FALMOUTH — Marine Sgt. Brian J. Nelson doesn't often think about that night in late September 2006 when he and four others led a convoy back to base in Anbar province, Iraq.
An explosion halted their trek across the desert terrain.
"It's instantaneous," Nelson, 33, said in an interview this week. "It's like a car accident times 10, where you don't get any warning."
Nelson, along with three other Marines and a Navy Corpsman, drove over an improvised explosive device planted on their route. The five suffered varying degrees of injury, Nelson said, but he left most of the details in Iraq.
Nelson completed that tour and served another in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, town officials, family members, students, representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., and others gathered at Falmouth High School to watch him receive one of the military's highest honors: the Purple Heart.
A military career came instinctively to Nelson, a Falmouth native, whose father, Master Sgt. David Nelson, served in the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis National Guard Base until his death in 1992.
After graduating from Falmouth High School in 1998, Nelson attended the University of New Hampshire, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. However, the family career beckoned him after college and in 2003, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
"(My father) probably would have said I was an idiot for joining the Marines," Nelson chuckled, guessing his father would have preferred the Air Force. "Beyond that, I think he would have been really happy with the decision."
Nelson's first tour in Iraq was from February to September of 2005, he said. The IED explosion came about three months into his second tour there.
Combat armor on the vehicle saved his life and the lives of the four others, he said. Older Humvees used during his first tour lacked heavy armor, he said. He and his comrades would spend nights gathering scraps for use as improvised armor.
Much to his dismay, the military notified his mother of the IED attack, he said.
"She's a really strong woman. ... I'll never be able to repay her," Nelson said. "The families sacrifice way more than the people who serve do."
Nelson now is waiting for orders to report for duty at the Assessment and Selection Indoctrination Course for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, a selective course at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
At about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, retired Marine Col. Kevin Doyle of Falmouth took to the high school's podium and spoke of the Purple Heart's significance.
"No one sets out to 'get' a Purple Heart," Doyle said. "They know in that instant, that their honor is on the line; not only their honor, but the honor of their family, of their unit, and indeed their country."
The crowd stood up in applause as Nelson stood at attention in full Marine uniform and marched to center stage to face Doyle, who pinned the small medal onto his uniform.
"Seeing the list of people attending, of people here today, I was in awe," Nelson said.
At the ceremony's conclusion, a group of Nelson's family members gathered in front of the stage, waiting for the crowd of hand-shakers and back-clappers forming around the sergeant to dissipate.
"I'm so proud of him; you have no idea," said Eleanor Walker, his grandmother.
Nelson's mother, Ellen Nelson of North Falmouth, who works as an assistant to Principal Joseph Driscoll at Falmouth High School, expressed shock at the large turnout for the ceremony.
"All these people from town coming here in the middle of the day, it's amazing," Ellen Nelson said. "I love this town."
She approached her son and wrapped her arms around his neck for a long hug.
"Congratulations," she said into his ear.