Adam Nelson’s Epidermolysis Bullosa Simplex Diagnosis Didn’t Stop Him From Living Out His Army Dream

My name is Adam Nelson. I am 33 years old and I was born with a rare genetic connective tissue disorder known as epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) of the Weber-Cockayne variant.  I was diagnosed at an early age, around the time when I began to crawl, although genetic testing was not ever performed.  I have a sister and mother who also have this EBS.  Twenty out of a million people are diagnosed with epidermolysis bullosa (EB).

EBS is a mild category of EB that mostly affects the skin of my hands and feet, but I can blister anywhere from daily activity involving mechanical abrasion and trauma to the skin.  The blisters that develop in these areas from the simplest of activities are deep and painful pressure blisters similar to that of 3rd degree burns. These blisters are caused from the skin coming apart due to a genetic mutation and the lack of keratin K5 or K14 within the layers of skin. Just like dots of glue holding two sheets of paper together, someone with EB has less dots than those with healthy skin therefore the sheets of paper can rub together.

Growing up with this condition, I was unable to play sports or run in gym class.  My childhood was very painful, and the summer was always the worst when heat was added in with friction on my skin.  I was told all throughout my childhood that I could never be in the military or become a Police Officer despite my dreams of working in those fields. While so many dermatologists and doctors told me to get used to sitting at a desk job, I just couldn’t settle with that thought.

Although I was unable to try out for sports, I found hope in power lifting and welding for my last few years in school.  I found a sit down job working as a telemarketer, and I worked there during the week after school let out.

After graduating high school, I began working as a concrete mixer operator for a concrete pipe manufacturer.  This job was the first true test of my stamina and pain tolerance. It was mostly 12 hour days and very hot and humid conditions in the Nebraska heat and worst of all, I had to wear steel toe metatarsals for boots.  I was able to preservere through the pain each day for 2 years.

While working this job, I had gained inspiration from my landlord who was also the chief of police in the town where I lived.  He showed me the value of hard work and discipline and I looked up to him.  I wanted to be a police officer, but at that time I was too young, I couldn’t afford to send myself through a Police Academy, and I had my concerns about my disability.

At the age of 20, I decided I was ready for something new and different.  I wanted to see the world while I was still young.  I went into my local Army recruiters office and told him about my condition and that I wanted to serve.  He and I discussed the fact that I had worked construction now for 2 years never missing a day of work due to my condition, and I was in good shape. He didn’t see it as a disqualifying condition and it was not listed in the list of disabilities.  I shipped off September 23rd, 2008 to basic combat training in Fort Jackson, SC.  The Army was very tough for me and this would prove to be the most difficult thing I have ever done with myself.

Over the next 10 weeks, there would be many visits to the doctor and shocked looks on their faces when they found that I was still training despite my debilitating condition. I remember marching until my feet bled through my boots on multiple occasions, but I inspired my fellow soldiers and I showed them that I was no different than they were.  I  can still feel what it was like to lose the skin off of my heels and the raw wounds and sloughing of the skin.  I can still recollect the look on my drill sergeant’s face when he saw my feet with over a dozen open and bleeding blisters on each foot.  I still kept pushing on because that is how I was trained.

We got time to rest and that is exactly what I did. I took care of my feet, and I even helped other soldiers take care of theirs!  My drawers under my bed were filled with bandages of all different sorts and I was known as the “foot guy!”  The worst was yet to come when we reached Victory Forge.  We marched for hours with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs and headed through the hills of South Carolina.  I must have known the end was near and that was how I was able to keep going otherwise I am unsure of how I pushed on as I did.  The Army taught me to dig down deep and that I was truly capable of much more than I ever imagined.

I made it through Army BCT and it was by far the most extreme pain I had ever been through in my life up to that point.  My next task would be Advanced Individual Training (AIT).  When I enlisted in the Army it was as a UH-60 BlackHawk Helicopter Repairer and Fort Eustis, VA and I was headed to The United States Army Aviation Logistics School was where I learned to repair multi-million dollar Aircraft for the next 6 months.  AIT was yet another hill to climb and yet another test of my abilities.

