He may be an army veteran with three tours of duty and seven years of active service duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to his credit, but Patrick J. Nelson says the biggest challenge of his military career was coming home.
"Leaving behind a lot of my fellow soldiers and knowing they'd still be over there was the most difficult part," Nelson told The Huffington Post. Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder also proved difficult. "I went through, and continue to go through, a lot of those physical symptoms," he added. "You're never going to cure it; rather, you learn more or less how to cope with it."
For the native of Dawson, Minn., that coping process involved a lot of writing. Nelson's musings formed the basis for Real Combat Life, a non-profit website that serves as a forum for military veterans to blog about their firsthand experiences, and that offers readers a detailed look at day-to-day survival in a combat zone.
Real Combat Life began as a personal project, and the 28-year-old Nelson insists his initial written discourse wasn't motivated by any literary goals. Instead, he says, it developed simply as a way to get his wartime experiences off his chest: "A lot of people had questions, and I just got to the point where I didn't want to talk about it anymore, but at the same time I didn't want to be standoffish." Though Nelson survived a 2005 rocket attack in Afghanistan, two of his close comrades weren't as fortunate -- just one of many tragic experiences he witnessed and hoped to retain. "It was about preserving the stories I had," he recalled. "I didn't want to forget a lot of them, especially the key details."
Once Nelson welcomed other veterans to join Real Combat Life, the blog submissions came quickly. It wasn't just young veterans who were anxious to share their experiences -- soldiers who'd served in World War II and the Vietnam War are now among those on Real Combat Life's blog team.
"I try to make it as easy as possible for them to tell their stories," Nelson said. "They can write anything from a poem to an essay, to even just a few paragraphs in an email. If there are older veterans who don't really know how to use a computer, we'll interview them just to get their stories out there." Each blogger also receives a T-shirt recognizing their bravery in coming forward and sharing their memories.
The blogs themselves offer gripping accounts of frontline battles. "Then finally I hit the ground and all the sounds of battle came roaring back and the world of grey disappeared," writes Iraq veteran Levi Difranza in one entry. "Feeling the blood running down my neck, I laid there looking up into the sky through the [camouflage] netting. Not blinking, not moving, not breathing." Frank Cisneros, another Iraq vet, wrote, "I have seen a lot of dead bodies and witnessed the enemy being shot, burned and killed but never till that night one of our own. That night I couldn’t sleep and I just laid on my cot and cried."
Others have recognized Nelson's efforts as of late, and Real Combat Life was recently awarded a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant for its expansion. Furthermore, Nelson -- who will begin graduate studies in sports management at Minnesota State University this fall and is currently interning for the Minnesota Vikings -- was also honored with a Tillman Military Scholar award, named after NFL great Pat Tillman, who died while serving in Afghanistan.
While he was also awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, Nelson continues to take all of his accolades in stride. "A sense of service is one of the best things I took away from the military," he said. "I'm in no way an expert on any of the psychological things that veterans may be going through, but I only can pass on the things which have helped me. There's so much more that we could be doing for veterans, so it's just a small step in the right direction."
For more information on Real Combat Life, click here.