Operation Tribute to Freedom

OTF Soldier Story for March 8, 2010 - 1st Lt. Mary Nelson

First Lieutenant Mary Nelson

Current Unit: Headquarters and Headquarters Command, U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne)
Current Position: All-Source Military Intelligence Officer
Component: Army Reserve
Current Location: Sanford, N.C.
Hometown: Mayfield Heights and Toledo, Ohio
Years of Service: 3

After watching the Twin Towers collapse on a small television in her downtown Toledo, Ohio office, Mary Nelson knew she wanted to serve in the Army. Over the next few years, she pursued multiple avenues to fulfill her dream and she refused to give up, despite her age. Now an Army Reserve Soldier, 1st Lt. Mary Nelson has already served in Afghanistan once and she is preparing to deploy again in the coming weeks.

“I was living out the American dream of entrepreneurship, but as I watched the terrorist hijackers trying to crush all that was dear to me, I knew I had do my part to help stop their plans to destroy America. I knew I was going to be an American Soldier,” Nelson said.

By the time she seriously considered joining the military after moving near Fort Bragg, N.C., Nelson was 40 years old, one year older than the age restriction at the time. The first time she applied to serve, she was devastated when she found out she wasn’t accepted. However, she was committed to becoming a Soldier, and so she reapplied.

“People thought I was crazy, but I would not lose hope. I was willing to pursue every avenue. Being a Soldier was my calling,” she said. “Everyone just saw me as a 40-year old woman. They didn’t see me as a Soldier. But I knew I could be a Soldier.”

On April 15, 2006, Nelson was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and began serving as a military intelligence officer with the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne).

“Anybody at any age can achieve anything if they put their mind to it.” she said. “You can start a business, join the military, or accomplish any dream you have. You don’t have to be an extraordinary person.”

Nelson modeled that motto during her deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. Serving as the officer-in-charge of the Intelligence Exploitation Cell with the 7th Special Forces Group, she was responsible for analyzing the effectiveness of operations and missions, and then using that analysis to determine the focus of future missions. On a daily basis, she had the opportunity to work with NATO allies, including Canadian and British soldiers.

“It was rewarding to see firsthand that our military partners around the world are as committed to the fight against terror as we are,” she said.

While she was in theater, her husband, Maj. Patrick Nelson, was in Afghanistan serving in Special Forces. Although they were stationed in different parts of the country, the intelligence that Nelson and her team gathered directly influenced the missions her husband and his team were assigned.

“It was very difficult. I was proud of what he was doing and he did a great job, but it was hard. I knew when he was out on missions and I could hear the radio and watch the predator video feed,” she said.

Nelson currently lives in Sanford, N.C. with her husband and three daughters. Her son, who is away at college, has talked about following in his mother’s footsteps and entering the military after graduation.

“When I joined the Army, I knew I could take care of myself, but I’m used to taking care of my son. I think the military is a great experience and offers many great benefits, but I’m a mom and a Soldier. I’d worry if my son deployed,” she said.

Later this month, Nelson will leave for another short-term deployment to Afghanistan. Along with a small team, she will travel overseas in hopes of facilitating better information flow for Special Operations and Civil Affairs missions.

When she returns home later this spring, she plans to apply to University of North Carolina’s Master of Business Administration program. In the future, she hopes to help set up businesses for women, especially widows, in Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide a way for them to support their families, even in remote areas.

Telling the Army Story: Community Relations


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