Illinois National Guard Soldier Credits Others for Military Career Print
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Written by 1st Lt. April Hawes, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs   
Monday, 02 April 2012 08:39

Nelson Officially Retires April 30 After 27 Years of Service in ILARNG

SPRINGFIELD, IL (03/30/2012)(readMedia)-- With every military memory and mission, Col. Tracy Nelson of Springfield, is not afraid to give credit to those who have shaped him into the commissioned officer and Soldier he is today. After 27 years in the Illinois Army National Guard (ILARNG), Nelson will retire April 30.

While Nelson credits many Soldiers throughout his career, he said it is the noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who taught him the most.

It all started when he enlisted in the active component of the U.S. Army in 1975. He was just 17, grew up with five brothers and five sisters on a small Minnesota farm and needed his father's signature to serve his country. He was stationed in Germany for three years as a crewman for CH-47 Chinook helicopters that transported nuclear weapons. During this assignment, young Pvt. Nelson was introduced to a group of seasoned NCOs who served in Vietnam.

"The NCOs from Vietnam were empowered; they owned the Army," he said. "They have had the largest impact on my life...and on the rest of my career."

After his tour in Germany, Nelson decided to get out of the U.S. Army to go to college in East Peoria. He soon realized he missed the military, so a friend and ILARNG aviation Soldier convinced him to join the ILARNG and enroll in officer candidate school (OCS).

Out of his entire OCS Class that graduated in 1985, Nelson is one of only three Soldiers who still remain in the ILARNG. One of those Soldiers, Col. B.J. Mayberry of Springfield, with Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) in Springfield, was his battle buddy during OCS and vividly remembers a moment of Nelson's resiliency during training.

"On a night land navigation event he took off running, with me attempting to keep up, when all of a sudden he practically fell to his knees," Mayberry said. "I caught up only to find he had ducked under a tree and had stuck a piece of the tree in his eye and it looked like a dagger sticking out of his face. He grunted, grabbed the stick, pulled it out and yelled 'Let's go!' We ended up beating the rest of the class in that night by close to a half an hour."

Once he commissioned, Nelson started his career with 1st Battalion, 123rd Infantry Regiment. He was with the battalion until 1993 and made it to the rank of captain.

He said it was during this time that he and his fellow Soldiers enforced a standard he was familiar with while on active duty. Realistic training was a priority and the battalion initiated training that had never been done before.

"We're going to train like we're going (to war) tomorrow," Nelson said. "If we're going to be here, we're going to do it right."

The third OCS classmate who is still in the ILARNG, Col. Tom Weiss of Sherman, with JFHQ, was in the 123rd with Nelson.

"With Nelson, don't slow down or he will run you over," said Weiss. "He likes to boast, but he backs it up with action!"

In 2003, Nelson, now a lieutenant colonel, faced his first deployment. While he had never deployed, he frequently travelled across the country and the world.

He was at annual training with the 33rd Area Support Group when he was told, within days, he was deploying to Iraq. First he immediately reported to U.S Central Command in Tampa, Fla., for a two-week mission. He then returned home to Illinois on a Thursday to pack his bags and say good-bye to his family before he left Sunday morning for the year-long deployment.

Nelson said the quick turn-around was easier because it left less time for him and his family to think about it. His wife, Debbie, understood it was simply part of the job. She said she was used to him travelling but admitted an entire year to Iraq was a little different than two or three weeks across the country or the world.

"It's who we are and what we do. You accept it and move forward," she said. "It's a mental state. It's no different than going out and running a race. It's a will to win."

She said some days were easier than others but she never let their children have pity parties or feel sorry for themselves because their dad was in Iraq. At the time, their son Everett was in fifth grade and their daughter Madeline was in first grade. Nelson's daughter Kathleen, from a previous marriage, was 16.

This deployment was the first Multi-National Division (MND) deployment with the Polish Armed Forces and the ILARNG.

When he returned, he became the 108th Sustainment Brigade commander. The 108th was going through a transformation and Nelson's OCS battle buddy was by his side.

"I would say one of my most memorable training events was working with him when he (took command of) the 108th," said Mayberry. "The 108th ended up arguably the best brigade in the state. It was a lot of hard work and relentless pressure to attain excellence but in the end I wouldn't trade that transformation for any of my other military experiences."

Then in 2010, Nelson faced his second and final deployment. Again, along with a team of ILARNG Soldiers, he deployed with the Polish Armed Forces for a joint mission to Afghanistan. This mission was the deadliest deployment the Polish had experienced since World War II. Now a colonel, Nelson was even a personal target of a suicide bomber while on a mission.

"You can't stop doing your mission because you're a target," he said. "My Soldiers were a target every day."

Debbie said Everett and Madeline understood this deployment a little more since they were older and because military deployments were fairly common. She said Nelson made both deployments a little easier, too, because he kept his family and the children's school friends informed about what he was doing and where he was at.

Despite Nelson's busy career, Debbie said the two of them have always spent time together, which she knows will continue into his retirement.

"Tracy and I are best friends, so we're always together," she said.

Looking to the future, Nelson plans to spend some time coaching Madeline, who is now a freshman in high school. He also said he hopes to spend more time at the family's South Carolina home, which is where Everett is living while attending the Citadel.

Despite his future plans, he said he'll miss the Soldiers he grew up with and the ILARNG Soldiers of the next generation.

"I'll miss the Soldiers the most," he said. "There is a small core of guys who know what you have to do. It's all about leadership, which I've learned from my NCOs."


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