KEARNEY — You won’t hear Danelle Nelson complain about any of her deployments in the Nebraska Air National Guard.
She was deployed to multiple different countries on several missions between 2001-2016 in support of Iraqi freedom, each time leaving home and family — even a baby — and trading it for crawling inside of fuel tanks, sometimes in 130 degree heat.
But no matter where she was, Nelson always did the same thing: turn it into something positive.
“You just decide you better have a positive outlook because you have several days here, and you might as well make the best of it,” she said.
A whim turned into a career
Nelson’s life plan didn’t always include joining the military.
Though she lives in Kearney with her husband Kurt now, Nelson grew up on a farm in North Dakota, not in a military family, and eventually attended North Dakota State in Fargo.
One day in her sophomore year of college, in 2000, she started having a conversation with a recruiter. She joined the military the same day.
“I’ve always been the tomboy, and I thought it looked kinda fun,” she said. “No other reason than that.”
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Nelson spent six months in North Dakota, but then transferred to Nebraska. Her dad’s, Robert Schwartz, parents lived in Minden, so she had grown up visiting Kearney with him, her mom Sandi, and sisters Dani (Heinrich) and Rebecca (Gray).
Nelson’s career took a massive shift in September 2001, though. Suddenly, the U.S. was at war.
“When I enlisted...there were things going on but (the world) was more calm. That hits and you’re like ‘whoa,’” Nelson described. “What’s that mean for us now?”
Though she joined the military simply because it sounded like a good thing to do, Nelson took her duties seriously. Suddenly, this new directive was in front of her, and she clearly saw what her role was.
“It was kind of like ‘Pull your bootstraps up tight, because here we go,’” she said.
Sixteen years later, Nelson is still making a difference in the military, just a little closer to home.
Nelson was overseas multiple times between 2001 and 2016, usually in the Middle East, but she was also deployed in France, Germany and even Guam.
As a member of the air guard, she was trained as a mechanic and primarily worked on the fuel systems for tankers, like the KC135. That means Nelson crawled inside the fuel systems of planes in the desert heat making repairs.
It was so hot, Nelson said, that you “might as well get in the oven.
“It’s like getting in your car’s gas tank when it’s 100 degrees outside,” she described. Except the desert’s temperatures rose even higher than that of a muggy summer day in Nebraska.
At the end of one particular day, Nelson recalls getting into a bus filled with a bunch of raucous young airmen from other bases. It had been a long day of work, and Nelson said in that moment she found the group obnoxious.
She was an older, female mechanic, of which there are few, so she wasn’t likely to find many people in her same situation with whom to commiserate. But she made a choice.
“‘Well, Danelle,’” she says she told herself. “You either make the best of this, or you live in misery for the next however many days and months.”
The decision caused her to make friends with some of those “kids” on the bus, and she carried the same attitude with her throughout her military career. Though not every day on the job or every deployment was a “great experience,” she chose to turn them into life lessons.
Nelson sees the same attitude in other, older veterans.
One friend served in the Korean War, and was recalled for Desert Storm. He’s soon to turn 89, making him several decades older than Nelson, but she says the two of them have a lot in common.
As he tells stories, the man focuses not on things like how long he spent at sea, but how grateful he was to see ground after 42½ days.
“Even in the crap that he’s seen, and he’s seen some crap, his attitude to this day, his attitude at 89 is no different than mine at 40,” she admired.
She hopes to teach her children, Tyler Collins, 11, and Callie, a freshman, the same truths about life.
Though she didn’t have any children on her first deployment, by the second time she went overseas, Callie was six months old. She debated whether leaving her children was the right decision, but in the end, she says the experience has been “skill-building” for everyone in her family, and has made her kids stronger.
She hopes as her children get older and understand these complicated situations more that they’re proud of the work she’s done, both halfway across the world and close to home.
Serving in the homeland
Though the bulk of Nelson’s military career has been in the air guard, where she worked far from home, the past few years she has worked in Joint Force Headquarters, which she described as a mixture of the air guard and the Nebraska Army National Guard.
That job had her coordinating sending resources to the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes that struck the U.S. south, Harvey, Irma and Maria.
This year, Nelson was “living and breathing” the Nebraska flooding.
The primary function of her current job is to coordinate resources, whether they’re physical or financial, and work with other agencies to send those resources where they’re needed. During the floods, a lot of this work was with NEMA.
Nelson spent long, stressful hours working on flood relief this year, involved on an incalculable number of projects. However, the one group of projects that sticks in her mind is delivering hay to cattle via CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
“We fed a lot of hay to a lot of cattle,” the daughter of a rancher said.
Not all of her job has been dealing with catastrophe, though, she also coordinated the first area military ball for 60 Vietnam and Korean war veterans and their families, an effort that in part won her the 2019 Noncommissioned Officer of the Year Award.
Through it all, Nelson says she has exactly “zero regrets.”
“Looking back, I am super happy to be a part of something bigger than myself. My military career was not about a college education, not about just looking cool in the uniform,” she said. “I take it very seriously when I put that uniform on. For me, I’m just glad I could be a part of something bigger than me.”