By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune staff writer
Pay it forward. Three words passionately and repeatedly stated by U.S. Army Spc. Anthony Walton and the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Zach Nelson at Saturday’s Help Hometown Heroes Rebuild concert featuring country-recording artist Jackson Young, a fundraiser to build homes for Walton and Nelson specifically designed for their injuries. Although the focus for the concert was on honoring Walton, Nelson and their families, the honorees expanded their focus towards how they can honor and give back to their community.
“[After Zach was injured] and we saw how quickly the community jumped in and started doing everything, it was overwhelming,” said Gayle Sherman, Nelson’s aunt. “The people of this community are a blessing and it’s our job as Zach’s family to start paying it forward.”
Nelson, who turned 21 in a German hospital after being paralyzed from the neck down in a Humvee accident, has been undergoing therapy in a rehabilitation center in Florida and will be released at the end of the month once he re-learns to drive. Nelson will continue his enlistment at a wounded warrior’s unit in North Carolina before returning to Kokomo and his new home, which will undergo construction at a later date.
Nelson’s aunt also said the experience of seeing hundreds of men and women changed for life at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was a humbling experience and coming home to a city that sympathizes for what is lost at war is a constant reminder to give back.
“Kokomo rallies around its veterans because it’s a small town and a community that realizes what a sacrifice they make for us so we can do things like this [concert],” Sherman, who recently joined Asphalt Templars to expand her efforts of paying it forward, said. “Some don’t come back, some come back hurt, but none ever come back the same.”
Although Walton, his wife and three children are embarking on their first new home there’s no talk of wall colors, recessed lighting or furniture. The only paint Walton and wife, Rhonda, are discussing is painting to put color and life back into the minds and souls of Kokomo’s wounded soldiers.
“We’ll have an art studio in our house for art therapy to help soldiers begin the healing process,” Walton said, a painter himself who was able to surface from the dark depths of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder through brushes and canvas. “Art had always been therapeutic for me but I didn’t see it as actual therapy until I was painting and glazing pottery in a room full of soldiers at Fort Drum. The guys could see I was emotionally feeling it. A lot of them were just sitting there staring, then a couple guys asked how I was doing it. I said, ‘Come on over, I’ll show you and before you know it there were 10 guys with art pieces who had told their whole stories and were on their way to healing.’”
Walton, who has permanent double vision and left-side paralysis amongst many injuries after surviving four rounds of shots in 2011, said seeing how art can create the bridge needed to connect veterans’ feelings with talking about their experiences was not just a memory, but a foreshadowing portrait to Walton’s life calling.
“I thought my purpose in life was to serve in the Army, but I know now God put me through the Army so I can give back to every soldier who comes home to Kokomo,” Walton, a father of three, said. “I want to get my masters in social work and art therapy, I want to get veterans talking. You have to talk to heal, I want to help them do that through art and any other way I can.”
As the notes and harmonies of the concert, a benefit that will help build the walls of Nelson’s and Walton’s living rooms and the roof over their dinner tables, began to wind through the hallways of Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium, Zach Nelson’s mother sang a ballad of appreciation for the city that she said has been the image of compassion.
“[Zach] is a heartwarming kid and he wants [Kokomo] to know he greatly appreciates everything everyone has done for our family and he wants to thank the community from the bottom of his heart, we all thank the community from the bottom of our hearts,” Melinda Nelson said, as a tear of gratitude streamed down her face. “They’ve dug in their pockets and helped us when times were hard we don’t know where we’d be without them, and our goal is to give back in a way that makes every veteran coming home feel loved.”