A tragic descent of a soldier
It was the only sound that came from a Bemidji residence on the night of Feb. 9, after an hours-long standoff. And other than his own thoughts, it was the last thing Ryan George Nelson heard before the bullet pierced through his chest, killing the 34-year-old U.S. Navy veteran.
The shot came from his own gun and Nelson himself pulled the trigger. It marked the end of a life that saw the birth of two children, the end of a relationship with a fiance, the end of a neighborhood disruption and, perhaps, the beginning of a discussion. Nelson had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said a little more than a month after Nelson’s death. “Through our training we have to establish contact somehow. We can’t just leave him there.”
Beltrami County Veterans Service Coordinator Scotty Allison wondered if having a veteran available to talk with Nelson on the night of his death would have been an asset to police, and a life-saver for Nelson.
“I think the law enforcement guys are very competent for what they’re doing. But I do believe that it’s not the same for somebody who, let’s say, is experiencing PTSD,” Allison said. “So, I would think if he’s just a danger to himself, you would try to get some intervention from somebody who knows him. Somebody who is similar to him, a vet.”
Police tried for hours to coax Nelson out of the home, where he had barricaded himself with multiple weapons. He was upset following an argument with his fiance, Brieanne Bahr. She spoke with Nelson via a cell phone multiple times during the standoff. In at least one instance, police were able to listen as Nelson’s mental state deteriorated.
He told Bahr that if anyone approached the home he would kill himself. As he became more difficult to understand, Nelson spoke his final words.
“I love you. Goodbye.”
“I actually didn’t take it as seriously as I should have,” Bahr said nearly three months after Nelson’s death. “We had gotten into an argument, but I figured that he would go stay with his grandma and come back the next day. He had gone into the bedroom, where he kept some of his guns, and I heard the action of his rifle.”
Bahr went to be with her sister. The two had been together earlier in the day — Bahr was getting fitted for her wedding dress. The wedding would never take place.
A relationship of almost a year would soon end. But Bahr and Nelson had known each other “all their lives.”
“I just figured I’d let him cool off for a little bit,” Bahr said. “He wanted me to come back to the house, but I didn’t feel comfortable. I told him, ‘You need to try to get it together.’”
After about an hour, Bahr called police to check on Nelson. “From there it just went completely out of control.”
The SWAT team that responded to Nelson’s home is called into action less than 10 times a year, Mastin said. And Nelson’s status as a veteran didn’t prompt action different from any other barricade situation. According to Mastin, it couldn’t have.
“You don’t know his intentions. You don’t know his state of mind,” Mastin said. “You attempt to use the same approach for everybody.”
Eventually, Bahr and her sister drove to the house.
Bahr told Nelson that the police simply wanted him to exit the home, and that he “wouldn’t be in any trouble.”
“If they came in, I think his exact words were, he was ‘going to put a bullet in his head,’” Bahr said.
“It was like it wasn’t him. It wasn’t Ryan anymore.”
Mastin said Nelson presented a reasonable enough threat to public safety to warrant a SWAT team response.
“Since this incident, we’ve been in contact with the local VA here to try to get some training,” Mastin said. “As far as speaking to how he felt, I can’t. He knows how he felt that night.”
Allison and Nelson only briefly met when the Navy vet sought help securing benefits from the Veterans Administration. Nelson wasn’t as immediately recognizable a name to Allison as other veterans, but that doesn’t matter. “If it’s somebody I don’t know, it’s still a sadness,” he said. “Ultimately, the way I view it is he’s a casualty of war. And for whatever reason, he didn’t get the treatment he needed to keep him a functioning part of the team.”
In Allison’s office, his years of service neatly decorate the walls. Each framed artifact — one memorializing lives lost in the Gulf War, concrete boots commemorating his time in Korea, paperwork from his father’s time in the British Army during World War II — sit at perfect 90-degree angles. Each surface is spotless and dust-free.
In March, Allison pulled Nelson’s file from his archives — which, in some cases, document the mental well-being of veterans serving in conflicts dating back to WWII.
Allison himself served in the U.S. Navy from 1976-79. He also reached the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army, where he served from 1982 to 2010. He refers to veterans as “my guys and my gals.” And there are more than 1,700 who served in post-9/11 conflicts in the Beltrami County (Minn.) area.
“A lot of the young guys are just like the post-Vietnam guys, they’re self-medicating,” Allison said. “They think ‘Hey, I’m young, I can take this.’ I’ve had the privilege of serving for many years in the military, so I’m telling them these things from my perspective. I can talk to them about night sweats and bizarre behavior.”
Nelson was on medication for PTSD, Bahr said, but she believes counseling would have helped.
“Oh, he was on so many,” she said of Nelson’s medications. Nelson used a “telemed” service to speak with counselors and doctors from the VA over the phone. “I asked him ‘Do you ever talk to them if you’re having issues?’ He said ‘They basically just ask me if my medication is working, and if it is, they just keep it the same.’”
But Bahr admitted that Nelson may not have been forthcoming with what was on his mind.
