Navigating Relationships Proves Key to His Success
By Jeanne LaSargeBono
Each year the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors awards Phoenix Education Grants (PEGs) to deserving burn survivors who are pursuing a post-secondary education. Todd Nelson, a PEG awardee, shared with us his unique journey of recovery and the important role education, with the help of PEG, is playing in his life.
“I face conflict every single day,” Todd Nelson says carefully. He is articulate, warm, and quietly powerful. “Society says that I have accomplished enough—given enough—and so, it would be perfectly acceptable if I sat back and accomplished nothing more for the rest of my life. Whereas I struggle every day to make more of this life. I feel the oppositional forces pulling on me every day—the entitlement force of sitting back and just getting by, and the force to put aside my excuses and do something of value.”
Todd was injured by a suicide bomb blast in Afghanistan in 2007 at the end of his second combat tour and 16 years of active military service. He was evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, with thirddegree burns to 18% of his body, the majority of which were located on his head and right arm. The injuries caused severe facial disfigurement, and he endured over 43 life-saving and reconstructive surgeries to mitigate scarring to his face.
“I was given a medical retirement, E-8 master sergeant, and by all rights, the American public deemed that I had served above and beyond the call of duty. While I am thankful for the support and appreciation, I was not going to give our enemy the satisfaction of having taken one of us out of commission. I was determined to prove that the enemy may inflict bodily damage, but they cannot break the American spirit,” explains Todd.
Deciding Never to Settle
Todd is sure that he would not have chosen the same ambitious life path today had he not been burn-injured. Prior to his injury, he thought that 90% of life is what actually happens to us, and 10% how we react to it. Now he feels that life is actually 10% of what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. “I believe that life is a direct byproduct of our attitude and our choices,” he says. “I believe that we will never accomplish more than we expect to accomplish—and that is a guarantee. So, I have decided since my injury not to settle for the minimum ever again, and I am driven to prove these points.”
He enrolled in college with the goal of creating better job opportunities for himself and began to vigorously volunteer, even while his burns were still very raw. “I volunteered to travel across the country to speak with researchers in the hopes of advancing burn treatments for the combat injured. I engaged in public speaking opportunities to organizations, including faith institutions as large as 12,000, to motivate others to overcome any adversity life may hand them. And I actively sought employment with one of San Antonio’s largest employers in hopes to accomplish even more.”
Todd engaged in a career track to improve his education and increase his skill set to serve his organization at a higher level, partly to prove it could be done and that he was as qualified as his [uninjured] contemporaries, and also to lead the way as an example for others facing similar adversity. “I volunteered to speak at every town hall and employee meeting to motivate others, and I built a support group—an employee resource group of sorts—for people with disabilities where all are welcome to share the challenges and solutions of navigating in society.” He also built from scratch a corporate program to give economically disadvantaged injured and disabled veterans the chance to spend 2 months inside the walls of a successful company. “My CEO has leveraged my willingness and engaged other organizations to hire wounded service members across the country,” he says.
But he still wanted to do more. “I know there are still many other burn survivors out there, like me, who believe because of their burns, they will never rise to a level of success comparable to their peers. I want to prove them wrong,” explains Todd, “and, in doing so, enable them to pursue their highest ambitions.” Todd researched the requirements for success in corporate management, and the answer he found was clear—in order to be promoted in corporate America, a higher level of education is considered a standard requirement. He took the next step and enrolled in the graduate program at The University of Texas at San Antonio. To assist with his goal for obtaining a higher education, he applied for a PEG in 2015, and was awarded one of the highest scholarships given by the Phoenix Society since the program’s inception.
As Todd recounts his careful plan for achieving his career ambitions, his thought-track suddenly, and even more powerfully, shifts.
“So it stands to reason, doesn’t it,” he questions, “that if we can determine success in our career or our education by planning, careful decisions, and hard work, and if it’s true that we hold the same value for relationships as we do careers, that the same method would work? That if we apply those same skills, we can be successful with relationships, too?”
“I’ve come to realize that you can have all the financial skills and academic skills in the world,” he explains, “but you can’t really be successful in life without relationships. I’m not the most intelligent guy, or the most experienced at handling corporate America, but I know that I have to navigate relationships to be successful.”
At this point, Todd becomes more thoughtful and deliberate, as if he has played this challenge out in his mind for hours, days. And he reveals that indeed he has. “If you want to have mobility in life, or build a successful professional network, or even a strong personal network, it requires navigating all sorts of relationships,” he says. “I have to navigate relationships within a large corporate environment (more than 27,000 employees), I have to navigate relationships on small work teams in order to be a successful part of that team, and I have to navigate my personal relationships, such as with my kids. You need to be self-aware and practice emotional intelligence to succeed. But let’s face it, what chance does a disfigured person have?”
