Evan, a 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year, Carries on His Veteran Friend’s Legacy at Fort McCoy

This story discusses suicide and PTSD, which some people might find upsetting. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings, the Military/Veterans Crisis Line is available 24/7: Dial 988 then Press 1, chat live, or text 838255. A caring, qualified responder will listen and help.

By Danielle DeSimone

If you need help getting a job done, Evan Nelson is the man to call.

A few years ago, Evan was tangentially connected to the U.S. military community through family members who served in the U.S. Air Force. But today, the military community at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin – and especially the USO Center on base there – can’t imagine life without Evan.

Evan has become a crucial member of the USO Fort McCoy Center, serving as a USO volunteer in any and all capacities that he is needed, always ready to ensure the USO’s mission is carried out. His hard work has earned him the title of 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year for the continental United States, but accolades are not what motivate him.

Instead, Evan, alongside his two children, gives back to the people who serve simply because he believes it is the right thing to do – and because it is in honor of his best friend, the man who inspired him to volunteer in the first place.

How Evan Became Inspired to Give Back

Joining the military was not something Evan was interested in, despite his family connections to the Armed Forces. His grandfather served in the U.S. Army in World War II, his uncle served in the Army during the Vietnam War, his father served in the U.S. Air Force and his brother also was in the Air Force, and retired from service as a colonel a few years ago - among several other family members who served.

“We spent a lot of time chasing him around the country when we were little,” Evan joked, explaining that because of his brother’s more than 26 years of service, Evan spent a lot of his childhood around military bases, visiting his older brother.

Although he was not in the military, Evan seemed to be surrounded by it. He lives in a small town in Wisconsin just 45 minutes from Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army Reserve training installation that sees over 150,000 service members pass through its gates each year. Because of the base’s nearby location, Evan’s community also includes many veterans – one of whom he befriended eight years ago while they worked together at an automotive dealership.

As Evan was juggling his jobs as an automotive technician and automotive teacher at a local college, as well as being a father, Rob was detailing cars a few days a week in his retirement, after serving in the U.S. Army. Evan and Rob first bonded over a shared love of cars, fitness and the outdoors, but their friendship grew from there.

“I’ve had a lot of friends in my life, but this is a man I actually can say is the one friend I actually love,” Evan said. “He was just the best and my kids adored him. Just a wonderful guy.”

Rob had been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan – so often, in fact, that he told Evan it felt like he had spent more time on deployment than he had at home. Rob was open with Evan about the struggles he navigated as a result of his service in the Army, including PTSD.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Evan’s friendship with Rob, a U.S. Army veteran, had a profound impact on him. Rob was very open about discussing the things he had seen while deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq. Rob is pictured here during one of those deployments.

“The more I got to know him, the more I asked myself, ‘Is there something I can do to improve the morale for soldiers at the base nearby?’” Evan said. “I just wanted do something to help morale, to give back to the soldiers that do so much for us and have experienced more than we can ever even wrap our heads around. It just meant so much to me.”

So Rob and his ex-wife Tilly, also a U.S. Army veteran, encouraged and steered Evan toward volunteering on Fort McCoy. After volunteering with a few different organizations on base, Evan eventually discovered the opportunity to volunteer with the USO.

“I learned about the USO and that’s where it all started,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, from day one, my life changed.”

How Evan Became USO Fort McCoy’s Jack-of-All-Trades

After his very first USO volunteering experience of providing the people who serve on Fort McCoy a free pancake breakfast, Evan was hooked. From then on, volunteering became a regular occurrence.

Almost every week, Evan drives 45 minutes to Fort McCoy, volunteers with the USO and then drives 45 minutes back home. The distance and time it takes to get to his volunteering role with the USO has not been a deterrent for Evan – even while juggling work and his children, Evan regularly makes the trek out to the base on weekends and after work.

The local USO team has jokingly dubbed Evan as a “journeyman volunteer and jack-of-all-trades,” because not only will he travel far, but he will also tackle any task or challenge handed to him. Evan has filled every role that the USO Fort McCoy Center staff have asked of him, from handyman to carpenter to mover to driver. He measures, replaces, repairs, installs and assembles.

He said that whatever needs to be “pushed, pulled, or budged,” he’s the man for the job. Evan seeks out the tasks that others would be hard-pressed to do, especially those involving heavy lifting, and his experience in automotive work gives him the precision skills needed to keep things organized and working smoothly.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Evan immediately jumped in headfirst into doing whatever needed to be done to carry out the USO’s mission on Fort McCoy.

