During his first six months in Vietnam, Lowell Swede Nelson worked in group-level intelligence. His second six months, he oversaw about 250 men, commanding “the company that runs the headquarters of the organization,” he said. At his post near DaNang, he began to find ways to make a positive impact not only on his men, but also on his neighbors.
Nelson had arrived in country in August 1971 as a lieutenant; within a week, his promotion to captain came through.
“A positive aspect for me was doing the uncommon,” said Nelson.
“Next door to our compound was a Catholic compound, and … in one part of that compound was a little orphanage,” he remembered. “That orphanage was designed for about 50 infants, up to six months old to a year … One of the heads of the Catholic organization took me down and showed it to me. Since I was running the compound next to them, I wanted to know who my neighbors were. When I went in there, I was just stunned because there were 250 infants in there.”
Most of the children were Amerasians – offspring of American servicemen and Vietnamese women. They were rejected by the Vietnamese because they were mixed race, Nelson said.
“They were really stressed for food for those babies, mostly for milk,” he remembered.
So, he set out to do something about that.
“I was in command of consolidated mess halls, about five of them. I got a hold of the mess sergeants that ran these mess halls, and I said, ‘OK, here’s the situation, and we can remedy the thing, but there’s an illegal part of it; if you want out, you’re welcome to get out now.’ The illegal part dealt with feeding the babies, and they said, ‘No no no, we want to stay in.’”
The sergeants “artificially inflated the milk consumption in the mess halls,” Nelson said.
“That allowed us to have this extra milk, and then we could take it to the compound next door and feed those babies,” he said. “We thought, ‘If we do get caught, what are they going to do: court martial us for feeding infant orphans? OK, bring it on.’ We sort of had that kind of attitude.”
Nelson often sent the mess sergeants to the orphanage with the milk delivery so they could experience the good deed for themselves.
“I really wanted them to see what they were doing, not just me – let them experience what they were doing. You couldn’t help but come back with tears in your eyes,” he said.
Nelson and his company maintained their milk support to the orphanage for about three months before being shipped back home.
“You look over your shoulder, and you can say, ‘Yeah, well done, well done on that one,’” he stated. “It was something noble in that whole damn mess over there, and you can say, ‘Yeah, I did something good and contributed.’”
A Better Way
Nelson also contributed positively to his own men, in particular how he dealt with infractions. The “military code of justice” was mostly punishment, Nelson said.
“I thought there ought to be a better way,” he stated.
He began implementing community service. Nelson remembered a time when he had a soldier work with a sergeant who was trying to help troopers addicted to drugs.
“I told him, ‘The neat part is you can help out your buddies.’ I think it was kind of good,” Nelson stated. “Some of the higher ranking NCOs kind of liked it because there was a commander that wasn’t beating the hell out of the men, taking their stripes, taking their money, doing the traditional way of punishment.”
He added, “Today I see community service on TV and think, ‘I was doing that 40-some years ago!’”
Drugs – from amphetamines to marijuana, but especially heroin – were a significant problem during the Vietnam War.
“A company like mine had a 10 percent addiction rate to heroin, and you just said, ‘Ah, God!’ That was part of that environment,” he said.
His company had “a really, really good drug intervention NCO,” Nelson recalled. “Because of him, we only had a 7 percent addiction rate. We only had 18 lives wasted instead of 25 lives wasted, and you got a pat on the back for that – it was almost like an award. I thought, ‘Good God, what are we missing here?’ But that was some of the reality of Vietnam.”
Access to cheap, high quality heroin made it the most serious drug problem Nelson remembers having to look out for.
Soldiers kept their addiction secret by snorting or smoking the drug, rather than injecting it with a needle, which could leave a mark. Besides an amnesty program, little was done to help service personnel kick a drug habit.
“They could turn themselves in, and that would give them immunity,” he said. “You had to go through detox all by yourself, about a week of what I was told was the most miserable kind of existence you can imagine in your life … It was the only way to do it in the Army back then.”
The military did try its best to ensure service personnel didn’t return to the U.S. addicted to drugs. Soldiers weren’t even allowed to fly out of DaNang until they passed a urine test.
Help at Home
After Nelson, who grew up in western Nebraska, returned from service, he also returned to college – prior to Vietnam, he had attended Kansas State University. He received his master’s degree and ultimately his doctorate in adult education. For a time he owned his own insurance agency, and he continued making positive impacts on people through motivational speaking on the topic of personal barriers.
Eventually “my voice went to hell,” he said, and he changed careers. However, he continues making differences in people’s lives today. He recently published a book, “Choose Your Personal Greatness: You’re Too Good for Average,” and he works as an accredited claims agent with the Veterans Administration.
“I work with VA, not for them; I’m a consultant,” Nelson said. “I help wartime veterans get their VA benefits.”
Many of the veterans he currently works with served in the Korean War. Because of his own service in Vietnam, there is a connection.
“It’s very gratifying – I really enjoy it,” Nelson stated.
He also continues making an impact on children.
“For my hobby, I’m a Shriner clown. What a fun, fun thing that is, being around the kids!” he said.
Whether helping veterans after war, his troops during war, people who encounter barriers in life, orphan babies living next door to his Vietnam compound or children through the Shrine Club today, Nelson has been dedicated to making a positive difference in people’s lives.
Promoting and seeing the positive in life helps drive him. One of the most challenging aspects of being in Vietnam was the negativity, Nelson recalled.
“An adjustment for me was adjusting to that horribly negative attitude that was there,” he said. “You seldom heard somebody say, ‘Boy if we could do this and that, we could make a better effort out of this.’ No, instead there was, ‘This is a piece of crap, this tour sucks’ – that isn’t me ...
“I think that was part of a motivator to do something for those kids – that was something uncommon, and you could contribute that way.”