He pauses, “I have a severe facial disfigurement, and I am aware of it every single day. I have to practice dealing with it every single day. Although society has come a long way in accepting and even being comfortable with some disabilities…such as someone with an amputation or in a wheelchair, my disfigured face is up front. People can’t avoid it—and they don’t know what to do with it.”
Choosing to Engage
Todd reveals that he has struggled with the temptation to resign himself to his fate and withdraw. He knows that he is sensitized to the superficial standards of society, on the focus of beauty, and even social acceptance. And he is constantly faced with barriers by the reactions of others, perceived or otherwise.
“I had to make a choice to engage—and I make that choice every single day, every minute of the day.” Todd describes his efforts to be self-aware and to be approachable for others, saying, “I know that no one is going to approach me first. So I practice every day. I practice the expression on my face. I practice smiling as I walk down the hall. I practice greeting others first. I work on it in the elevator, with the guy driving the taxi, and in meetings. I lead the invitation to coffee because again people will not approach me first. So I have to own it if I want to be invited in—rather than wait for others. And I do that by working 2-3 times harder to be approachable.
“One of my favorite analogies is of salmon swimming upstream. Salmon have to work so hard just to stay put. And they have to work that much harder to move upstream. That’s me. I swim upstream mentally and emotionally every day.”
Todd states that he is aware he has something to prove, and that he won’t allow his disfigurement to be his excuse. But that conclusion wasn’t overnight. “I really could have resigned myself to not accomplish one more thing with my life. But I had my daughters, Macaley and Meghan. After I was injured, I still felt the obligation to be involved in their lives and lead a good example as their father. I’m sure they would have accepted the ‘I’ve served and I’ve done enough’ position in life if that was what I had chosen. But how could I correct them if they’re going in the wrong direction, if they turn to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, what about you?’ So rather than letting life happen to me, I am now directing how I will engage in life.”
He admits that he finds people as a group can be judgmental and focused on the superficial but not so much as individuals. “I realize that people just have to get acclimated to where they are comfortable and ‘see me.’ I have friends where our relationship has developed to the point where we can talk about it. They tell me, ‘I don’t even think of you as disfigured any more—I just see you.’”
As he peels back the layers of his personal story, Todd reveals that it took a long time to get to a level of selfacceptance, and it’s something he is still discovering. As determined as he was to physically recover and ambitiously pursue success in life, the emotional recovery simply took more time. Todd attended Phoenix World Burn Congress in New York in 2009. “The truth is,” he admits, “I didn’t enjoy it. It was the last place I wanted to be because it put me in a place where I had to face my own reality. And I wasn’t ready for it, yet.” He sounds apologetic and quickly offers, “That’s not to say I didn’t get a lot of good out of it, too. I learned a lot, attended sessions and discussion groups, and gained better understanding.”
Todd explains that his unique healing journey evolved through his pursuit of higher education, selfimprovement, and determination to demonstrate he can “do something of value.” As he has progressed through school and his career he has established a strong network of friends and his personal acceptance of his injuries has also grown. “After my initial injury I was fitted for a prosthetic hairpiece, similar to those for male pattern baldness, except my scars created very uneven hair loss. The hairpiece was no fun, I might add. I also had a prosthetic eye and ear so I could be accepted. I just wasn’t comfortable with me.”
“My close friends were actually more accepting of me without the hairpiece than I was and would ask, ‘why do you wear that thing?’ They accepted me. But I wasn’t ready. It took me time to get to that place of selfacceptance. Although I was injured in 2007, it wasn’t until this past January that I decided I didn’t want to wear the hairpiece anymore—I was ready to face the public without it, knowing that I have a solid network, my friends didn’t judge, and I could handle how the public judged.” He laughs lightly and says, “My whole journey is a social experiment!”
Inspiring Others Through His Example
Todd is clear that he views life as very precious—and for a purpose. “I know that a lot of people have their baggage in life to carry and that it can be terribly difficult to move forward. But even people without a lot of baggage make a lot excuses for why they don’t accomplish anything.”
“I believe my scarred face is my gift to humanity,” says Todd. “My face is a visual reminder to others that they have no excuse. It forces people who look at me to reconcile with their own negative excuses, ‘Wow, I don’t have it so bad. This guy can do it—what’s my excuse?’ They don’t have to be preached at or lectured. They just have to look at my face. The lesson is right there.”