And then, only one month into Evan’s time of volunteering with the USO, Fort McCoy became home to more than 10,000 Afghan refugees, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, through Operation Allies Welcome.

With the refugees’ arrival in the fall of 2021, the U.S. military and local Wisconsin communities stepped up to process their arrival, providing the Afghan nationals with temporary housing, food, clothing and medical services. The base was buzzing with activity and constant work, which required the activation of approximately 1,500 U.S. service members to help with this process – and those service members also required support.

So, the USO stepped up to do just that – and Evan dove headfirst into the work.

Because of the size of Fort McCoy and the location of where Afghan refugees were being processed, the USO Fort McCoy team essentially had to move its Center location across the base in order to adequately support the service members working on Operation Allies Welcome.

The team needed to quickly relocate supplies and amenities from the USO Fort McCoy Center to a new building in a secluded area to provide a separate and private space for the American soldiers who were called to duty. Given the high-tempo nature of Operation Allies Welcome, these U.S. service members were working around-the-clock to get Afghan refugees settled in their new home.

The fall of Afghanistan and withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country was also a very emotional time for many service members and veterans, and so the pace and stress of this particular job meant that the people serving on this mission could benefit from a space like a USO Center, where they could recharge from the realities of their duties.

A large part of Evan’s role in the wake of Operation Allies Welcome was to organize and move supplies to a temporary USO Center on the base, which required a great deal of time and effort. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“The USO is a place for soldiers to come and unwind, maybe shut things off for a while, and just be human. They can just forget about the rigors of training and being in the field,” Evan said.

“For the hour or two that they’re there, they’re happy and they’re smiling. They’re hooting and hollering, and we are boosting morale, improving their experience and just being a place where they know that they can come and just unwind and relax.”

And so Evan almost single-handedly ensured that service members could do just that by moving all the items needed to open a temporary USO Center onto this side of the base.

“Everybody has a role and I figured I’m just the guy that can be the grunt, that can do all the hard work,” Evan said. “I am the guy that builds things, moves shelves and stock shelves, and can move stuff to different warehouses. I love doing that kind of work.”

And that kind of work was crucial in the months of Operation Allies Welcome, as the team had to build the temporary USO Center quickly and efficiently. Evan also worked with the other USO volunteers to arrange furnishings and create activity spaces within this temporary USO Center which felt welcoming and friendly for visiting service members.

“It was just such a busy time and so many moving parts – there was always something to do,” Evan said.

Today, Evan continues to do the heavy lifting in his day-to-day volunteer work at the USO, even now that Operation Allies Welcome has come to a close at Fort McCoy. In fact, some of this work is so physically exhausting that Evan jokes that he goes to volunteer at the USO to work out instead of the gym.

“At the end of the day, man, I am absolutely wiped out. But there’s no greater cause as far as I’m concerned. That is the best reason to be tired.”

Evan hands out bottles of water to service members after a day training out in the field. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Evan also noted that while all USO volunteers at the more than 250 locations around the globe do incredible work, many of them covering long shifts, the USO Fort McCoy location can be difficult. Or, as Evan puts it, “it takes a special kind of volunteer.” After all, Fort McCoy is incredibly isolated and austere. The weather in Wisconsin can be extreme – sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter. And the work of supporting service members in this location can often require long drives through rough terrain to training sites, carrying heavy supplies and working late hours with the sound of machine gun and mortar fire going off in the distance.

“I don’t think it’s for the faint of heart,” Evan said.

Aside from doing “the grunt work,” as he calls it, Evan also loves the grill-outs that the USO does for service members. Evan is the self-appointed “grill master” and he loves the camaraderie that develops between USO volunteers and service members over the grill. Evan explained that he thinks he’s able to connect with service members because they “speak the same, no-nonsense language” but also know how to joke around.

However, one of Evan’s favorite parts about volunteering has been that his two teenage children have joined him in giving back their time to the people who serve.

For Evan, Volunteering with the USO is a Family Affair

Evan’s daughter Kendall and son Bennett – both of them teenagers –began volunteering alongside their father at the USO soon after Evan got started. Evan loves having his children beside him while he volunteers, especially because while his kids are giving back to others, they are also learning things in return.

Evan’s two teenage children, Kendall (left) and Bennett (right), have become regular volunteers at USO Fort McCoy alongside their father. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“We live in a small town in Wisconsin, so we’re not around a lot of diversity. And I think being around diversity is very good for people,” Evan said, explaining that he appreciates that when volunteering with the USO, his children get to meet service members from all different backgrounds and from all different parts of the country.

