Remembering Ricky: Looking back at an American life
This story was originally written by the Milwaukee VA Public Affairs Officer in 2009, a year after Ricky's death. It's republished here as a reminder that we need to remember our fallen military and Veterans every day, and not just on Memorial Day.
It’s been 13 months since the Marines knocked on the front door of Lennie and Susan Nelson’s home in Pleasant Prairie.
Their visit said everything before anyone said a word.
“I knew the night the Marine Corps came to the door,” Susan said. “There were six guys in uniform. I opened the door, and I closed the door and walked away. It took me four times going to the door.”
Her son, Cpl. Richard “Ricky” Nelson, 23, was killed April 14, 2008, after he rode over a roadside bomb, killing him and his friend, Lance Cpl. Dean Opicka.
It was one week before his first wedding anniversary.
He left behind his wife, Kristen, now 21, his dad and mom, five brothers — Scott, Dave, Todd, Mark and James — and a sister, Katie.
Susan told those Marines the first thing that came to her mind: “I know where Rick is at. He’s with Jesus. My son is spending eternity with the Lord.”
Christian faith has been the bedrock of this tight-knit family where mom is the administrator at Christian Life School, where all the children went to school, and where Ricky first met his future bride.
That faith, they said, gave them comfort through those dark first few days, and what sustains them today.
“We welcome any chance to tell Rick’s story,” said his older brother, Dave, who is also the pastor of Great Lakes Church.
This is the story of good-natured kid with a rebellious streak who refused to get baptized, but began to change after he joined the service.
He was the guy who kept his fellow Marines in stitches with a goofy version of the robot, busted a move to a cheesy ’NSync song, or spontaneously sang out loud, using the butt of his rifle as an impromptu microphone.
It’s the story of a love affair and those left to carry on without him.
This is Rick’s story.
A romance and marriage
Kristen Nelson was at the end of her freshman year when she fell for Rick the first time she saw him walking down the hall at Christian Life. She thought he was the hottest guy in school.
The blond-haired senior had a mischevious smile, easily made friends and had already signed up for the Marine Corps reserves. The two started dating after he got back from boot camp.
Rick clashed with his dad during those teen years, but mostly people remember him from high school as someone who didn’t follow the rules but liked to crack jokes. He was the guy who showed up at his school’s alumnus Christmas concert wearing a Cliff Claven, baby blue tuxedo with the collar open.
“He was always trying to make people laugh,” said Colin Flanigan, who went to school with him.
His dad, who served in the Army during Vietnam, would have preferred Ricky join the Navy.
“Our relationship was strained,” Lennie said. “He was the rebellious teen. But he came back from basic ....”
His dad stops to blink some tears from his eyes.
“... He came back, and I said, ‘I don’t know what they did with my son, but I like this guy.’ They sent him back better than when he was sent in. He lost that cockiness and was grown up. And we got along great after that.”
At 19, Ricky did something his parents wanted him to do sooner — right before his first deployment to Iraq, with his head shaved and dog tags around his neck, he was baptized in Lake Michigan, with family and Kristen by his side.
He gave a videotaped testimonial and farewell to his family and friends.
“Hey mom and dad, hey, I’m just out here getting baptized,” he said. “I know you wanted me to do this earlier, but ... ah ... I’m kind of the rebel of the family, we all know that, so I decided to wait until I was 19 and right before I’m ready to leave for Iraq. But I appreciate you allowing me to grow up in a Christian home, and encouraging me with my walk with God, and I just want to let you know I’m going to miss you guys while I’m in Iraq. I’m going to miss all my friends and I’m going to be thinking of you constantly. I just appreciate everything you’ve done for me. Love you guys.”
Kristen said the separations made their relationship stronger. She wrote him every day he was in Iraq.
During Thanksgiving dinner 2006, he proposed. When she graduated high school, he wore his Marine Corps dress blues and she wore a white gown for the wedding held in her parents’ back yard on April 21, 2007. They were married by his brother, Dave.
Exploring his faith
Even though Dave was nine years older, the two had a close relationship.
As Dave studied to become a pastor and traveled around the country for different Christian events, he usually brought Rick along. When he was stationed in San Diego, where Dave was an associate pastor, the two would get together for dinner.
The same year he was married, Rick and Kristen visited Dave in Seattle where he was the associate pastor of a different kind of Christian church — one with loud guitars and rock music, that dealt with topics aimed at a younger audience, those who had fallen away from church and those who maybe never went before.
“They told me, ‘You’ve got to start a church like this in Kenosha. We don’t have anything like it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m thinking about it,’ but there was that fear. It was a big leap.”
