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september/october 2007

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By Marc Leepson
Two 20-year-old guys from The Bronx, Bill Nelson and John Ward, enlisted in the U.S. Army in February of 1969 on the buddy system. Why? “We had a friend, a Marine, who was killed in Vietnam, and we thought that in a time of war—as crazy as it sounds—we should answer the call,” Nelson explained in a recent interview. “John came to me and it was his idea, and I said, ‘You’re right,’ and so we enlisted. In hindsight, you could say it was crazy to do it, but that’s what we did. We were thinking that we probably would go to Vietnam.”

Nelson and Ward took the enlistment oath at the AFEES Station on Whitehall Street in New York City, then got on a train to Columbia, South Carolina, where the buddies went through Basic Training together at Fort Jackson. Both men went 11B40, light weapons infantry, and took Infantry AIT together at Jackson. After they completed AIT, in June of 1969, the buddies received the orders they fully expected: to go to Vietnam together.

Both men were assigned to the 101st Airborne, but in different units: Nelson with the 2nd of the 502nd Infantry, and Ward with the 2nd of the 327th. They went through Screaming Eagle in-country air assault and jungle combat training together in Bien Hoa. Then the newly minted Airborne Infantry grunts joined their units at Camp Eagle at Phu Bai. “We ranged all the way up past Hue to Quang Tri, and south just north of Danang,” Nelson said, “and all points west in I Corps.”

PFC John Ward was killed on October 6, 1969. Bill Nelson learned the bad news when he was out in the field. “They extracted me out of the boonies and wouldn’t tell me why,” Nelson said. “I thought one of my parents had died. When I got to headquarters company, they told me he had been killed and his father had arranged for me to be the body escort. I went through all of that and returned to Vietnam and finished my tour.”

Bill Nelson served in Vietnam until September of 1970. “When I came home, I hung up my uniform,” he told us in a telephone interview from his office in New York City. “I took it off as fast as I could and just tried to turn the page.”

It took about a year of adjustment before Nelson went back to college, at Pace University in New York, where he studied business. Being older than most of the other students proved to be an advantage. “I was more serious about what I was doing,” he said. “It hit me that I was about three years” behind my peers, “and so I spent the rest of my life trying to catch up.”

Catching Up
The catching up started immediately. Nelson took extra courses at Pace. He took advantage of a new program and earned combined BBA and MBA degrees. He found work in public accounting at Ernst & Young, where he became a CPA. Four years later he went to work at Time, Inc., and then in 1984 moved to a new Time subsidiary, the premium cable network, Home Box Office, as vice president and assistant comptroller. “I was four years in public accounting, four years at Time corporate, and I figured I’d have four years at HBO and find something else.” The latter part did not come to pass.

“I never left HBO,” Nelson said. “It’s a crazy, good business.”

Nelson, a Life Member of VVA Chapter 49 in Westchester County, New York, did more than never leave HBO. He steadily rose through the ranks, and last June was named Chairman and CEO. In that top position he is responsible for HBO’s overall management.

Throughout his career, Nelson has regularly been reminded of what he went through nearly four decades ago in South Vietnam. High on that list are memories of his friend, John Ward. “I carry John with me in my heart,” Nelson said. “I will never forget him.”

Still, Nelson said, having served in the Army in Vietnam has been “a positive” thing. “I feel it’s had a dramatic impact on my life. One thing I have said over the years: If something really is getting bad and you think, ‘How am I ever going to make it through this challenging business situation?’ I’ve always said to myself, ‘It can’t even come close to being in Vietnam.’ And that’s always been a touchstone for me. It’s given me some inner strength.”

Since the beginning, HBO has had a strong commitment to producing quality documentaries, event mini-series, and feature films about America’s wars, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. HBO’s highly acclaimed war- and veteran-oriented offerings include: Vietnam War Stories, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, Unknown Soldier: Search For a Father, Band of Brothers, Tuskegee Airmen, IN MEMORIAM: New York City 9/11/01, Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops From the Battlefields of Iraq, and Baghdad ER.

Over the years, Bill Nelson has displayed a strong commitment to his fellow veterans. Besides many personal contributions to a variety of veterans’ causes, he is on the Board of the Friends of Vietnam Veterans Plaza NYC, which oversees the New York City Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He also was instrumental in HBO’s significant contribution to that memorial, as well as HBO’s annual support of New York City’s Veterans Day Parade.

Last October Nelson directed HBO’s huge support of VVA’s Broadway to Baghdad fund-raiser in New York. Plus, he has overseen HBO’s behind-the-scenes effort to send DVDs gratis to our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and those recovering in Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval Medical Centers. HBO also has made a significant donation to support VVA’s 25th Anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Parade in Washington on November 10.

VVA honored Bill Nelson and HBO in July with its Excellence in the Arts Award at the 13th National Convention in Springfield, Illinois. “Bill Nelson and HBO truly deserve this recognition,” said VVA President John Rowan. “HBO has been second to none in the world of broadcast and cable television in presenting the finest quality feature films and documentaries about Americans at war and American veterans. HBO has been awarded many honors, including countless Emmys. We’re pleased to present Bill Nelson this honor from his fellow Vietnam veterans.”

In his emotional acceptance speech Nelson thanked VVA “for allowing me the opportunity to receive this prestigious award which I accept first in memory of the more than 58,000 men and women who served with courage, integrity, and devotion and made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War and, secondly, on behalf of all two thousand HBO employees.”

“I promise you this.” The award “will always be in a prominent place of honor at HBO headquarters to remind those there of the service and sacrifice of Vietnam veterans, of our duty to assist the future generation of veterans, and our obligation toward our active military personnel from beginning of mission to end of mission.”


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