Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse
More than a million military spouses support and maintain the homefront while our service members defend this great nation.
Because of this support, a Coast Guard spouse of the year is selected. For 2017, this spouse selection was due to contributions and unwavering commitment to the military community and our country.
These commitments began at an early age, emulating her mother’s teachings of selflessness and altruism, she adapted and dedicated her life to supporting others and made a commitment to live as a woman with a helper’s heart.
Mary Nelson, wife of Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, is the 2017 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year.
Nelson was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, but raised in Manteo, North Carolina. She and her husband, James, have three children: Coleman, 4, Wyatt, 7, and Austin, 19. Nelson met her husband in Corolla, North Carolina, and got married on Oct. 4, 2009, while they were stationed in Kodiak, Alaska. James, an aviation maintenance technician stationed at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, joined the service in 2000.
“Mary is truly the ‘glue’ that holds us all together,” said James. “She dedicates and supports so many other people and still finds the time to always put her family first. She truly loves what she does and her support allows me to serve the Coast Guard the best way I can; I really couldn’t do any of it without her.”
Even with 19 years of parenting experience under her belt, Nelson is still learning daily lessons about how incredibly unique each of her children can be.
“Our youngest son, is our firecracker and he keeps me on my toes all day, every day,” said Nelson. “Our middle son, Wyatt, is autistic which means our life is unpredictably predictable. We have gained so much knowledge through him and continue to be amazed by what he accomplishes every single day. Our oldest son, Austin, graduated from Coast Guard boot camp and is now officially living the life of a Coastie.”
Life as a parent of an autistic child can be challenging, but rewarding in its own way, and it’s no different in the Nelson home. There are many sleepless nights and days that seem to go on forever, but somehow the ‘glue’ keeps them together.
“We don’t get much sleep, but I’d say we are getting along beautifully,” said Nelson. “Because of Wyatt’s special needs, I have made it my mission for about four years now to constantly put the word out to families transferring to our area that I’m here in any way possible for support and to point them toward the many resources available. I love knowing that I can possibly assist families with similar needs as ours, because learning about schools, therapies, doctors, paperwork, and children’s rights can be so overwhelming and exhausting.”
Nelson has helped numerous families in the Clearwater and Tampa Bay area find the doc-tors to test their children in areas of concern and therefore secure services and in some cases even receive diagnoses.
“Mary is considered the ‘go-to’ person for families coming into the area that need special needs guidance,” said Fran DeNinno-Zukunft, wife of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft. “She hopes to streamline the information she has learned from her experiences into an organized packet to benefit families.”
Nelson is working toward bringing more awareness to our military community about the often unnoticed early signs of autism and steps that can be taken when there is concern. She’s taking steps to pilot a support program for military autism families specifically for the Tampa and Clearwater area.
“In the future, more families like ours will be transferring here and I feel it is important to help make their transition go a little more smoothly,” said Nelson. “It would be fantastic to eventually have support programs at all Coast Guard stations.”
Now that Mary has a son in service, she can see the military through a parent’s eyes, not just as a spouse. Seaman Apprentice Austin Dyal, Nelson’s oldest, graduated Coast Guard basic training in December 2016 and is currently a member of Station Mayport near Atlantic Beach, Florida.
Nelson attributes her son’s decision to join the Coast Guard to her husband’s influence.
“James made such an impression and Austin wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said Nelson. “It’s a new ball game, but I’m thankful we aren’t doing this blindly.”
While her son attended basic training, Nelson helped fellow mothers and spouses of Austin’s basic training company to better understand how things work within the Coast Guard welcoming them into the Coast Guard family.
“I like to think I’m helping them have a positive first experience with military life,” said Nelson.
On May 12, the Nelson family attended the 2017 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year award luncheon at the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce in Washington, D.C., where she received her award for Coast Guard Spouse of the Year.
During the ceremony many great things were said about Nelson’s hard work and dedication to her fellow spouses.
“I love Mary’s messages about health and wellness and how she spreads that message to all those she interacts with,” said retired retired Army Capt. Will Reynolds, keynote speaker at the MSOY ceremony and gold medal winner during the 2016 Invictus Games. “It is great how Mary also shares those opportunities through her fund raising efforts with the YMCA to individuals with different economic backgrounds. Through the work Mary does with others, the YMCA will remain a very diverse and grounded organization that we love to socialize our children in.”
Nelson’s passion in life is health and wellness, and it’s partly due to having a child with such extreme issues when it comes to food as many children with autism do. After experiencing some major medical problems herself, health and nutrition fascinates Nelson and most days she can be found in the kitchen baking, making unique snacks Wyatt will eat or concocting balanced, clean recipes that taste too good to be healthy.
“We cannot take care of others if we aren’t considering our own health first, and many just don’t know how to go about doing that,” said Nelson. “My husband and I together have devoted the past 14 months to learning about nutrition and health.”
Together, Nelson and James drastically improved not only their own bodies internally and externally, but have guided nearly 50 others to do the same, most of which are active duty members and their spouses. They are finding that one of the best feelings in the world is watching another’s life transform for the better and knowing that they played a small part in it.
When Nelson isn’t supporting the multitudes of spouses in her network or taking care of three children and James, she spends time working on herself.
“Today, my hobbies consist of hitting the gym for a class such as BodyPump, whenever I can squeeze it in, or instructing Sh’bam, a group fitness dance class, one morning a week,” said Nelson. “It gives me the opportunity to continue to network with other spouses in the area while at the same time, I can work on my own mental and physical fitness.”
Nelson reminds all spouses to breathe, and to take care of themselves first, so they are able to take care of others. No matter if you are newly married or a seasoned veteran of the military spouse network, you have something to bring to the table and what you say is important.
“I’ve been a mom well over half my life and my view of the world has always been through a different lens than most people my age,” said Nelson. “There are things that will happen out of your control and you just have to learn how to ‘dance in the rain’, so to speak.”
Nelson says her mother was known for her kind and gentle spirit, and as an educator she always saw the best in every person that crossed her path.
“She lifted people up,” said Nelson. “I believe that is why I feel I have a helper’s heart. I always want to find more ways to better serve others because I know that is the best way to honor my mother and carry on her legacy.”
Mary, James, Wyatt and Coleman recently received military orders to U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, in Jacksonville, Florida, and are schedule to move in June where they will be located just miles away from their son, Austin.