Jim Nelson says his kid brother wasn’t your cliché U.S. Marine.
“Even before Vietnam, Dick was a quiet loner, bookish with only a small circle of friends. You’d usually find him off in the corner, reading. He was not Rambo.”
With a high IQ, Richard C. Nelson was tapped by Marine supervisors to learn Vietnamese and work the radios. He was also a prolific writer, penning more than 30 letters home to south Minneapolis from the jungles of Vietnam when he was 20.
His Fox Trot Company had been lucky, suffering only a few casualties taking a hill known as 881 north of Khe Sanh 50 years ago. “But someone in the higher echelon wasn’t satisfied,” Dick wrote in a letter home, published in George Grim’s column in this newspaper on May 28, 1967.
“They wanted another hill and then another — right on into Laos. So we started out — a couple of men killed charging this, a couple wounded taking the next one. They kept saying in a couple of days we’d go back on ship, then a couple more days, a couple more hills. They couldn’t always gets food and water for us but they always managed to get more grenades and ammunition.”
Eventually, Fox Trot Company — “with still more dirt to be taken” — ran into an ambush. The enemy’s automatic weapons, fired from trees and holes in the ground, “gunned down” Nelson’s lieutenant, sergeant and squad leader — “leaving us without a speck of leadership.”
When U.S. forces gained higher ground, an order came to pull back. But Nelson and six others refused to leave a dozen dead or wounded comrades.
“This order was against everything the Marine Corps stands for,” Nelson wrote. “I’m not trying to present myself as a hero. The only thought that crossed my mind again and again was that one of those wounded might have been me. So I stayed.”
Running out of grenades and fixing his bayonet, Nelson finally heard the helicopters arriving after two frenzied hours. One of the wounded died in Nelson’s arms. Of the 80 men who went on the patrol May 9, 1967, 24 died and 30 were wounded.
Like too many of Minnesota’s 68,000 veterans who served in Vietnam, Nelson’s 15 months in Southeast Asia clouded his next 47 years. He worked for 18 years as a probation officer, but battles with diabetes and alcoholism led to dozens of hospitalizations. He lost his house. There were stomach ulcers and car crashes.
“Dick lived in a maelstrom of perpetual turmoil,” said Jim, 73, a fellow Marine who wasn’t sent to Vietnam and went on to a career at Univac, Control Data and Honeywell. Taking care of his brother for years, Jim still lives in south Minneapolis by the family home where they grew up near Lake Nokomis.
At first, Jim said his brother was “too tough” to seek benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Jim persuaded Dick to file five appeals, pointing to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder to win disability payments.
Nearly three years ago, Richard Nelson died at 67. “My brother kind of ran out of life,” Jim said.
Eleven people attended his funeral at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights — just across the Mississippi River from Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
“His thought process was not to glorify things at Fort Snelling,” Jim said. His brother never married but was close to siblings, nieces and nephews.
“He was making a positive statement about family. There was no bitterness,” Jim said.
There was no closure, either.
“Dick’s life after Vietnam was a hard-to-understand contradiction,” Jim said. “A strong, battle-tested, day-after-day, reliable and effective combat Marine was now apparently a weak, unreliable, marginally productive civilian.”
That bothered his brother just like the small turnout at Dick’s funeral. So Jim learned about the “In Memory” program sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (vvmf.org/inmemoryprogram).
While the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., is reserved for those who died in Vietnam, the “In Memory” program is a virtual memorial that honors “veterans whose lives were cut short as a result of their service there, but are not eligible for inscription on the wall.”
Jim filed the paperwork, applying for his brother to be added to the 2,800 names honored since the “In Memory” memorial began in 1999.
On Saturday, Jim Nelson and other family members will be at the wall in Washington to honor Richard Nelson and more than 300 other veterans whose names will be formally added to the virtual Vietnam Honor Roll.
Chuck Chritton, a Notre Dame-trained lawyer from Lakeland, Fla., is scheduled to be there, too. The former lieutenant was Dick Nelson’s platoon leader during the ambush 50 years ago.
A bullet penetrated Chritton’s flak jacket — piercing his upper chest, lodging in his right arm and knocking him down. Nelson ran to his aid, shooting an enemy soldier to save Chritton’s life.
“You can’t say enough about him — he was a solid Marine,” said Chritton, who searched for Nelson for years. He finally connected with Jim Nelson about a year after Dick died.
“Nelson readily exhibited such qualities as vigilance, dependability, endurance, and aggressive response under fire, loyalty and profound steadfastness.”
But, Chritton said, “fighting a war permanently changes the fighter.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.