Becoming Private Nelson

For this patriotic American teenager, joining the military isn’t a choice—it’s a calling.

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.”

Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment (including Liz Nelson, front row, second from the left) at a ceremony at Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota, July 2017.
CAP cadets at a Leadership Reaction Course at West Camp Rapid in South Dakota, July 2017.

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.

The day before shipping out in May, Liz sits in the passenger seat while her best friend Sidney drives.

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.”


Liz in the kitchen at her mom’s house in Omaha. “This house has been all I’ve known,” she says.
Liz with her oldest brother, Wayne, and his son, Alex, at McDonald’s. Wayne lives an hour away from Liz and their mom Ashley.
Ashley sits in the driveway with three of her four children: Cody, Wayne, and Liz. (Her other son, Mikey, is not pictured.) “She’s amazing,” Liz says of her mother. “I mean, come on—she raised four kids on her own. She brought us up from nothing.”
Liz with her dog Coco, November 2017.

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.”

Liz prepares at home before heading to her last track meet in April 2018. Competitive and athletic, she was involved in sports throughout high school.

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.”

Liz with her close friends in November 2017. They all met in elementary school and spent as much time as possible together during senior year, knowing that they would be going their separate ways after graduation.
Liz with her friends in a Target parking lot in November 2017.
Liz and her friends shop for dresses in Omaha in August 2017, the same summer that she enlisted in the Army reserves.
Liz and her lifelong friends get ready together in August 2017.

“I wasn’t that kid who dreamed of her wedding. It was always the Army.”

Liz helps Sidney decorate her face before Millard North High School’s first football game of the season, August 2017.
Megan, Stephanie, and Liz run to their cars in the church parking lot across the street from the high school after the first football game of the season, August 2017.
Liz and classmates after the football game, August 2017.

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.”

Teenagers run through the Badlands of Keystone, South Dakota, 2017.
Liz changes out of the clothes she wears for Army physical training into her Civil Air Patrol uniform in the bathroom before a CAP open house in Omaha, August 2017. She says her experiences at encampments for CAP were a major factor in her decision to enlist in the military.
Cadets at West Camp Rapid in July 2017. Around 60 students from several different states attended the encampment.
Cadets end their Friday evening with a traditional military dine-in, a tradition at Civil Air Patrol encampments, at West Camp Rapid in July 2017. The dine-in included performances by the students, drinking nonalcoholic “grog,” games, and more.
Liz drives around Omaha in November 2017. “Sometimes I just want to get away from the people here—from the place I’ve been raised in,” she says.
Liz and her mom, Ashley, in downtown Omaha in April 2018. “Some days I spend in tears because she’s my baby—she’s going away and I can’t protect her,” Ashley says of her daughter. “Other days I am so proud, and it feels very good.”
“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.”
Liz’s older brother Wayne helps his son, Alex, try on Liz’s graduation cap in May 2018.
Liz at a graduation party at a friend’s house.
After physical training and breakfast, CAP cadets spend the morning at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum in Rapid City, July 2017. “The stories I’ve heard at Civil Air Patrol and from my recruitment leaders who were in the military and have been to war—it opened my eyes,” says Liz of her decision to enlist.
A portrait of Liz in her CAP uniform sits next to Greek Orthodox relics in Liz’s mom’s living room. (The relics are a souvenir from a friend’s vacation—the family is Episcopalian.)
Liz with her graduation gown in her mom’s driveway, two days after graduation in May 2018. Liz spent the day cleaning out her car and packing before leaving for boot camp.
The living room at Liz and Ashley’s house. The house is quiet as Liz gets ready to leave for boot camp the next day.

“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.”

Competing at a track meet in April 2018, Liz hopes to beat her personal records in shot put and discus.
Liz in sworn in to the Army alongside other young adults who have enlisted in the Army, Marines, Navy, National Guard, and Air Force at a ceremony during a baseball game at the TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha, April 2018.
Liz clutches a BB gun given to her by one of her brothers in April 2018, the month before leaving for boot camp. “The anticipation is killing me,” she says. “I just want to leave, and I want to stop juggling being a child and an adult. Once I leave for boot camp, I can just be a soldier.”
Paintings outside a local GI Forum Mexican restaurant in Omaha.
Liz is nervous about having to be pepper-sprayed during basic training, so Jeremy, her neighbor, agrees to let her try it out on him, April 2018.
Afterward Jeremy fell to the driveway in pain. Liz pours milk in his eyes to soothe the burn.
Liz, whose dad is not involved in her life, sees Jeremy as an alternative father figure and source of support—one who doesn’t mind getting pepper-sprayed to put her at ease.
Liz is nervous about having to be pepper-sprayed during basic training, so Jeremy, her neighbor, agrees to let her try it out on him, April 2018.
Afterward Jeremy fell to the driveway in pain. Liz pours milk in his eyes to soothe the burn.
Liz, whose dad is not involved in her life, sees Jeremy as an alternative father figure and source of support—one who doesn’t mind getting pepper-sprayed to put her at ease.

Liz sleeping the morning before leaving for boot camp. She always slept in the living room, with her mom sleeping across from her.

“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.”

Liz says goodbye to her family at the recruitment office before heading to the airport for her flight to boot camp in Missouri, May 2018.
Liz’s family decided not to join her at the airport, assuming it would make the goodbye much more difficult. “Cody has been through boot camp—that part doesn’t scare me,” says Ashley. “But [the possibility of her] going abroad? It terrifies me. They might both be called off someday. Anything could happen.”

“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.”

Liz at the Omaha airport with her recruiter, who will escort her all the way to security. “I have to go, and I’m ready,” Liz says. “It’s like jumping off a high dive: you just step off, and you don’t look back.”
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This work was funded by the Alexia Foundation and CatchLight Fellowship with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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