Joel and Eileen Cairo. Joel is the son of Charles Cairo the (in)famous loose cannon clergy in Forest Park. | Courtesy Tom Holmes

Russ Nelson has an impressive resume: serving his country in the U.S. Army since 1983 with the current rank of command sergeant major. He has served Forest Park through the fire department since 1994 with the current rank of lieutenant.

Nelson shared some thoughts on Veterans Day based on these experiences. He wasn’t on the front lines in combat, but he came quite close. In 2003 during the build-up to the Iraq War, he was deployed to Kuwait in a unit of engineers with the mission of prepping all the bases and building roads and pipelines in preparation for the invasion force for the war that began on March 20 of that year.

“We took some small arms fire as we were flying in,” he said, “and as we followed the invasion into Iraq, we had to watch for IEDs because we never knew where the lines of conflict were.”

During most of his military career, his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was repairing Huey helicopters, carpentry, firefighting and, as he rose in rank, management. Right now, as a reservist, he supervises six companies of drill sergeants.

“One of the biggest things I think about as Veterans Day approaches,” he said, “is that I hear a lot of veterans at the American Legion, who served during the Korean or Vietnam Wars, say they were ‘just a’ cook or truck driver, meaning they weren’t at the front lines getting shot at. Behind every combat soldier there are about three supporting soldiers. There are a ton of people behind the scenes that people don’t really think about, but they still played an important role.”

Except for flying into Kuwait, Nelson never came directly under fire, but he did see some troubling things. He said a shooter came on the base where he was stationed and he saw soldiers get shot. He does not suffer from nightmares or PTSD. In fact, he credits his experience in his civilian job as a firefighter with preparing him for what he witnessed in Iraq.

“I think being with the fire department helped me,” he said. “We’ve had car accidents where you’re cutting people out of a car and they die right there. You’re talking to them one minute and the next minute they’re not there. Decapitations from accidents, suicides, people you find days after they’ve passed away in their apartments. Just seeing all the death and the injuries, you have to build some kind of a mental wall. Sometimes I look at it as if it’s not real in order to be able to deal with it.”

Rev. Charles Cairo, who has lived in Forest Park since 1979, was discharged from the Air Force in 1968, a time when little appreciation was shown for Vietnam veterans. 

Cairo said his son Joel joined the Army after graduating from high school, but after a year of that, he wanted more of a challenge so he joined the Marine Corps and had to go through basic training all over again. He graduated boot camp with highest honors and a meritorious promotion. A few years later, he announced he had married Eileen, another Marine.

“In the Cairo family, we’ve always had one member in the military. Our youngest son is a Marine as well as his wife. I’m over 70 years old now. My two boys took me to Las Vegas for my 60th birthday to see Cirque Du Soleil and the Cintas. During the Cintas show there was well over a thousand people. Mid-show, the main actor asked for the house lights to be turned on and for all the military personnel to stand. As I stood, I saw my son across the table applauding me as I was applauding him. It was a moment of ‘satori’ [awakening] in which I realized he was no longer just my son, but also a brother in arms.”