“Is this a joke?” the Navy recruiter asked Dr. Christopher Nessel. “We don’t usually get calls from physicians who want to join the Navy reserve.” Instead, calls would come in from men and women who want to become doctors and willing to serve their country in exchange for school tuition. Since Nessel was already a physician why would he want to join the military?
Nessel is now a Legate from the new Bucks County, Pennsylvania Chapter working in research and development at a large health care company. When he called the Navy recruiting office in 1996, it was no joke. It had been a lifelong desire of his to serve his country in the military.
As a young boy attending St. Anselm School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nessel dreamed of joining the military. He also had a competing desire, however, to become a physician. By high school, his love of physics, chemistry, and biology pointed him in the direction of medical school.
Nessel graduated from Temple University School of Medicine in 1994. He trained in general surgery at Brown University. Yet, he did not feel his aspirations were complete yet. His desire to give back to our country in appreciation for so many opportunities remained as strong as it had been when he was a boy.
Inspired by uncle in WWII
Although career aspirations often develop out of admiration of childhood role models, there was none of that for Nessel. “I am the only physician in my family and no one in my immediate family was in the service,” he explained. “There was a paternal uncle killed in World War II and my parents gave me the middle name of Charles after him, but I knew little about him as a child.”
His uncle, Charles Nessel, was shot down over Europe as part of the Army Air Corps, which existed before the Air Force was created in 1947. “My uncle joined the service before his 18th birthday,” Nessel said. “It was the nature of WWII; there was a fervent patriotism then.”
Nessel had graduated from high school in 1981, a time when patriotic fervor in the U.S. had cooled somewhat, but he remembers being influenced by a love of country in grade school. “Serving our country was something viewed very positively and as an obligation,” he said. “ rough my life, in the same manner that we owe recompense to God, there has been the understanding of an obligation to our country.” He referred to the motto: pro Deo et Patria — For God and Country — as the inspiration for his own service.
A call to arms notwithstanding
The surprised Navy recruiter was pleased but cautious regarding Nessel’s interest to join. Reservists are obligated for 4 years of service, 1 weekend every month and a 2-week stint during the summer. More importantly, the recruiter wanted Nessel to understand that at any time, he could be called up and deployed to a dangerous part of the world.
“My situation was not unique,” Nessel said. “there would always be the possibility in the back of my mind that I could be called up. And this affects family members too. Everyone’s loved ones are affected when they serve in the military.” Nessel explained that in this way, families also make sacrifices and it’s harder for them in some ways because they don’t always know what is going on.
Nessel said he believes everyone should be willing to sacrifice in some way for our country in thanksgiving for all the freedoms we enjoy here. “When I think of my life as a practicing Catholic and the opportunities I had to go to college and medical school, there are blessings innumerable,” he said“. “There could be many ways to give back, but the way that was closest to my heart was to serve in the military. There are few privileges greater than wearing the uniform of an officer in the United States Navy.”
Regardless of the potential risks, Nessel never wavered— God and country came first. He was concerned, however, that his ongoing training in general surgery not be interrupted. In the reserves, short of deployment, it would not be.
Since the application process was lengthy—15-18 months— there was plenty of time for Nessel to change his mind. Right before he raised his right hand to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States as a Navy officer in 1997, he was reminded that his service could include deployment. Nessel took the oath and was commissioned a lieutenant.
Sole incentive: desire to serve
Being a physician in the military is somewhat unique from other service jobs, according to Nessel, specifically because it is not different from what he did as a civilian physician—treating sick people.
“Most people who serve in the reserves do something very different from their civilian work with some exceptions,” he said. “Say you are a tank mechanic; on the civilian side, there are no tanks.”
In 2000, Nessel was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He completed a total of 8 years of service which ended in 2005.
Nessel described his time in the military as modest because he did not get deployed. What was uncommon about his service, though, was that he enlisted with no scholarship or monetary incentive. Nessel’s sole purpose was to serve his country as a physician.
His siblings sometimes kid him that during eight years in the Navy, he never went to sea. “It’s true,” Nessel said, “but I had the distinct honor of wearing the uniform of an officer. That privilege is almost beyond words. In 2012, my then- fiancée asked me if I could be married in uniform.” He married Kimberly in 2013, in uniform. They are now the parents of 4 children.
Real perspective on heroes in uniform
Those years in the Navy gave Nessel a sense of the kind of men and women who are defending our nation. “ e men and women I met were not there for great pay, short hours and great living conditions,” he said. “ ey were there because they wanted to serve.”
Nessel quoted Admiral Chester Nimitz’s description on March 16, 1945 referring to the incredible sacrifice of the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a commonvirtue.” That,Nessel said, is what he witnessed among the men and women who serve our country in the military.
Part of what Nessel said he admired was the fact that people were there to serve despite the common desire these days to want to be in charge. “In the military, it’s readily apparent from the lowest seaman to the highest admiral, that we were all there for service,” Nessel said. “It’s very impressive.”
Another thing that impressed him is that young adults are tasked with handling very expensive and important equipment. “They are given as much as they can handle in the service,” Nessel said. “It’s not usually like that in the outside world.” L
PATTI MAGUIRE ARMSTRONG is an award-winning author and Catholic journalist, TV and radio commentator, and mother of 10.