Annie Nelson Ignites Hope for Military Families
Annie Nelson is a survivor in the truest sense of the word.
A violent assault left Annie Nelson with serious, lingering injuries. The attack so traumatized her that she was also faced with challenges attached to PTS. But Annie refused to remain a victim.
Rather than nurture her pain, Annie tapped in to an inner will she may not ever have realized she even possessed.
Annie Nelson focused not on her own plight, but on connecting with others facing their own struggles.
While in her own rehabilitation process, Annie began volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. She saw seriously or terminally ill children with parents who still had to work each day. These children were left alone in the house or hospital for hours at a time.
“Where is everyone,” she asked the house manager? Where were all the volunteers and collaborating non-profits, to fill these children’s hours with company and support? The answer stunned her and catapulted her into action.
As a 501c3, the Ronald McDonald House has a specific mission statement – one that does not include filling empty hours. No other 501c3 had that particular mission either. So Annie created one.
Angels Within was born in 1996, with its sole mission of donating time. Annie and her volunteers – including her two therapy dogs, Eddy and Hazel, who now have their own fan following – filled empty hours for children and adults in need of company. As far as the IRS was concerned, Angels Within was a dormant 501c3. The organization didn’t need to raise money as its purpose was all volunteer based, and cost nothing tangible.
Mission accomplished, Annie settled in to her new life, recovering from her injuries and spending time with people who needed her. But then 9/11 happened, and her focus shifted.
It was a gradual shift, beginning with a drive to support those in the military and an idea borne from finding an old postcard her grandfather sent her grandmother from the beaches of Normandy. Social media had yet to sweep the world, and old-school letter writing was still a thing. Inspired by her grandfather’s words, Annie began pen-palling with three Marines from Camp Pendleton, now deployed to combat zones.
Jesse, Tyler, and Adam grew up in Annie’s original home state of Illinois. Through regular letters and shared contact that snowballed into community care packages, the three Marines became an important part of Annie’s life. So when word came that a suicide bomber had killed Jesse and seriously injured Tyler, Annie felt the blow as if she’d been gut-punched.
To her immense relief, the initial news had been wrong – Jesse had in fact survived the blast, but was also seriously injured. And he was asking for a visit from his pen-pal.
Annie packed her bags and stifled her nerves as she flew from California to San Antonio for the visit. During that visit she and Jesse – who was adjusting to the loss of a leg – spent time visiting with other wounded veterans.
Isolated from much of the world, the men and women recovering from their combat injuries were intrigued by Annie, who has some ties to the entertainment industry. With smart phones and social media still a few years from becoming mainstream, they looked to their visitor from California, linked to people they watched on TV, to answer the question burning within them all:
“Does America care about us?”
The experience left her with the feeling that there was more she could be doing to let the men and women who were giving so much to this country know that America does care.
The difficult struggle to push back against the effects of her PTS, while also recovering from back injuries sustained in her attack, gave Annie some insight into what the men and women recovering from combat-induced injuries face.
Add to that her fierce fight to recover from two large brain tumors, and she possessed not only insight into the road faced by combat veterans, but a newly fortified mindset that life is worth living, no matter how hard one must fight for it.
Annie knew that her experiences had led her to a place where she could now be of service to men and women who give so much for her country, and she set about creating the path to do just that.
A call to her attorney began the process of shifting her 501c3 status from Angels Within, to American Soldier Network.
Annie had a new purpose.
Her own research revealed over 45 thousand registered non-profits professing to serve veterans. Annie realized most of these fail to address some of the most prevalent needs. She learned that the non-profit world is just as plagued by corruption and greed as the for-profit sector, and she learned to spend less time focused on what others are doing, and more time focused on what she could do.
Of utmost concert to Annie is the suicide rate among veterans – not the one constantly quoted in news stories but the actual rate, which she knows is much higher.
According to Annie’s research, the 2010 study that produced that statistic only included information from select demographics in 21 states. But she doesn’t need research to tell her those numbers are higher.
In the span of just one year, Annie Nelson attended services for 30 veterans who committed suicide. Five of those deaths occurred while on active duty.
“I was done,” she said. She wasn’t going to sit back and wait for this problem to be addressed while people she knew were dying.
Through the American Soldier Network, Annie enlisted friends and colleagues from all walks of life to help her raise awareness of the issues confronting veterans upon return from combat. From wearing red on Fridays ( for Remember Everyone Deployed) to sending SWAG Bags (Show Warriors of America Gratitude), Annie devised simple and strong methods to make sure every active duty or veteran service member feels that Americans care.
Perhaps one of the most heartfelt and direct tools Annie created is the Oath to Live. The simple act of reciting an oath can lend enormous power to a person struggling with depression or other “brain health” issues, as Annie adamantly refers to any condition related to injuries of the brain or mind.
It starts with the same line anyone entering military service recites upon swearing in to that service. From there, the Oath utilizes personal mindset and behavioral mantras like “I choose to count my blessings not my battles,” and “I choose not to abuse my body, substances, and the like.”
Annie initiated a movement to have veterans across the nation take this oath and share it on social media. This one step is the first step in creating change that will save lives, Annie believes. And it’s just the first step she takes in not just preventing veteran suicide but then moving further, to help veterans and their family members navigate their way to healthy, fulfilled lives they worked so hard and gave so much to ensure other Americans may achieve.
She’s an unstoppable force, and she’s just getting started. Thanks to Annie’s efforts, people are now receiving crisis negotiation management training, taught by Kevin Griggs, AKA the Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge. This training offers people the opportunity to learn how to respond to anyone who is in imminent risk of suicide.
Next, Annie is pushing forward on creating a one-stop shopping venue for veterans, active duty, and military family members to find resources applicable to their needs, from PTS recovery to job seeking to family counseling – whatever that family is up against, they will be able to visit this site to find organizations, people , and facilities to help. Each resource listed will be thoroughly screened by Annie and a volunteer group of veterans to ensure it fulfills its promises.
RuckUp, as Annie has named this website, has potential to be groundbreaking in its impact on any range of obstacles faced by military families and their service member. But it is still in its infancy development, and the costs would be prohibitive to anyone but Annie. She is determined to find enough sponsors and donations to cover these costs.
Annie Nelson is the personification of every Instagram post about what a person can achieve when she views that achievement as non-negotiable. Her personal mission to ignite faith is one she takes seriously, and has potential to revolutionize veteran advocacy.