Dean Nelson grew up around the world as an Air Force brat, which gave him a broad perspective as a young boy. He completed part of his high school in Turkey and part in Southern California, where he also enjoyed the surfing scene. After high school, he entered community college, but spent most of his time at the beach or at work grilling chicken. “Uncle Sam” noticed his half-hearted academic performance and sent him a draft notice. Realizing that his father, a three-war Air Force officer who was then deployed to Vietnam, would hunt him down if he ran to Canada, he joined the Army. His initial plan was to volunteer for every available school to stretch his time in the United States before his inevitable deployment to Vietnam. Then two things happened. First, an officer who was an Airborne Ranger challenged him to do better, and second, he was offered a slot in Officer Candidate School (OCS). He detested the ineffective and martinetish leadership of the officers in charge of the school, but graduated and went immediately to the Airborne, Ranger, and Pathfinder schools (after a brief period as a Training Officer at Ft. Ord, California). He considered Pathfinder School the most challenging school of his 21-year military career. Deploying to Vietnam in March 1971, he arrived at Tan Son Nhut and initially noticed the heat and the smell of death that hung over the landscape. He had requested assignment to the 101st, and upon arrival at the division was assigned to the Pathfinder Platoon. A Pathfinder NCO, SGT Danny Rozier, took him under his wing and showed him the ropes. He then began running operations, averaging about six pathfinder operations every week. He worked with the Vietnamese Airborne Division, earning his Vietnamese jump wings, while he developed a healthy respect for the North Vietnamese Soldiers. He returned to the United States in March 1972, and was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. After returning to America, he had to earn a college degree to remain an Officer in the Army. He later commanded B Company, 1-36 Infantry, in the 3rd Armored Division.
In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his Army experiences, and his career after leaving the military. He describes several missions he conducted as a pathfinder, and recalls some stressful events, such as being left on an LZ (Landing Zone) for three days, surrounded by enemy Soldiers, and having to lift dead and wounded Soldiers over his head to load them on to hovering helicopters. He discusses Post Traumatic Stress, learning to deal with the cumulative effects of being a “warrior raised by a warrior,” and the things that trigger him. He reflects on the formation of the National Pathfinder Association, and why it is important to record the stories of those who served in this unique role in the military. Finally, he shares what his service means to him.