Whenever he has nightmares about Vietnam, David Nelson takes solace in knowing he’s not alone.
His wife, Cynthia, is always by his side.
“I don’t have them as often as I used to,” Nelson said, “but when I do, it’s normally a doozy. And she just lays on me and hugs and kisses me.”
“She’s worth her weight in gold,” he added.
A decorated Vietnam veteran and Army retiree, Nelson is committed to supporting his wife, as well.
Since her diagnosis with cancer, it’s been a challenge. Recently, with the related expenses mounting, the 74-year-old took what seemed like an unlikely leap for his stage of life.
He enrolled at Tulsa Welding School to embark on a new career.
“I’m tickled pink to be here,” Nelson said Wednesday afternoon, after finishing up his third day of welding class. “It’s going to open doors for me.”
For their part, school officials are happy to have Nelson.
After learning more about his situation, they wanted to help.
“I spoke with the CEO and said let’s help him out,” said Jorge Hinojosa, TWS campus president.
The school awarded Nelson a full scholarship.
“It’s the least we can do. He’s so inspirational,” Hinojosa said. “We owe our freedom to people like him.”
Once he completes the 7-month program, Nelson expects to be able to enter the workforce immediately.
‘A killer and a money-stealer’
Nelson and his wife, who’ve been married for 16 years, live in Choctaw.
It’s nearly 100 miles from Tulsa, but he has no other option for now but to drive back and forth, he said.
Currently, Cynthia is in Tulsa, too, where she will learn from doctors whether she will face more treatment.
She originally was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016 and underwent successful treatment then.
In the three years since, Nelson has focused on taking care of her.
“She’s my No. 1 priority,” he said.
But it’s kept him from being able to work the part-time jobs he did previously. The couple have health insurance from his military career, but the out-of-pocket expenses have been crippling.
“Cancer is a killer and a money-stealer,” Nelson said.
At last, feeling like he was “sitting back doing nothing,” he decided to act. Nelson went to check out Tulsa Welding School after seeing an ad on television.
“It was something I felt like I could do,” he said, adding that Cynthia was supportive when he told her.
Nelson, a native of Topeka, Kansas, served 15 years in the Army before retiring in 1976 with the rank of staff sergeant.
He did one tour in Vietnam, 1966-67. Serving with the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, he was part of three major operations there, receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star for valor, and a Purple Heart, among other decorations.
The attrition rate was so high, Nelson said, in just a matter of weeks he’d gone from team leader to grenadier to squad leader to platoon commander.
The action was intense and his memories tend to blur together.
One incident he remembers well happened during a patrol.
The designated “tunnel rat” for the outing, Nelson was sent into a tunnel to check it out. About a hundred yards inside, he encountered two enemy soldiers.
Not wanting to fire his gun for risk of collapsing the tunnel, he used what he had in hand: His flashlight.
He proceeded to beat them with it, he said. Nelson was able to subdue them until his comrades arrived to take them prisoner.
“They called me ‘Sergeant Eveready’ after that,” he chuckled.
After returning from his tour in Vietnam, Nelson thought he’d made it through emotionally unscathed. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, though, soon surfaced.
Today, Nelson is a 100%-disabled veteran due to PTSD.
Through all the “ups and downs” he and his wife have endured, their faith has been vital, he said.
“I really believe the Lord does what people ask him to do,” Nelson said. “That’s why I know I’m going to get through this.”
“It’s always been the three of us. My wife, myself and the Lord,” he said.
Tulsa Welding School, marking its 70th anniversary this year, has an enrollment of around 550 students, officials said. Nelson is the oldest.
The distinction doesn’t bother him. At “74 years young,” he said, he feels good and believes he’s up to the challenge.
“This is a good place to be. They’ve been very supportive to me,” Nelson added.
“I’m tickled pink. I really am. I’m looking forward to the rest of it.”
And every day, as he dons his helmet and gear, he’ll remember why he’s doing it.
“My wife deserves the best,” Nelson said.
Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.