Dave was working in his church in Seattle when he got a phone call at the beginning of March 2008. He didn’t recognize the area code and almost didn’t answer, before changing his mind.
“Hey, it’s Rick!” the voice on the other end said. “I’m calling you from Iraq!”
“We were on the phone for 30 or 40 minutes,” Dave said. “My last memory of my brother is talking to him on the phone, talking about church and God. Rick told me he had his faith. That’s the last conversation I had with him.”
That first deployment to Iraq in 2004 was a scary one, and the family could hear the concern in Ricky’s voice when he would call back home. For the second deployment, he seemed bored and said he was in a safe place.
In a special feature on war brides, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel followed Kristen’s life back home while her husband was overseas, while she made him cookies, wrote letters and sent care packages.
“I guess what I think when I send it, this is a way of saying ‘I miss you.’ Trying to tell someone how much you love them in one little box,” she said at the time.
Ricky phoned his mom two days before he died.
“He called and talked about how excited he was to come home, and he knew God had a plan in his life,” Susan said. “He came a long way, and talked about his faith.”
Just like the first deployment, Kristen wrote him every day.
Twelve hours before he died, he called his wife.
And on the day he died, there were five letters from Ricky waiting in her mailbox.
Dave continued plans to start a church back in Kenosha while Ricky served in Iraq.
“But I chickened out two weeks before Rick died. It was too hard, too scary, I didn’t think I could do it.”
When he got news of his brother’s death, Dave spent the next two days before he came home pouring his grief into a Web site — www.richardjnelson.com — that highlights Ricky’s life, including videos of his marriage and baptism, dancing with his niece and cracking jokes.
“It’s almost as if internally he knew his life was not going to be forever,” Dave said during the funeral. “ Those who knew him, knew he was restless at all times. Up utnil his second tour, he didn’t get cable because he thought it was a waste of time when he could be hanging out with people.”
Dave decided during the memorial and funeral that he had to carry through with plans to start the church.
It’s what Rick would have wanted.
It’s the same church where Kristen now goes. It has loud guitars and rock music, and deals with topics like sex and teenage pregnancy.
It meets every Sunday at 9 and 10:30 a.m. and has more than doubled in size, with a little more than 500 attending every week.
Kristen and Susan attended a 13-week grief seminar to help them deal with the pain of losing a husband and son.
“Each of our relationships is different,” Kristen said. “For myself, I visit his grave site, and that keeps me in one spot. And part of me wants to stay in that spot, but I know I need to move on, too.”
They both wear a black wristband with Ricky’s name.
A couple months ago, Kristen took off her wedding band.
It was done with gentle encouragement from the Nelson family.
“We talk about everything, usually around the dinner table on Sunday,” Lennie said. “We encouraged her for a long time. I told her, ‘Kristen, you’ll know when it’s time.’”
She recently moved out of the apartment she and Ricky shared, bought a home, and is a full-time student at Gateway Technical College where she’s studying culinary arts.
She also ponders a future without Ricky.
“I definitely think about it,” she said. “It’s at the forefront of my mind. Where do I go from here? I still get to live, and the things we talked about doing together, like buying a house, I do on my own.
“I met a boy,” she added. “I told him I’m very much a part of this family, and I would hope he understands that, and he does, so we’ll see. In the beginning, I thought I would be Rick’s widow for the rest of my life. But I realized there’s a reason I’m still here. Rick wouldn’t want me to mourn. Rick and I did have a conversation about that before he deployed, and he told me if anything happened, he wanted me to move on and take care of myself.”
During Ricky’s funeral, Dave said his brother’s faith was what helped the family cope.
“This experience has brought our family a new level of pain we’ve never known,” he said. “We’ve cried literally until we’ve run out of tears. We’ve hurt so much that at certain points, we’ve grown numb. But four years ago, Rick recommitted his life to Jesus Christ, and publicly made it clear that he believed.
“A few days ago, the guys he was serving with in Iraq held a memorial service for him and word has gotten back to us that individual after individual stood up and and talked about how open Ricky was about his faith and how he talked a bout God,” Dave added. “How especially on this tour, more so than even the first tour, he was vocal about his commitment to God.”
There was another rumor the family heard shortly after Ricky’s death. They heard it from one Marine, and then another.
Finally, they met Lance Cpl. David Doyle who was riding in the humvee with Ricky and Opicka, and was wounded in the explosion.
They asked him if the rumor was true, and he assured them it was.
In the moments before the explosion, the three of them were singing together.
The song was “Amazing Grace.”