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Kathy Nelson: Honoring a legacy of service before self

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – A picture board of Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, highlights a lengthy career at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Because of the Victim Witness Assistance Program’s success through the years, Nelson became the go-to person for all Air Force matters concerning development and coordination of similar programs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – A picture board of Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, highlights a lengthy career at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Because of the Victim Witness Assistance Program’s success through the years, Nelson became the go-to person for all Air Force matters concerning development and coordination of similar programs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, speaks with current and former colleagues at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Nelson remains in contact with the first people she helped during her first case 17 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, speaks with current and former colleagues at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Nelson remains in contact with the first people she helped during her first case 17 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, bids farewell to colleagues at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Nelson had many colleagues, former and current, attend her retirement ceremony, including the first staff Judge advocate that hired her 29 years prior. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Kathy D. Nelson, 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, bids farewell to colleagues at her retirement ceremony April 29, 2016. Nelson had many colleagues, former and current, attend her retirement ceremony, including the first staff Judge advocate that hired her 29 years prior. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Tucked away in the 21st Space Wing Legal Office, on the customer support building second floor, is an office with bare-white walls stripped of personality and peppered with tiny holes.

Stepping into the room, a closer look reveals outlines of various framed accolades, acknowledgments and memories which once adorned the room, while the faded paint beneath suggests this is the first time light touched these areas in many years.
At the desk, behind a computer monitor, is a woman who quickly welcomes you in with a warm smile.

After 29 years of service aiding victims in times of unimaginable grief, Kathy Nelson, 21st SW Staff Judge Advocate's Victim Witness Assistance Program coordinator, retired at the end of April.

Beginning in 1987, Nelson made her move to the Peterson Air Force Base Legal Office, before it was the 21st SW, and began a career that would span almost three decades.

Spending the first 10 years transitioning between different roles such as secretary, labor law assistant and security manager, the office handed her a new position and program that was far from where it needed to be, said Nelson.

She accepted the challenge and served as the VWAP coordinator for Peterson AFB. Nelson was sent to Washington D.C. for training where she was trained on how to create this new program from scratch. 

"I went to Washington D.C. and found out that our program here was a mess," said Nelson. "When I got back I worked closely with the deputy here and built this program. Looking back, there wasn't a program like this. Now we walk through the entire legal process with the victim."

Because of the program's success through the years, Nelson became the go-to person for all Air Force matters concerning development and coordination of new Victim Witness Assistance Programs. She even took the program's successes and shared them among other VWAP coordinators as an instructor with the Distance Education VWAP Training through Maxwell AFB, Alabama, since its pilot program began in 2014.

From shambles to flagship, Nelson's hard work developing this program was never for awards or recognition but was always aimed at assisting anyone who was brave enough to sit down in her office and ask for help the best she could. With that, the most fulfilling aspect of her job was when she saw her work finally take effect and make a difference.  For Nelson, the results never came over night but as she kept in contact with those she helped through the years she was able to see the impact her service had on them.

"I'm going to miss the contact with the individuals and following up with them," said Nelson. "I'm still in contact with that first case that I did 17 years ago. There were some bumps in the roads and I was there to listen many times. The victim went off path for a while but has it all under control with a very nice family now. It is just rewarding that I can look back and know I have helped these people."

This impact was not limited only to those who walked into her office needing help.  Nelson also made waves with her co-workers, both civilian and military.

"I would say the most important thing about Kathy Nelson is that she genuinely cares about everything she does," said Col. Doug Cordova, Air Force Space Command staff judge advocate. "She is hands-on, she is compassionate and she is an expert in the program. She has always been consistent. I first met her 17 years ago, she has never changed in her dedication and her commitment to her office, the VWAP program and to the people she has worked with."

It's not surprising to know Nelson will not be shying away from what she so famously accomplished here at Peterson AFB. Her focus will continue to center around people, giving back to the community through service she mastered during her career. 

"I am sure I will be getting back into my volunteer and community activities in greater depth because I will have more time," said Nelson. "I love people and I love helping, so there has got to be something else out there for me.  What that is only time can tell.  I'll let the good Lord figure out what the next plan for me is."

Regardless of what Nelson does, or where life takes her, the impressions she left on those she worked alongside, will be missed.

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