Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Fred Nielsen, 71, is this year’s Glen Cove Memorial Day parade honoree. He was chosen based on his service in Vietnam, his commitment to the community and work with homeless veterans. He is a member of the American Legion Glenwood Landing Post No. 336 and co-chairs the Children and Youth Committee for the Nassau County Committee of the American Legion.
Nielsen worked in Washington, D.C. from 1984 to 1986 as director of the Emergency Supply Operations Center at the Defense Logistics Agency, which he said sounds like he led a large team in a room full of computers. In reality, he was alone in a small room, and just like you might see in a cartoon, he had two phones on his desk — one black and one red.
When the red phone rang, sometimes it was an unidentified person from the White House. Nielsen’s response to any order was always, “Yes sir.”
He was constantly on call. While sitting around, waiting, he’d say to himself, “OK, I’ve got to figure out something to do with this time. I’m being paid to be vigilant and ready, but surely I could do something.”
One day Nielsen received a call from Mitch Snyder, a well-known homeless advocate in the 1980s. Snyder wondered whether Nielsen could obtain cots and blankets for his homeless shelter.
“I can do that,” Nielsen replied.
Snyder listed several necessities that he needed to keep the homeless men — most of them veterans — from dying on the streets. Nielsen said his problem-solving skills immediately kicked in, and what he did next to help Snyder was technically breaking the law.
Nielsen’s position granted him access to warehouses throughout the country filled with “stuff” like the cots and blankets that Snyder needed. When the issue of veteran homelessness came to the fore in the 1980s, Nielsen decided to take the effort to the next level.
“We’ll make it a program,” he decided, naming it the Homeless Support Initiative.
With help from the Department of Health and Human Services, Nielsen went into his computer database, found the supplies and reserved them. Then the Department of Health and Human Services would have truckers in the area pick up the supplies for delivery. Nielsen coordinated the deliveries to shelters across the nation for free.
Thank-you letters poured in from across the country. “I sent their thank-yous back,” Nielsen said. He told the writers to send them to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who had no idea what Nielsen was doing.
Nielsen appeared before Congress to request that the program be allowed to continue legally. In 1985, the Homeless Support Initiative bill became law, and it stayed on the books for the next decade.
Nielsen’s story is unlikely because he came from meager beginnings.
“Always barefoot” was how he described his childhood in the late 1940s through the early 1960s in Vero Beach, Fla., where his father worked hard to provide for his family but could never quite make ends meet.
Nielsen wanted to attend college, but he knew he couldn’t ask his parents to pay for it. He joined the military in 1965 as a way out.
“The Marine Corps was the way for me to break that bubble,” Nielsen said.
At 6-foot-5, he was tall — but very thin, so he found it hard to meet the physical requirements of boot camp. Still, he endured.
When he had enlisted, he knew he would likely be sent to war in Vietnam, and he was. He became an electrician.
He served in Danang, a coastal city in central Vietnam known for its sandy beaches. One time he was disappointed when he had to miss a celebrity performance put on by the United Service Organizations (USO). He had been ordered to go fix a lamp.
When he arrived at the room with the broken lamp, a small woman greeted him at the door. He was there, he said, on a work order. She directed him to the lamp, while speaking in French.
After Nielsen repaired the lamp, he heard the woman knock on a door. She spoke to another woman in French, presumably to tell her that the lamp was fixed.
When the other woman came out to thank Nielsen, he realized that it was famed actress Ann Margaret. She was the celebrity who would perform for the troops later that evening.
“Instead of sitting in a group of 250 troops, I was standing eyeball to eyeball with her,” Nielsen recalled.
They spoke briefly. Margaret said her father was also an electrician, and she gave him an autographed photo.
Along with his military ribbons, Nielsen has several medals from his time as a Marine, including the Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.
But he said he doesn’t believe he did anything special to deserve most of them. “Our unit got some recognition, so I got some recognition,” said Nielsen, shrugging. “It doesn’t mean that I did a heroic thing.”
Before Weinberger retired, he awarded Nielsen the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. It was two decades after his Vietnam service. The moment brought meaning to Nielsen’s life. “It was evidence to me,” he said, “I was reclaiming myself.”
About 20 years ago, Nielsen moved to Glen Cove. Today he is the father of five and the grandfather of 11.
One of his passions is making sure that his fellow veterans and friends are recognized for their service. He created an award named after his friend, Willibe Wilson Jr., who is co-chairman of the children and youth committee and current director of the Glen Cove Veteran Affairs Department. The honor recognizes counselors who work with special-needs children.
It was Nielsen’s friends and fellow legion members, including Wilson, who selected him to be Glen Cove’s Memorial Day parade honoree. He will be recognized at a ceremony at Monument Park on Monday, May 29, before the community’s Memorial Day parade.