Brian Nelson was at his home in eastern North Carolina, cleaning an outdoor storage shed last week, when he came across a pair of drumsticks that belonged to his son, Army Spc. Joshua Nelson.
It’s moments like these – at the grocery store, playing chess or eating wings – that leave Nelson frozen in thought, praying for himself and his 22-year-old son, the last Fort Gordon soldier to die in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“Lord,” said Nelson, 50, brought to tears by the sight of the musical instrument his son used to bring family and friends together, “get me through the day.”
For Nelson, and many others who lost family members, Veterans Day is another reminder of the toll that war took on their families.
According to Defense Department records, about 6,700 U.S. service members have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fallen include 28 Army, Marine and Navy troops from Fort Gordon and the Augusta area, each represented by families that span eight local counties, eight states and more than 1,500 miles of American soil, with listed hometowns from Texas to New York.
On Monday, Americans will be called to remember the men and women who left their homes and gave their lives to fight in defense of democracy.
One Fort Gordon commander only hopes the special day will carry as much meaning for the average citizen as it does for the families who lost a loved one.
“It’s very important to understand – and to be grateful – for the people that are willing to volunteer and step up to the plate to make any and all sacrifice necessary,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Mays, Nelson’s squad leader and platoon sergeant during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. “Not only because it is a very noble act, but also because for every one person that comes forward, that’s somebody else who doesn’t have to.”
A hard pill to swallow
Mays was asleep at 3 a.m. Sept. 16, 2012, when he received word that Nelson had died at the hands of the Afghans he was assigned to help.
After some phone calls, Mays confirmed what he feared was true – six supposed allied members of the Afghan National Police had climbed quietly atop a small wall, raised their guns and shot and killed Nelson and three other U.S. soldiers as the four watched from an observation post in Zabul province.
Mays said the soldiers were between tasks, preparing for an upcoming joint mission with the same Afghan National Police that turned on them.
“That was a bad day, a really bad day,” said Mays, who was 100 miles away at Camp Lindsey, outside Kandahar Airfield.
The last time Mays saw the men, he said, was in early August, when he visited with each of his five teams in southern Afghanistan.
Mays said he played Spades with Nelson and before he left, the soldier carried his bags to the helicopter. Upon takeoff, Mays said, he told Nelson he would see him in a couple of months.
“It’s really hard to lose somebody, but it’s especially difficult under those circumstances, because we were close friends who shared many of the same hardships and dangers,” said Mays, who hopes that is the only time he loses a soldier under his watch.
He said although he briefly met Nelson’s family, he could not bring himself to speak with them after the soldier’s death.
“I feel a little bad about it,” Mays said. “The last thing my battalion commander told me before the bus left Fort Gordon was, ‘Bring them all home safe.’ That’s job No. 1, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s hard to swallow.”
Nelson said coping with his son’s death is a day-to-day affair that at any time can go from happy thoughts to unexpected anger.
He said he often relies on his favorite memory of his son to keep up his spirits.
While helping Joshua clean his bedroom, Nelson found a Chess for Dummies book – with certain strategies and moves highlighted – tucked underneath his son’s bed sheets.
Nelson said he taught each of the three siblings chess, but Joshua, the youngest, always struggled to get the better of his “old man.”
“Oh,” Nelson used to say to his son. “That’s how you won.”
Family, friends and fellow soldiers said Joshua’s determination to succeed was evident in every task he did.
His father said Joshua, then 260 pounds, lost 100 pounds in the 10 months leading up to basic training at Fort Jackson in March 2011.
After that, he completed advanced individual training in San Angelo, Texas. From there, he became a top-level signal analyst after graduating a two-week course at Camp Williams, an Army post about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City in the western portion of the Traverse Mountains.
There, he had to pass comprehensive exams and complete endurance drills that included rugged terrain hill-climbing, sometimes in the snow.
“He would periodically call me to tell me how hard the classes were, and I would encourage him, telling him, ‘You’ve come this far. You can do it,’ ” Nelson said. “When he passed, it was a huge deal for him. He was ecstatic.”
After training, Joshua deployed to Afghanistan on May 31, 2012, as a member of Fort Gordon’s 297th Intelligence Battalion.
A week before he left, he drove with his uncle from Andrews Airfield in Maryland, the site of his pre-
deployment exercises, to visit his father in Greenville, N.C.
The three went to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings, where Joshua talked about perfecting his drumming skills, starting a successful career in the Army and building a loving marriage with his wife, Quamisha. They had bought a house in Augusta.
Nelson said his son’s wife has not been up to talking with the media since Joshua died.
“He was full of life,” said his father, an EKG technician. “He had a knack of connecting with people wherever he went, through his jokes and his dreams.”
Four days before his deployment, the two hugged outside Nelson’s Greenville home one last time.
“For me, he was my son first,” said Nelson, adding that Veterans Day carries extra meaning for him. “Then, I recognize, his job was to serve this country.”