Wife of local ‘Wounded Warrior’ receives special honor


Jennifer Nelson, wife of wounded warrior Capt. Nathan Nelson, has been named a Caregiver Fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

By Jim Thompson | 315-4445 | @Jimtnwfdn | jthompson@nwfdailynews.com

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Jennifer Nelson, wife of wounded warrior Capt. Nathan Nelson, has been named a Caregiver Fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

The foundation was formed in 2012 by former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, wife of former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II wounded warrior. The foundation empowers, supports and honors the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers — the spouses, parents, family members and friends who provide at-home care for wounded, ill or injured veterans.

The foundation’s Caregiver Fellows serve as advocates for military caregivers on the local, state and national level.

“We’re normal people with extraordinary circumstances,” Jennifer Nelson said.

She became a military caregiver after her husband, an Air Force intelligence officer on his third deployment to Afghanistan, was severely injured in 2013 when a 107 mm rocket slammed into the building where he was sleeping. He suffered multiple spinal fractures and other serious injuries. He was paralyzed from the chest down and is wheelchair-bound.

Capt. Nelson, now retired and working with the office of local congressman Matt Gaetz, was injured just a few months before the couple’s daughter, Eva, was born. Jennifer Nelson was thrust into an around-the-clock schedule of caring for the newborn and tending to her husband, and trying to catch a half-hour of sleep whenever she could.

That experience is why part of Nelson’s work with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation will be to increase recognition of “secondary post-tramautic stress disorder.” Well known as a problem for many wounded warriors, PTSD can also affect caregivers, Nelson said.

Nelson didn’t recognize her own struggle with PTSD until months after she had been put into the caregiver role. In the initial days after her husband’s injury, Nelson said, she was focused intently on his situation and what seemed to be an uncertain future for the family.

“You’re inundated with information, and you immediately go into ‘solutions mode,’ ” she said.

Because of her intense focus on immediate needs, the stresses of her situation didn’t really begin to register with her until months later.

She said secondary PTSD “started to manifest after Nathan got significantly better” and as she got a handle on caring for their daughter.

“Everybody was good,” she said, “but I became very depressed. I was angry.”

She spent time talking with other caregivers and keeping a journal — a practice she continues today — to address those feelings.

Now, with the luxury of hindsight, Nelson says simply, “We all need to vent.”

In addition to increasing awareness of secondary PTSD, Nelson wants to advocate making caregivers a formal part of the medical team caring for wounded warriors.

Because they are so invested in the care of their wounded warrior, caregivers do lots of medical research to press for better care, Nelson said. In her own case, her research into hyperbaric care — treating wounds with pressurized gas — resulted in obtaining that treatment for her husband.

Nelson is realistic about the time it will take to integrate caregivers into medical teams, but she is hopeful.

“This is going to be years in the making,” she said. But, she added, “I think it’s something that is slowly being recognized.”

Nelson had to take her husband to a local emergency room recently for a wound care issue. The ER doctor admitted not knowing much about wound care, and asked Nelson what she would recommend. Subsequently, tests and other procedures were ordered on the basis of what Nelson told the physician.

“Do you know what that meant to me?” she asked.

“We’re kind of like nurses,” Nelson said. “We didn’t go to school for it; we just live it.”