prefers to operate without the oversight of the VA, though he does stay up to date on changes.
“We check the VA site on a regular basis, read articles about changes in VFW, American Legion and other veteran organizational publications,” he said. “I also check the latest research and findings at the National Institute of Health and other research organizations.”
“A lot of vets don’t trust the VA,” he said, and others are just frustrated with the complexity of the federal agency. “I want them to know they can come to me in confidence. Because I’m a combat veteran, I know what to ask them. I know what to look for. When I sit down and talk with a vet, they know they’re talking to someone who knows and cares.”