Becoming Private Nelson
Last year, I spent a few months photographing patriotic youth groups around the country, from teens training with the Border Patrol in Arizona to a survivalist camp in Florida. In July, I found myself at a Civil Air Patrol youth encampment in South Dakota, surrounded by teenage cadets dressed in heavy military fatigues despite the 100-degree weather.
Midwesterners are known for their niceties: smiling even when talking about tragedies, making warm introductions, greeting strangers as if they were friends. This culture of politeness, mixed with the formality of a military environment, limited what I heard from most of the cadets to “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”
Suddenly, a young woman with bright red hair entered the scene, cursing like a sailor and yelling at a group of boys: apparently, they didn’t believe she had just enlisted in the Army. I watched her pace back and forth, staring down the boys and twirling a plastic orange gun in her hands as she told them off. She was like no one else I’d ever met. I pulled out my camera.
Ten months later, I found myself standing in that young woman’s kitchen. Her name is Liz Nelson, and this was the fifth time I had visited her in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, since meeting her that first day in Keystone. My visits usually involved tours of the normal teen hangouts: high school football games, Sonic Drive-In, the parking lot of Home Depot, and Liz’s mom’s living-room couch. Even in Omaha, Liz stood out: she was loyal, feisty, and fiercely protective of her friends and family. But on this day in late May, Liz seemed younger, quieter than usual. Three days prior, she had graduated from high school. And she was shipping out to boot camp later that morning.
By this point, Liz had already been in the Army reserves for nearly a year, having enlisted the summer of 2017, right after completing her junior year. As far back as she can remember, Liz has wanted to be a soldier. She grew up playing war games with her three older brothers, pretending to shoot each other with sticks and begging their mother for Nerf guns. “I wasn’t that kid who dreamed of my wedding,” Liz told me. “It was always the Army. My future always seemed to point in that direction.” Her enlistment was therefore no surprise to her family: one of her older brothers, Cody, enlisted before her, and their mom, Ashley, who works in HR, told me she’d always known Liz would follow in his footsteps. “One year for Christmas, she had to have a camouflage uniform,” said Ashley. “That was all she wanted. She was four.”
When Liz was 13, she joined the Cadet Program of the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force that provides a proto-military experience for teenagers. Some high school students, like Liz, join CAP to get a taste of military life before actually enlisting. Some participate because they come from military families; others simply want to fly planes. (“Would you like to honor and serve America? Do you want to prepare for your future while making new friends?” asks the program’s website.) After years of cadet training and five encampments, Liz left herself almost no time between high school graduation and the beginning of her actual military career: she graduated on a Saturday and was headed to boot camp in Missouri on a Tuesday. Her graduation cap lay in the corner of the living room when we spoke in May, a ray of sun glinting off its blue satin. “You know, I’ve only ever been away from home for two weeks,” Liz explained. “But fuck it—I’m going to make a name for myself. At least I’m going in my own direction, not just waiting around.”
Unsurprisingly, Liz is fiercely patriotic. She describes herself as “on the conservative side” and learned much of her political and patriotic views from her time spent at CAP encampments. “There are people who have died for that fucking flag, and people are out there fucking stomping on it, and that pisses me off,” Liz said. “It’s so disrespectful to the military.” She defends America’s wars abroad and thinks people are too hard on President Donald Trump. She is also deeply religious: the only times she’s left the United States were on Christian missions to the Dominican Republic with her mom. Nonetheless, she is fiercely opposed to Islamophobia and sees military service as a way to protect others. “The fact that I’m in an opposite political party doesn’t mean I should never hear other people’s opinions,” said the onetime editor of her high school newspaper. “I want to, no matter how much it makes me want to slap them in the face.”
“I wasn’t that kid who dreamed of her wedding. It was always the Army.”
At the end of senior year, while the majority of her classmates were anticipating Ikea trips to decorate their future dorm rooms, Liz was preparing to pack two shirts in a small bag and become a soldier. With one year in the reserves already logged, she has five more years committed to the Army, where she will be trained to be a military prison guard. She could be sent to Guantánamo Bay, or to the Middle East. At 17 years old, she had filled out paperwork about who her money should go to if she is killed. “I’m in the reserves, and I’m drilling, and these kids are all just in their own kid world,” she said on her last day at home. “And I’m not in that world. I left that world the day I enlisted.”
“Sometimes I get comments like, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl. Can she really lead?’ And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I can lead. Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ But I haven’t received too much backlash. Which is pretty A1 amazing.”
“When I was younger I was obviously naïve about it all. I just pictured the Army as being fucking great—just going to shoot guns, pretty much. When I got older, I realized that there was so much more to it than just that. I mean, the thought of committing my life to something—to a government—wasn’t in my mind when I was younger.”
“War changes everyone. I’ve seen American Sniper, and I’ve watched videos of veterans online, talking about how it affects them. I mean you’d be fucking crazy for that experience not to affect you. I think it’s all a part of God’s plan.”
“I’m fucking scared [of shipping out]. I mean, they tear you down when you get there, and you leave different. I mean, when I get done, I’ll be a fucking soldier. ... I’m not going to let myself feel it. I’ll do whatever it takes to graduate.”
This work was funded by the Alexia Foundation and CatchLight Fellowship with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.