Veteran honored in DC

“We were just kids.”

Rhett Breedlove
Posted 5/17/24

TORRINGTON – At first glance, Rick Nelson of Veteran seems like another retired local boy enjoying the golden years of his life.

When one sits down to talk with Nelson, almost immediately …

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Veteran honored in DC

“We were just kids.”


TORRINGTON – At first glance, Rick Nelson of Veteran seems like another retired local boy enjoying the golden years of his life.

When one sits down to talk with Nelson, almost immediately the power and past of his mind is felt. With his soft voice and pleasant smile, the feeling of a wise, kind and welcoming grandfather immediately takes the mechanism of the room.

From the moment the exchange begins, Nelson immediately takes control of the conversation and the dialogue. He is a man who humbly and respectfully wishes to be heard now. At this stage of his life, younger ones observably need to learn how to listen more and talk less.

He speaks an instant truth.

Not for the sake of himself, but far more for the sake of his loving wife Patty, his children and of course any grandchildren he may have.

His pace is a bit slower these days. In all sincerity it is an understandable and admirable trait for an 81-year-old man wishing nothing more than to have a pleasant conversation with another. One which could reminisce and hopefully bring some small amount of peace to those who need it most.

Perhaps more importantly, to give a new generation something to ponder once in a while and remember the difficult, sometimes ultimate sacrifice someone else has made. 

That very sacrifice is the precise reason someone like Nelson can even have a conversation with a newspaper in the first place.

The soft-spoken, scholarly Navy Veteran with an almost PhD-level knowledge of American history was recently honored for his service, and his sacrifices at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. earlier this month.

As part of the Honor Flight Network, by their own catalog have been taking thousands of U.S. Veterans from across the country straight to D.C. to honor them with the respect, integrity and dignity they very much deserve. Additionally, the program provides Veterans with the opportunity to visit memorials while being able to tell their stories, share camaraderie, and receive honorable recognition from the nation they served; whether or not they even had a choice to begin with.

“My daughter and her husband own a Snap On Incorporated franchise down in northern Colorado,” Nelson began. “Snap On has invested for a few years an enormous amount of money in doing these trips. The way the program works is one of the dealers will nominate somebody for one of these Honor Flights. Then you go and they gather a whole bunch of information from you, and you give them a little history. What you did, where you went, how you did and all that as far as your experience during the Vietnam era.” 

As a Vietnam War Veteran, Nelson began by giving a little insight to help guide those who may be unfamiliar in having a firmer grasp with what he and thousands of others went through.

Most individuals would have no problem, or more candidly would be quite flattered to share a story about an enjoyable trip to our nation’s capital.

Remember once again, Nelson is an unpretentious man. One who has seen, shared and been through too much to keep the focus purely on himself. To Nelson, he would much rather talk and reflect on his brothers; some still amongst us while others flew away long ago.

All the while keeping the talk close to the love and bond he shares always with his daughter, Nelson distributed with a bit of clever wit the powerful and close impact one particular memorial truly has. 

“I can still walk great distances and did a lot of waking,” Nelson joked. “But my daughter of course was my sponsor. So she pushed me in a wheelchair whenever it was necessary.”

“To visit this particular memorial, everything is incredibly symbolic. So having experienced it means something to people. The most stirring events they chose was for one of our group members to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I was not one, but you don’t just do that. Actually, the President does so every Memorial Day. We witnessed the changing of the guard at the time, which is extremely impressive. It is a worthwhile ceremony to observe. The atmosphere around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is extremely reverent.”

With his face now signifying all seriousness, Nelson went into vivid detail what it felt like to be in the presence of such a commemorative. 

“They tell you before you get there you better turn you phone off or put it on airplane [mode] or you will be escorted out in a humiliating factor. In this evolution, they were all volunteers. It is considered to be a conservable honor thing of the tomb in remembrance of these guys. The four of us had to help them do that. Of course with the Vietnam War, there were a number of guys with us who had incredible reactions in finding names of people very close to them.”

As Nelson continued, his words turned toward an almost sad contemplation in remembering a time when he was not a kind, carefree old timer walking and carrying all the respect he has so willingly earned for so many years.

For just a few moments, Nelson remembered intensely what it was like to be a young man in his late teens or early twenties again.

“We were just kids,” he said. 

As the honored Navy Commander would continue, by his own words he and his brothers at the time felt absolutely no honor upon their arrival home.

“When we came back from Vietnam, an extremely unpopular war particularly with young people and politics aside, we were not welcome. The WWII guys came home to parades and accolades for defending our motherland. Korean Vets came home and were totally ignored. There was total apathy for them. Vietnam guys came home, and we were spat on. We were called all kinds of vulgar names. A lot of people coming back would do anything not to identify themselves as returning military to the states. Along with that there was a great deal of apathy also.”

“It wasn’t until probably the last ten or so years when those of us who were Veterans of that era had people begun to recognized us as Veterans who had to endure what we had to during that period of time. It’s very cathartic for us to be recognized in such a fashion in the late spring. If you had someone close to you during this period of time it never goes away. Right now we call it PTSD. World War II Vets called it combat fatigue. It permanently scars you and reprograms your brain. That is what’s happening to men and women coming back these days. They will eventually be recognized in the same fashion as we have been. They will go to this wall to hunt for and find their buddies who died next to them. Or in some cases an individual was wounded and someone hauled him to safety, and in the process got killed. It’s an incredible personal connection to the man. Then you go back to the wall and find his name there. The emotions you see from the Vietnam War are very heartbreaking.”

Just before slowly letting himself back out into the somewhat busy but very peaceful streets of Torrington, one cannot help but remember his words which could be cemented into the minds of anyone who would stop and listen.

Appropriately, a small group of young college boys with expensive cell phones and cold latte’s walk past him; a far cry from where he and so many others were at that age.

“When you get into your 30’s and 40’s, you develop your technique of dealing with cranky people,” Nelson said. “With people you love and people you hate, you develop all this stuff. When you are 18 or 19 you barely have that. Any reaction you have with people are very strong. If you go through boot camp or basic training, you are just 17,18 or 19 years old. You are going out there and are being viciously abused physically and mentally. It’s such a common bond the younger you are. Your contemporaries are like your family. They are even closer than your family. Then you go off to some place and are put in a situation where a number of these relationships are terminated, just like that. In some cases, you witnessed a horrific way in which it was terminated.”

“This is a group and family of men who are emotionally welded. They are also emotionally separated. Whatever it is or whoever survived with you also have a very close tie with you for the rest of your life. These are people who lived through it with you. And you are still bonded with people you’ve lost. It’s a very common loss. So now you know that, and what it does truly impact.”