Why we fight

Veteran Bud Nelson finds the answer at home in Craig

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The hall is quiet.

A light breeze blows past the open doorway, but it does little to quell the heat produced by this warm summer day. Outside, children are playing games and goofing around. Their parents sit on lawn chairs, watching and in between glimpses, smiling and chatting amiably.

If there is such a thing as Americana -- a portrait of cheeseburger and apple pie Rockwellian bliss -- surely, this is it.

The serene atmosphere is not lost on the man seated at a table inside the hall.

Not usually prone to silence, he goes quiet for a moment.

He thinks about the people outside and his mind reverts to 1957, then to his experiences during eight years in one of America's most controversial wars. He contemplates years spent on Navy destroyers and cruisers on the open seas, away from his family, sometimes in hostile territory.

In a low, controlled voice he answers a question -- perhaps the most important one -- about his 26 years of military service.

Was it worth it?

"This is the city and the America I served 26 years for," said Bud Nelson, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265. "This is the kind of America I thought of when I looked up at the American flag.

"I never regretted it."

Nelson, who retired as a chief petty officer in 1987, was a keynote speaker at Saturday's local commemoration of Armed Forces Day, the fourth annual Hometown Heroes Picnic. Nelson recited poetry during his speech.

In a candid interview afterward, he spoke with eloquence and emotion about his tenure in the military. A period that spanned four decades and produced some of the country's most historical moments.

On participating in the 1961 blockade of Russian merchant ships transporting weapons to communist Cuba during the Missile Crisis:

"They told us, 'We're not at war, but this is as close as you're going to get because we're drawing a line in the sand.' Looking back, I don't think any of us were really thinking about nuclear war. It's far more easy to realize now how close we were to nuclear war."

On the assassination of his commander in chief, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963:

"When (he) was shot, I was at sea, and I remember (the news) coming through. We were eating when it happened. ... I was angry that people would think this would solve anything and I was sad because I thought he was a good president."

On Vietnam, which he fought in from 1962 to 1976 and which brought him a firsthand view of two significant events -- the Gulf of Tonkin and the Tet Offensive -- and the war's aftermath:

"We were betrayed ... we weren't beaten. (Policymakers) chose to run the war based on votes.

"My idea of being brave when I first started was not being scared. Then I learned that (bravery) is facing fear, not lacking fear. I learned that some people face fear better than others, but everybody is afraid."

Nelson joined the military in 1957. It was a time when service to country was implied.

"Back then, when they had the draft, it wasn't if you were going in, it was which branch," he said.

He found a different America when he returned home from Vietnam in 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive, the simultaneous attacks by the communists on the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

The offensive is seen by many as a major turning point in the war.

In San Francisco, where Nel--son landed, he said he and other sailors experienced the brunt of aggression from draft-dodgers and protestors. They spat at him and other veterans, he said. They burned American flags.

They called him a "baby killer."

Time has helped blunt the sting of their abuses. But he said he can never forget.

"Because we did what we did, they were allowed to do what they did," he said. "Here you can burn a flag because we gave them the right to do it. ... Troops are on orders. They raised their hands and swore an oath.

"I have to forgive so I can be free."

Luckily, times have changed, he said. Today, troops fighting in the Middle East aren't subject to the same criticisms as veterans such as Nelson were in '68. Although American involvement in the Middle East is criticized, troops coming home are more widely supported, Nelson said.

"It's pretty much like this is the way it should be," he said.

Service to others has been a common thread in Nelson's life.

After retiring from the service, he used the G.I. Bill to attend college. He earned a psychology degree from San Diego State.

He discovered Craig in the late 1980s when visiting a Navy buddy. The visit to the small Colorado city turned into a permanent home for Nelson, a New York native who grew up in San Diego.

"Like everybody else, I said, 'Where's Craig?'" Nelson said. "That was June 1987, and I've never left."

Using his degree, he counseled alcoholics and drug addicts at what was the Colorado West Recovery Center. Later, he opened a counseling service and eventually settled into a role helping disabled residents with Horizons Specialized Services, where he worked for 13 years.

"Horizons was the greatest job I ever had," he said. "It makes it hard to feel sorry for yourself."

"It made me think, 'What was my problem this morning?' I don't have any."

Today, he doesn't shy away from speaking about his military service and the things he's seen. His justification is found in the words of Socrates.

"Know thyself," and "A life unexamined is not worth living," the Greek philosopher said.

If the past helped him get here, if God's price to pay for freedom is "paid," as one of his poems Saturday said, then the sacrifice and the turmoil, the heartbreak and the heartaches, were worth it.

Nelson has been married to wife, Penny, for six years. He has four children: sons, Frank and Brad, and daughters, Terri and Beth, as well as eight grandchildren.

"God's got the game rigged," Nelson said. "You've got to give it away to keep it. The more I give away, the better my life is. God has blessed me so much. Life today is better than my wildest dreams."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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