Published May 31 2010
Eagle Scout’s dog-tag tribute is more than just names
Still, the two young men with the same name had a few other things in common. Both grew up in Moorhead. Both were known as good kids. And both were active in scouting.
But Andrew Paul Nelson, a decorated staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, was killed in 2007 during the Iraq war at age 22. Three years later, the other Andrew Paul Nelson would work on a project honoring Nelson and more than a thousand other fallen servicemen and women.
The younger Nelson earned his Eagle Scout rank by making 1,350 dog tags to represent the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the war began in 2003. Row upon row of the glittering, stainless-steel tags are now on display at the Fargo Air Museum.
“It’s just a shock that so many soldiers have given their lives so we can have this awesome country,” Nelson told a group of Ellendale (N.D.) Public School students who toured the air museum last week.
The students were duly impressed. “I thought it was very nice for that boy to make those dog tags,” says Dylan Young, an Ellendale sixth-grader. “It’s good because we can know how many people died and served for our country.”
Tags made the hard way
It took Nelson three months of Saturdays to complete the task, sometimes supervising a handful of other Scouts. He actually picked up where another Eagle Scout had left off. Alex Craychee, a volunteer at the museum, started the project several years ago.
It wasn’t easy. Today’s computerized equipment can spit out a dog tag in seconds, but Nelson used the museum’s World War II-vintage machine, which looks like an antique typewriter. If the operator typed too quickly, the cantankerous instrument would jam or break down.
“The first time we did it, we made 50 tags, and I’ll bet we had to scrap 100,” says Nelson, a sophomore at Park Christian School in Moorhead.
After some springs were replaced and the Scouts figured out the machine’s quirks, they were able to produce anywhere from 150 to 400 tags a day.
The operation grew speedier, but it never got easier. Nelson said it was sometimes hard when he realized how the names on the tags belonged to people who could have been his neighbors.
“Those were the ones who really stuck out. You think, ‘I could have seen them walking around here,’ ” he says. “I felt special typing their names. It was my way of contributing back to them.”
Nelson was especially touched when he noticed that one of the deceased soldiers shared not only his hometown but also his exact name. The family of the late Staff Sgt. Nelson had donated a photo of their son and his division, which also hangs on the dog-tag wall.
Staff Sgt. Nelson, the son of Suzanne M. Nelson and the late Daniel Nelson, graduated from Shanley High School in Fargo in 2003.
After enlisting in the Army in 2003, he completed U.S. Army Airborne School and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
During his third tour of duty in Iraq, Nelson died from wounds he suffered in a fight with Iraqi insurgents.
The young man’s obituary made several references to how his character was shaped by scouting. It also mentioned that he was an Eagle Scout – a rank that only about 4 percent of boys involved in scouting will attain. “The Eagle Scout develops the whole person,” says Suzanne Nelson. “It’s not just about themselves; it’s about others.”
She found the program especially beneficial during her son’s junior-high years after he lost his father. “As a single parent, you have to find alternative mentors for your kids and their gender,” she says. “Scouting provides that.”
The younger Nelson shares that passion for the scouting life. He started the program in second grade, mainly because his own dad, John, is a Scoutmaster and Eagle Scout. But he immediately loved it. He’s now a member of Troop No. 635 in Moorhead.
“I enjoy this so much,” he says, beaming. “It has taught me really good leadership.”
‘It’s so Eagle Scout’
Since the project was unveiled in March, response has been excellent. Nelson tells of meeting a couple of Iraq veterans who were searching for a buddy’s name among the dog tags. They shook his hand and told him how much they appreciated his work.
Unlike military-issue tags, which can include information such as social security numbers and blood type, the commemorative tags include the soldier’s full name, city, unit, rank and branch of service. They are grouped according to the years in which they died and where they lived.
David Mohn, assistant Scoutmaster for Nelson’s troop, says every name isn’t listed, although they made a tag for every name they received, and he realizes this project isn’t over yet. More tags will join the board as more fatalities add up.
“This is really sad to have to do this,” says Fran Brummond, director of the air museum, “but this young man had a can-do attitude the whole time period that he worked on this. This is a reminder that not everyone comes home and that our freedom isn’t free.”
Nelson’s Eagle ceremony will likely be at the air museum later this summer. Mohn says he hopes the family of Staff Sgt. Nelson will be able to attend and meet the young man who walked in their Eagle Scout’s shoes.
“It’s so Eagle Scout,” Suzanne Nelson says of the younger Nelson’s efforts. “As a mother, I’m proud of that Andrew Paul Nelson.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525