“You probably have to ask for (counseling), and I know that he wasn’t,” she said.
In addition to being among the minority of Americans — .75 percent — who have served in the military, Nelson was in the even more narrow category of Native American veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs — 31,155 Native Americans have served in the military since Vietnam.
Nelson’s Indian Name — Wabishkii Benaise — means White Feather.
“Stress affects people many different ways,” Allison said. “Some of it has to do with longevity, being in combat zones for a long time. The other part is the anticipation of the job. You have all these moments where you’re waiting to do the job. As you come off the battlefield, people are coming down from it. The intense stress of coming down and going back up, that’s where these guys get whacked.”
Like many in the community, Allison wants a veterans home in Bemidji. Legislation is pending for the facility.
“I’ve got one health practitioner at the VA clinic (in Bemidji),” Allison said. “He is absolutely mobbed with strictly mental stuff.”
Mental health practitioners are available for veterans each Monday and Tuesday at Bemidji State University. But beyond that, men and women returning from conflicts in the Middle East and deployments to thousands of military bases around the world have only Allison and the VA Clinic to turn to.
“That’s the problem,” Allison said.
Another problem, according to Allison, is the lack of a specialized court to deal with veterans who in some cases might be dealing with issues below the surface.
Hennepin County has a veterans court. Allison suggested Beltrami County might be able to mimic the start up of a specialized domestic violence court, to begin operation in October, in the creation of a court specifically for members of the military.
“Let’s say a veteran gets incarcerated. Is he incarcerated for drinking and acting out based on something he’s experienced in combat, or is he just being a knucklehead?” Allison said. “I don’t know, sometimes, if we do as good of a job with that as we might.”
For Allison, Nelson’s situation represents the ambiguity he faces every day.
“If I could have a magic pen to mark a guy and say ‘He needs some counseling,’ I would. But I’m not going to put him in handcuffs and force him to do it.”
Three days after Nelson’s death, black garbage bags piled up in the darkness in front of his home. They were stacked against a chain link fence. Their contents, gruesome.
Following the shot that took Nelson’s life, police remained unsure of his status. The window of the bedroom in the northwest corner of the home, where police used a pole camera to locate Nelson, was covered with blankets.
“The plan was to get up to the house and use throw phones,” Mastin said, referring to throw-away cell phones used to communicate with barricaded individuals. “While they were doing that, the shot came out from inside the house.”
According to police reports and an autopsy performed by Beltrami County Coroner Dr. Mark Robia, that shot was the fatal blow to Nelson. But that night, it was just the latest event in a long and arduous standoff with a man who police were only able to have secondary contact with.
“Is this a decoy shot to get someone to come up and see what’s going on, or did he ultimately commit suicide?” Mastin said. “But the officers, they don’t know that.”
Then came the tear gas, which resulted only in warnings to neighbors about its harmful effects. Nelson was already dead by the time SWAT team members in protective masks entered the home. His body was found on a bed, feet hanging off its edge.
One of those neighbors, Keri Johnson, sat at her living room table, sticky with her children’s art projects on Feb. 12.
“I’m really having a hard time dealing with some of these things,” she said. “I feel like they could have handled it differently. I feel like Ryan might have felt cornered.”
As the police presence increased, Bahr remained on the phone with Nelson. A few hours into the standoff, she made a disturbing discovery.
“There were eight squad cars, there was a fire truck, there was an ambulance, the SWAT was here. … I mean, it was a big ordeal,” she said. “At that point, (Nelson) told me there were no police outside the house. So, I knew right then that he was not in his right mind.”
Shortly after this denial of reality, Nelson hung up. It would be one of the last things he ever said to his fiance.
Bahr was at her sister’s home when she got the call.
“I don’t expect you to even remember this conversation,” is what a police officer told her.
“I remember him saying that (Nelson) had shot himself. I remember asking if (Nelson) was alive and the officer said ‘I’m sorry he is not.’ All I could think of after that point was that he had two kids, and I was worried about them.”
A single shot, on the night of Feb. 9, inside a Bemidji home, also took a father from two children.
Around the front door of the home, new wood has replaced a frame that was obliterated with the SWAT team’s battering ram. The window shattered by tear gas canisters has been replaced. And the bedroom in the northwest corner bears new drywall and paint. Bahr’s only companion in the home now is her 10-year-old golden Labrador, Jade. “I have come to terms with it,” Bahr said. “I just have to know there’s a bunch of things that I’ll never get answers to, and I just have to accept that.”
Bahr’s family travelled with her to Mexico recently, where she and Nelson were to be married.
“It’s still crazy to me,” she said. “I’ll never know what he was thinking or why he did what he did, so I just have to stop asking myself those questions.”
The unknowns outnumber the knowns. But what Bahr can say is what she found in Nelson that made her want to spend the rest of her life with the man.
“All he wanted to do was take care of me,” she said. “I felt very safe with him, and very loved. He was very confident, and very proud to be a soldier. He was very proud of his Native heritage. It wasn’t something that any one of us thought would actually happen, because it just seemed like he was so happy.”