Face of Defense: Retired Colonel Closes Medical Practice to Serve in Iraq
By Army Pfc. Jasmine N. Walthall
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP STRIKER, Iraq, Feb. 6, 2009 - Retired Army Col. (Dr.) Lionel M. Nelson returned to military service after a five-year retirement to make a medical contribution in Iraq.
The former Air Force reservist and retired Army reservist shut down his private practice in San Jose, Calif., to participate in "90 Days Boots on the Ground," an Army Reserve program that gives former military doctors the opportunity to deploy to Iraq for 90 days.
Nelson deployed with Task Force 449, the North Carolina National Guard's 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, which is in charge of Multinational Division Center's combat aviation brigade here.
As the brigade surgeon, Nelson supervises the medical components of the task force and advises the commander on medical- and clinical-related issues in country. He also is responsible for the health of aviators and flies with them to monitor the stress level of pilots.
"I truly enjoy the people in TF 449 and their spirit to get the mission done," Nelson said. "I enjoy working with people who have such pride in serving their country and am glad to say that I help to take care of America's heroes."
Nelson has served in the armed services since 1970, with a break in service from 1972 to 1984. During his time in the Army Reserve, Nelson deployed to Southeast Asia with special operations and civil affairs units and assisted with humanitarian missions.
During a humanitarian mission to Haiti in 1994, Nelson started a medical technician school to train people to repair medical equipment.
"I wanted to be able to make a long-term difference," Nelson said. "A lot of the countries receive donations of medical equipment and can only use it once because when it breaks down, no one knows how to fix it."
Nelson also helped to repair infrastructures and assisted with sanitation and medical issues in Southeast Asia.
"One of my biggest goals was to make sure that we not only helped while we were there, but we also wanted to make sure they continued to benefit from our efforts after our departure," Nelson said.
Nelson attended Yale Medical School and completed his surgical training at Stanford University Medical School, where he currently serves on the clinical faculty. In addition to a private practice, Nelson also has several patents on surgical devices that he invented; he started a company to develop one of them. He sold the company about five months before his deployment.
"I have wanted to rejoin the Army and do my part ever since 9/11, but could not because of my commitments to the investors in my company," Nelson explained. "The sale allowed me to finally fulfill that desire to again serve my country."
Nelson urges other doctors with a military background to consider taking advantage of the Reserve program.
"It is very possible to close up shop for 90 days," Nelson said. "It's an unforgettable experience, and cannot be duplicated."
(Army Pfc. Jasmine N. Walthall serves in the Multinational Division Center's public affairs office as part of the North Carolina National Guard's 449th Theater Aviation Brigade.)