Of course, Evan also likes that they are being taught selflessness and caring for others.

“My children are very appreciative of the military,” he said. “They want to be part of [the USO]. I think they saw the tremendous value of being selfless.”

While Bennett likes to volunteer alongside his father and do the heavy lifting of moving supplies and carrying boxes, Kendall likes to be at the heart of activity in the USO Center, interacting directly with service members. But regardless of the type of work that they’re doing, each member of this family is directly contributing to carrying out the USO’s mission of strengthening the well-being of the people serving in America’s military and their families.

At the end of each day of volunteering, Evan, Kendall and Bennett sit down to talk for 10 minutes about their day and reflect on their experiences. The gravity and importance of their volunteer work is never lost on them.

“We will do anything we can, especially for the soldiers in our military,” Evan said. “I just think it’s such a good cause and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best cause you can be part of. It’s been life-changing. You see things through a different lens.”

And while Kendall and Bennett always had an appreciation for the people who serve, it became a lot more personal after their father befriended Rob. With Rob and his own family becoming close friends with Evan, Kendall and Bennett, Evan had gained “a second brother,” and his children looked up to Rob and became even more appreciative of the military in spending time with him.

“They loved Rob with all their heart,” Evan said.

Sadly, after many years of struggling with PTSD, Rob died by suicide in May 2022.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Rob’s death by suicide had a profound impact on both Evan and his children; however, the family chose to continue to volunteer with the USO in order to feel close to their fallen friend.

“Losing my best friend was very hard.” Evan said. “He was the man that I could talk about anything to, and we just had that bond where we understood each other.”

The weekend after Rob passed away, Evan made the 45-minute drive to Fort McCoy once again. The USO staff and his fellow volunteers encouraged Evan to take time off for himself in the wake of Rob’s death, but Evan wouldn’t hear of it. After all, Fort McCoy was Rob’s last duty station before he retired and where he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant major. Fort McCoy was where their families had gone camping together, where Rob had shared stories of his service and where the two friends had consistently worked out together at the base gym. If there was any place that Evan wanted to be that weekend, it was volunteering with the USO at Fort McCoy.

“Going to Fort McCoy definitely helped me in my grieving process,” Evan said. “Rob was so gosh darn proud of what me and my kids were doing, and that made me happy. My kids and I say that that’s where his spirit lives – at Fort McCoy.”

Evan and his two children have continued to volunteer at the USO and serve the people who serve, returning each week to the place where they feel most connected to their good friend Rob.

Continuing a Legacy of Service as the 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year

Each year, the USO highlights two outstanding volunteers – one based in the U.S. and one based overseas – to celebrate and thank them for their hard work. And so, in recognition of his nearly 250 hours of volunteer work and passion for giving back whatever it takes to get the job done, Evan has been recognized as the 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year for the continental United States.

“I don’t really like the limelight. I don’t do this for recognition, I’m not a pat-myself-on-the-back kind of guy,” Evan explained. “But I get it – it’s special for our team too. We’re a team up there.”

Volunteering, for Evan, has remained about the mission and the team spirit that it requires, not the recognition. It has also become a connection to his Air Force veteran brother, as they now have even more to talk about and bond over. His brother, who has visited countless USO Centers through his travels in the military, is extremely proud of Evan and his work with the USO.

Evan and his children continue to take their USO volunteer work seriously, and understand the ripple effects that the USO can have on military communities.

“There’s not a day that goes by where we as a family don’t think about the USO in some way or another, or talk about it together. It’s just been that impactful,” Evan said. “And I think just knowing that we have some worth and hopefully are making a difference … it’s just all part of the mission.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

And of course, Rob – Evan’s best friend and a U.S. Army veteran – is never far from mind. His impact continues to reverberate through every moment that Evan serves as a USO volunteer. Each time Evan drives an extra mile on unpaved roads in Fort McCoy to reach a training unit, every hour he spends carrying palettes of water into the USO Center, every hot dog he hands off the grill to a tired soldier, every time he encourages his children to spend their free time helping others … each of these moments that Evan gives back to service members is a direct result of the man who inspired him to do so.

“When I come to volunteer, it’s like I get to enter the world of the military, where Rob’s memories live,” he said. “The USO is where I connect with him and try to bring some good [in honor of] his sacrifice.”

Are you interested in giving back to the people who serve and volunteering with the USO? Learn more about what it means to be a USO Volunteer and if there’s a USO Center near you by clicking here!

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