January 23, 1978 Vol. 9 No. 3 A U.S. Mercenary Maimed in Rhodesia Bravely Accepts the Cost of His CallingBy Frank W. Martin
Only a year ago Keith Nelson left his home in little Sycamore, Ill. to fight guerrillas in Rhodesia as a soldier of fortune. He was 25 years old. "Our society had grown complacent, and our lives were predictable," he explains. "I wanted to experience life outside of that—not just read about it in books." For six months, as a corporal in the Rhodesian infantry, Nelson worked as a medic near the border of Mozambique where guerrillas are bivouacked. Caring mainly for black Africans blasted apart by mines was "ugly work," he recalls, "but you did the best you could, and the more you saw the more callous you got. It was a job."
Nelson was eagerly awaiting transfer to Rhodesia's elite Selous Scouts when in June, on patrol with his combat squad, he tripped a mine loaded with six and a half pounds of TNT. "Three guys ahead of me apparently stepped over it," he recalls. "I stepped squarely on it. It was like jumping off a 70-foot ledge and hitting belly first. I tried to move my legs and couldn't. My right arm was torn up at the elbow and my little finger was gone."
Clinging to consciousness, Nelson gave his buddies first-aid directions and told the doctor from nearby Mtoki how to dress the wounds until he could be airlifted to the capital city of Salisbury. Doctors there managed to save Nelson's mangled arm, but the blast had disintegrated his right leg from the knee down, his left from midcalf. Surgery was followed by five months of grueling daily therapy and an agonizing withdrawal from morphine. But Nelson was determined to be home for Christmas, and walking again—on artificial legs.
That he succeeded testifies not only to his own stubborn courage but to the loving care of his Rhodesian girlfriend, Mary Winship, a 2l-year-old civil service clerk who visited him in the hospital constantly, then took him into her parents' home and "treated me as a person—not as a cripple." But how does one explain Nelson's undimmed sense of war as adventure—even as recalled from a wheelchair? "Combat is the ultimate game," he insists. "You're not playing for points but for lives. I'm still enthralled and excited by it." He was one of an estimated 100 Americans in a foreign force of 1,000.
In retrospect Nelson seems an improbable soldier of fortune or, more pejoratively, a mercenary. The eldest of six children, he enjoyed hunting and camping with his podiatrist father, but, as one high school friend remembers, "he just wasn't the military type." A late bloomer physically, he shunned school sports—partly because he disliked authority—and had few friends. Adrift after graduation in 1969, he fetched up in Alaska as a surveyor's assistant, then began feeling restless again. His enlistment in the U.S. Army in 1970 was sudden and impulsive. "I wanted to get some experience in something," he says.
By that time Nelson had begun to enjoy testing his growing physical powers, and basic training provided a challenge. Soon, despite his lifelong fear of heights, he volunteered for Special Forces and compulsory jump school. Nelson eventually logged 200 jumps and, as the medic in his 12-member combat team, saw action in Southeast Asia. "My job carried a lot of respect," he says, and he enjoyed being "around a group of men who were physically fit, intelligent, trustworthy and able to work as a team."
When his hitch was up in 1973, Nelson decided to go home and begin pre-med studies. For the next four years he worked toward a college biology degree, compiling an A-minus average. But then his veteran's benefits ran out, and he began to doubt he would get into med school. Sparked by letters from jump school friends already in Rhodesia, his wanderlust returned, and he was lured by his old love of battle. "Many people today see professional soldiers as the scum of the earth," he says. "The Green Berets are considered killers and baby eaters. But it's just like any other job that requires intensive training."
Although Mary Winship was wary of becoming involved with a soldier, she was attracted to the quiet American. "Keith was different," she says. "He understood politics and talked about lots of things—not just the army." His allegiance may have been bought and paid for by the white-minority Rhodesian regime (Nelson received about $1,000 a month), but he believed fervently in the cause that he served. "The press makes it a race issue," he says, "but only 10 percent of the people support the terrorists, who are Communist-supplied and Communist-financed."
Though his recovery continues, Nelson must still use a cane and needs help with stairs and physical chores. But movement in his right arm is improving, though, as he puts it, "What do you need a little finger for anyway?" His psychological scars are more subtle. Mary complains that he neglects ordinary please-and-thank-you politeness and tends to male chauvinism. Nelson, however, believes he is coming around. "Like most people," he says, "as I get older I get less dramatic and use more common sense."
Despite the fact that time is running out on white rule in Salisbury, Nelson and his bride-to-be will return there next week—she to her old job, he to the University of Rhodesia Medical School, which accepted him shortly before his return to the U.S. They plan to make Salisbury their permanent home—even under eventual black-majority rule. "I just hope it will be representative for whites and blacks alike," he says. "Nobody should be oppressed by anybody else." As for the terrible personal price he has paid, Nelson is proud of his anti-terrorist service, and willingly accepts the role of the stoic. "I was doing a job, and I knew the consequences," he says. "I have no regrets."
- Beaver Shaw
- Nairobi, Kenya
- I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011
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