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Smither, James (Interviewer)

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Nelson, Bruce

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Bruce Nelson was born in Wabasha, Minnesota, in 1949, and graduated high school in 1967. After he graduated, Nelson briefly attended a trade school to become an auto mechanic, but could no longer afford it, so he went to work in a metal foundry. Without a student deferment, he was drafted in June of 1969. He identified himself as a conscientious objector in his Army paperwork and was then sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas for field medic training. In December of 1969, he was flown into Vietnam near Saigon where he drifted around the base for a while until he was assigned to accompany the 2nd Battalion, 319th Artillery, Headquarters Battery of the 101st Airborne Division operating just north of Hue at Camp Eagle. His duties included running the base’s pharmacy, working as a doctor’s assistant, and helping screen Vietnamese civilians who wanted access to local American Medical Civilian Action Programs (MEDCAP). He also made routine flights out to all the major forward fire bases to deliver supplies via helicopter to the troops. He was at Fire Support Base Ripcord in July of 1970 when a supply helicopter was shot down and crashed into the base’s ammunition depot only a short distance from the bunker he was operating in. After the crash, and exacerbated by diminishing ammunition, Nelson and the men at Ripcord felt as though the end was near for them. So, they hunkered down to survive the chaos before being evacuated the next day. After nine months, he was assigned to a different doctor to assist for three months. Towards the end of his deployment, Nelson declined the Army’s offer of promotion if he was to extend his service and was soon flown back to Seattle, Washington. For the remainder of his service, Nelson remained at Fort Sam Houston, working sparse hours in a military warehouse and training recruits for the Special Forces. In June of 1971, he officially left the service and, in his rush to leave, did not collect his military medals or his full dress uniform. His status as a military veteran hindered his ability to acquire a job, but once he began neglecting his military service on job applications, he got a few small jobs before opening his own shop. Nelson believed the service taught him to develop a greater attention to detail while repressing his wartime experiences to the outside, civilian world.

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Veterans History Project collection, (RHC-27)