A love of flying isn’t the only thing that links an 18-year-old Tampa Girl Scout and an Air Force Brigadier General who retired here.
Ben Nelson Jr.’s dad flew B-29s, B-17s and B-24s for the Army Air Corps in World War II. So it’s not surprising that he ended up in the pilot’s seat for the Air Force flying more than 200 combat missions in Vietnam.
“We all got shot up every once in a while,” Nelson said in a recorded interview for the “Veterans Heroes” project. “I’ve got a picture of me standing and a hole in my wing looking up through it. You know sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not.”
Nelson’s luck held for a full and distinguished career in the Air Force. He retired as a brigadier general in September 1994 as deputy commander of NATO's 5th Allied Tactical Air Force, Vicenza, Italy.
Nelson is one of 12 veterans who shared their military stories for Jacqueline Parker’s Girl Scout project “Veterans Heroes” that earned her the highest award given by Girl Scouts, the Gold Award.
The interviews she collected became part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and are also available at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and Girl Scout Leadership Center.
Parker is proof that Girl Scouts do more than sell cookies. The Plant High School senior said scouting gave her the foundation to try things like Junior ROTC where she will serve as the executive officer this school year. She’s also deputy commander of the Civilian Air Patrol at Plant.
“My main goal is to be in the military but also preferably as a pilot,”
It’s an interesting choice because no one in her immediate family is in the military and most of her high school friends aren’t interested in serving.
“My friends respect the fact that I want to do this. I’ll tell them about a camp I went to and they’re like ‘you actually did that?” Parker said.
This summer, besides participating in Girls State and a cross country camp, Parker was one of 500 chosen nationally to attend the Marine Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy held at Quantico.
“We were wearing full Marine uniform. It was as if we were deployed,” she said. “Each squad was 12 people approximately. My group didn’t do so well. We quote-unquote killed our civilians. We had dummy M16s and if you wanted to shoot you go bang, bang, bang.”
She said the course was designed to help the squads learn from unpredictable situations.
“It was very hands on and if you were to do something wrong, you weren’t penalized for it. It was okay here’s how you fix it, now do it right,” Parker said. Whereas in high school, you do something wrong then it just effects your grade and it just tumbles down from there.”
At yet another camp, this one was a week at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., she learned she could tolerate a “boot camp” setting with yelling instructors and tough physical training.
She survived and even thrived in that environment where she was treated like a swab, an incoming Coast Guard Academy freshman. It strengthened Parker’s confidence that she belongs in the military.
She applying to the Coast Guard and Air Force academies.
“I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to have a regular college experience if I go to an academy, but because I am giving that up I’m getting something much better,” Parker said.
Her definition of “much better”: “an opportunity to lead others and help this nation be a better place to live.”