We started each day with physical training for a few hours and we marched to breakfast, class, to lunch, back to class, and then back to the barracks each day with 3 miles each trip.  This took a major toll on my feet but once again and against all odds I somehow made it.  We graduated May 8th, 2009 from AIT and I got my orders to be attached to the 1st Infantry Division in Fort Riley, KS.  My dreams of seeing the world were crushed when they sent me to Kansas.  A whopping 191 miles away from where I had enlisted. Once again, I shipped off and stepped into the unknown.

While at my unit, I continued to struggle with my disorder but I tried my best to continue to hide it from my command so that I could stay serving my country.  Despite my efforts, I was seen limping by a high-ranking officer one day.  We had a change of command about this time, and he talked to my new commander. They started the paperwork for me to be medically discharged.

Eight months after arriving at my unit and finally seeing the real Army, I was medically and honorably discharged for my same condition I had already been dealing with my whole life.  It was an honor to have been able to serve but that fire inside me just wouldn’t die.

After the Army, I used my Post 9-11 GI Bill to go to college where I studied criminal justice law enforcement.  I still dreamed of being a police officer and I was not about to let EB stop me.  I applied to several agencies, but to no avail.  Eventually, I put my dreams on the back burner.

I met my girlfriend Mary in June of 2012 while I was in college and she had 3 children from a previous marriage, so we became an instant family.  We bought an RV and moved around where I continued to try to get a job as a cop but it just didn’t happen.  I worked Armed Security and other related jobs in hopes of landing that LEO job of my dreams.

I switched gears and began repairing recreational vehicles using my skills from the Army and we moved to Arkansas.  I worked a few dealerships before eventually being laid off on Veterans Day 2015.  I took this very hard time as an opportunity to begin my own business.  That day “Nelson Mobile RV Repair” was born.

I didn’t have much but an old tool box and a rusty old Dodge Ram short bed single cab truck.  I remember being so embarrassed when my tool box fell right out of the back of a truck while going up a steep driveway! Somehow the folks around just kept calling anyway and they wanted my help with their RV!  I took nearly all the money we had made and I bought an old 1985 Chevy Suburban for $1,000.  This provided a better place to store my toolbox out of the weather and it wouldn’t fall out of the back again.  With the $20 I had left, we got some window markers and drew our logo and phone number on the windows of our Suburban.  We took off and the phone blew up!

Within a year, we were able to buy a 20’ service trailer and a 2000 E350 Super Duty Type III Ambulance which I converted to a service truck.  I continued to run my business providing a service to the Arkansas/Oklahoma area.  In 2018, I discovered a college which would allow me to become a full-time certified police officer and I could certify myself.  We had done well with the business, but I just couldn’t shake that inner drive to serve others.

After talking with the director of the Collegiate Officer Program at Carl Albert State College,  I was ready to embark on my new journey to becoming an Oklahoma police officer.  I had my concerns due to my disability but the director believed in me and reinforced my drive to succeed.  The course was 2 years long and would prove to be physically and mentally demanding but I had been through so much already,  I knew I could do it!  We moved to Wister, OK to get closer to my college.

I maintained a 4.0 GPA for my duration of the program, and I earned enough credits to quickly finish my first degree I had started back when I got out of the Army. The month before completing my now second degree, I finally became a reserve police officer for the city of Heavener, OK.  I finally was able to live my dream! Although unpaid and strictly volunteer, I worked for fove months as a Police Officer before being taken on the payroll as a part-time patrolman in August 2020. My second college degree is an Associate of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice Pre-Law.  I was awarded this degree in May of 2020 right after I became a reserve police officer with Heavener Police Department.

Soon after my promotion,  I began the skills training portion of the Collegiate Officer Program.  “The big 3” of the Academy were defensive tactics, law enforcement drivers training, and firearms.  While not in that order, they would each prove to be a daunting task since I was also working as a reserve officer and still an entrepreneur.  I took each step in stride and even with my disability, I  kept up with the others who were all more than a decade younger than I.  I sat for my Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training exam on March 23rd, 2021, where I achieved a passing score certifying me as an Oklahoma police officer.

I was also recently hired on as a patrolman in our small town of Wister, Ok.  If all goes well next week at our council meeting, I will be the next full-time patrolman!

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.  I hope to help inspire others and to show them that EB or any disability simply does not define who we are nor what we are capable of.  My Sergeant First Class in the Army once told me “life is a climb, but the view is great.”

Sincerely,

-Officer Adam Nelson
Patrolman
Wister Police Department

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