Cmdr. Barry Nelson joined the Navy because he loved the sea. Like many young officers, he had hoped one day to command his own ship. But an accident 10 years ago threatened that dream and brought him into direct conflict with Navy policies.
After a whale boat accident in 1969 off the Vietnam coast. Nelson's left leg was amputated just below the knee. Yet, four years later, Nelson sailed into Haiphong Harbor in command of the ocean tug Tawasa, making him, according to Nelson's own research, the second amputee in Navy history to command a ship.
Nelson efforts to win that command brought a major change in a Navy policy -- one that had routinely declared amputees unfit for active duty.
"Now the policy says that people who have lost one arm below the elbow, one leg below the knee or one eye can be returned to active duty with certain limitations," Nelson says.
Nelson plays down the role he had in changing that policy and helping other handicapped persons, but his story is one of unusual determination.
The story began within 25 minutes of the 1969 accident, when Nelson was flown by helicopter to a MASH unit and was prepared for surgery.
"The doctors told me right away that there was no way to save it (the leg)," Nelson recalls. "I heard them say that they might have to take out a piece of the knee. It flashed into my mind that without my knee, I wouldn't have a chance of getting back on active duty. I told them to save the knee."
Because of that decision, Nelson left the Oakland Naval Hospital five months later wearing an artificial leg just below his knee allowing him maximum flexibility.
Nelson had to pass the same tests as other leg amputees -- climbing steps, walking up a 30 percent incline without handrails crossing streets and an endless variety of leg exercises.
Before he was released from the hospital, Nelson was asked to sign a medical board report categorizing him as unfit for active duty. He refused. Instead, he wrote a rebuttal requesting active duty, which the medical board contested.
"It went to the hospital commanding officer who asked my doctor," Nelson says. "My doctor said, "If anybody can do it, he can.' So they recommended a year's limited active duty."
Nelson says he was persistent in working to remove the term Limited" from his status.
In February 1971, Nelson persuaded the commanding officer of the destroyer school in Newport, R.I., to make him a cruise liaison officer, which would put him aboard a ship for three weeks.
"It gave me the chance to get on a ship and prove I could get around."
Nelson then wrote a letter to the secretary of the Navy "via the longest chain you've ever seen" outlining his accomplishments and asking to be put on unlimited active duty.
"In August 1971, I got a memo saying I was on active duty with the limitation that I could not be a flyer or a frogman. I got right on the phone and called my detailer and asked him to get me in command. I thought he was going to kill me.
When Haiphong Harbor was ordered to be cleared of mines in January 1973, the ocean tug Tawasa, with Nelson in command was one of the first ships there.
Most of his crew were unaware of his handicap at first, Nelson says.
"Then word got around and then one day my leg came off while I was climbing a 35-foot dry dock. Someone just picked it up, brought it to me and I snapped it back on."
After some shore duty, Nelson was named executive officer of the ammunition ship Kiska, where he served for 18 months beginning in October 1976.
Nelson now has a desk job in Silver Spring but he already has asked for another ship command. He recently completed the interviews and paperwork needed to obtain a command and now is awaiting a Navy decision.
"Other than hearing the doubts of others, which were probably justified, I've carried on a normal naval officer's existence," Nelson says. "I don't want to be remembered as a one-legged officer, but as an officer who cared for his people and was a good Naval officer."
A fellow officer, who asked to remain anonymous agrees that Nelson does his job just like any other officer.
"He doesn't want anyone to consider him any different, and no one really does. He knows what's required of him, and he does it to the best of his ability, just like the rest of us."
Nelson says his experience with the Navy holds lessons for other amputees and for employers thinking of hiring handicapped individuals.
"Employers don't realize that we are much more adept at finding ways around problems because we've had to," Nelson says. "People interviewing me as a perspective commanding officer asked me questions that sounded like a Rube Goldberg scenario: What would happen if my ship were hit while I was alseep and my artifical leg was blown up? I ask them what if a two-legged guy gets a leg blown up? At least I'm a great hopper -- I have experience."
Nelson has spoken to groups of amputees in the past, but he does not like to be considered a "torchbearer for amputees."
I just want people to undertand that there are hundreds of people like me. And they're doing just fine."