Editor's note: This article is the first in a three-part series detailing the enlistment, injury and rehabilitation of 1433rd Michigan Army National Guard Combat Engineer Specialist Steven Nelson of Calumet.
CALUMET - Steven Nelson is missing his left eye. In its place, he has a glass one with an engineer symbol embedded in it. He's had skin grafts, has shrapnel in his kneecap and does not have full function in all of his fingers. But despite it all, he considers himself lucky.
Nelson, a Combat Engineer Specialist with the 1433rd Michigan Army National Guard, has served three tours overseas, the latter of which took him to Afghanistan where he incurred various injuries. Nelson said his performance in high school was an influencing factor as to why he decided to join the military.
Photo courtesy Steven Nelson
Steven Nelson, a Combat Engineer Specialist with the 1433rd Michigan Army National Guard, works in Afghanistan on Aug. 1, 2012, the day he was severely injured, during his second tour of the area. Nelson also served a tour in Iraq. While in Afghanistan, an explosion took out Nelson’s left eye, replaced later with a glass eye bearing the symbol of the U.S. Army engineers.
"I was skipping school one day and they made me go talk to the recruiter," Nelson said.
Nelson enlisted in 2003 while he was still in school.
He then took a training course in his hometown of Calumet and his military career evolved from there.
The next step for Nelson was to attend basic training, which Nelson said wasn't hard at the time.
"I'd be willing to go back right now," Nelson said. "It was a whole other experience. I don't really have anything else to compare that to."
When he first arrived at basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Nelson didn't know what to expect. He said the first day was a shock to him but then it's all downhill from there, depending on how well everyone does and how much cohesion there is.
It also helped prepare him for the rest of his military career.
"Be there on time, wear the right thing, do the right stuff," Nelson said. "That's basically what they try to get by in basic training."
Nelson didn't know anybody at basic training, saying that people can be in the same company but deployed to different places.
After basic training, Nelson was deployed to Iraq in 2007. He then went to Afghanistan in 2009 and again in 2012.
"Iraq and Afghanistan are very different from each other," Nelson. "A lot of people think they're the same."
While he was in Iraq, he was stationed in Baghdad, which according to Nelson, is not like the rest of Iraq.
Nelson had been watching the news prior to deployment and thought he knew what to expect, but was surprised when he arrived there.
"I was expecting some barren desert and sleeping in trenches," he said. "But it wasn't like that."
It was developed, Nelson said, but very dirty.
"It's the dirtiest place I've ever been in my life. There's no way I could accurately paint a picture. Detroit's got nothing on Iraq," Nelson said. "There's an overpass and (looking down) from it, there was just trash as far as the eye can see."
The people there were also very decent and not hostile.
"Some (people) are more timid and want to keep away from you," Nelson said. "People in other parts would bring us tea and flatbread and snacks, stuff like that."
For the most part, the locals were happy the soldiers were there.
Nelson also discovered there were huge buildings and more electrical power than he expected. There were paved roads, irrigation systems and a lot of electronic shops.
"It was a lot more modern than I thought it would be," he said. "Although (the people) are a lot more stuck in the '70s. They like to wear bellbottoms, button-up flower shirts and have greasy hair."
And then Nelson went to the eastern part of Afghanistan, again thinking he knew what it would be like and having to rethink his preconceived notions.
It was mountainous with a lot of vegetation and was humid. He also noticed there were many pomegranate trees.
Also, the locals also weren't as friendly.
"It's really not that much different from here," Nelson said. "You can go from town to town and have a completely different experience every time."
Nelson also said the locals would stop them and ask for stuff but as soon as the soldiers drove away, they would throw rocks at them. Among the items asked for were pens, pencils, chocolate and water.
"It was a different experience. Each (deployment) has been very unique," he said. "I enjoyed my time overseas."
As it is often said, Nelson became close with brothers in arms. But his second tour proved to be a bit more challenging in getting to know his fellow soldiers.
Nelson had come on late. The soldiers had already been through their training while Nelson was still in Iraq. They left for Afghanistan in either November or December. Nelson can't recall which month. He didn't arrive there until January.
"I was definitely the outsider for a little while," he said.
But while he was the outsider, he had a friend stationed there, as well, whom Nelson said it was nice seeing again.
It was a couple of months before Nelson began to socialize with people.
"The friends you make and the fun you have is the only thing that keeps you sane on certain days," he said. "Some of the best friends I've ever made in my entire life I've made when I was overseas."
While Nelson had friends in high school, those relationships don't compare to those made while in the military.
"There's a different bond when two guys are getting shot at or when there are improvised explosive devices going off and you see a truck get blown up and you think, 'Oh (crap), my friend's in there," he said. "It's a different kind of experience."