Today’s “Hoos Making a Difference” honoree, USAF Col. Bill Nelson, MD, truly made a difference

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Col. William Nelson, MD (left) accepts his Heroes of Military Medicine Award. (Photo: UVA Medical Alumni Association)

When U.S. Air Force Col. William “Bill” Nelson, MD steps on the field at Scott Stadium at some point this afternoon to be recognized by the UVA Football Alumni Club, his thoughts may drift back to his days as a young student athletic trainer under the guidance of the late Dr. Frank McCue and former longtime head trainer Joe Gieck.

Nelson, now a decorated officer closing in on the end of a distinguished 30-year career and an office in the Pentagon, will be receiving the football club’s “Hoos Making a Difference” award, presented each home game to a former Cavalier that has made an impact on society off the athletic field.

Nelson (Class of 1979) has spent his career as a USAF Aerospace Flight Surgeon, logging more than 1,100 flying hours, treating countless airmen and regularly traveling into active war zones. In 2018, Nelson was presented the “Hero of Military Medicine Award,” that honors outstanding contributions by those who have distinguished themselves through excellence and selfless dedication to advancing military and enhancing the lives and health of the nation’s wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans and civilians.

Nelson said he was surprised by the honor, which allowed him to remember his days as a student at UVA, working with McCue and Gieck and the athletic department. 

“When I finished medical school, I had hoped to join the faculty at the university, but they wanted me to train somewhere else before potentially joining, and to broaden my education,” Nelson said Friday.

He volunteered for the Air Force, not intending on it becoming a career. After finishing his fellowships with McCue and Dr. Jim Andrews, pioneers in the field of sports medicine, Nelson continued on with the Air Force, which kept offering him interesting positions with greater responsibility.

This weekend is special for Nelson, not only because of the recognition from the Virginia Football Alumni Club, but it is also the 75th birthday of the U.S. Air Force. He said he will think back to those families, particularly those who lost members, over the length of his career.

Nelson said he was fortunate that in his training days at UVA, Gieck allowed his trainers to travel with various teams and Nelson took advantage, working with soccer, football, baseball and lacrosse on road trips, and got to know many coaches and other athletic department personnel from Tilly Wright and his cohorts, who cared for Scott Stadium and other UVA facilities, all the way up to then-athletic director, the late Gene Corrigan.

“Mr. Corrigan, Bob Goodman, James O. West, Terry Holland, Bruce Arena, Jim Adams, George Edwards — just great people that I was exposed to and allowed to watch them work,” Nelson said.

Nelson, who was then chief of integrated and international operational medicine, 711th Human Performance Wing, when he received the “2018 Heroes of Military Medicine Award,” recognized for his influential leadership and unquestionable commitment to military medicine.

“Flight surgeons are responsible for the health, safety, and performance of those service members who operate aircraft or conduct missions from aircraft,” said Lt. Gen. Mark Ediger, U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, who nominated Nelson for the award. “Nelson was a special operations flight surgeon, which meant that the mission took him to some rough places (Afghanistan, Iraq), great distances from suitable medical care. With years of experience, including participation in combat operations, Nelson became recognized by Airmen and medics alike.

“Simply put, he is a flight surgeon’s flight surgeon.”

Join the Virginia Football Alumni Club this afternoon in saluting this former Cavalier’s service.