Military veteran and former NFL operations professional shares message of leadership in safety

Author: Jenna Liberto, Director of Internal Communications

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Everyone is in a position to be a leader when it comes to safety. That’s regardless of role, rank or experience. And personal accountability when it comes to safety doesn’t just impact you — it creates the right environment for everyone to go home safely to the people who love them.

That was the key message Patrick Nelson, a nationally recognized leadership and safety speaker and trainer, shared with hundreds of University employees Thursday, Nov. 9. During a presentation titled “Lessons from the Battlefield: Empowering Everyone to Take Safety Personally,” at Leighton Concert Hall inside DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Nelson, a decorated former U.S. Army paratrooper, shared his very personal story of being a leader in safety. Unfortunately, Nelson’s story underscores the harsh realities of not speaking up when something is not quite right.

“On June 8, 2005, I was operating out of a small base near the Pakistani border. Now, this was the type of place that we were short on everything except the enemy. We faced regular indirect-fire attacks and participated in several large battles that saw between 50 to 100 enemy fighters each time. And on this particular morning, we’re going to resupply some ammunition to a Chinook helicopter. And as we were getting ready to pull away [in our vehicle], my soldier, Emmanuel Hernandez, hopped in the back. I noticed that he didn’t have his helmet on. And so, I literally opened my mouth to yell at him. But I realized I didn’t have mine on either. It’s obviously kind of hard for me to say something if I’m not doing the right thing,” Nelson shared.

As they approached the resupply mission, Nelson and his fellow soldiers were hit by enemy fire. Nelson was wounded, but made a full recovery. Tragically, Hernandez died following the attack, from shrapnel that hit him in the head during the explosion.

“He died because I wasn’t doing the right thing, because I didn’t have the courage to speak up and to say something. And of course there have been so many days since then where I’ve thought how simple it would’ve been if I would’ve just said, ‘Guys, wait, wait, wait. Come on, let’s go get our helmets,’” Nelson added.

Nelson served for almost seven years as a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning both a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. After leaving the Army, he became the inaugural NFL-Pat Tillman Military Scholar and earned a master’s degree in sports management, eventually working in football operations for the Minnesota Vikings, his hometown team.

Now, he travels the world, engaging employees from small family-owned businesses to Fortune 500 companies in practical advice to improve safety and be leaders in safety in their areas. Nelson’s presentation was offered for faculty and staff by Notre Dame Risk Management and Safety as part of the Division of Campus Safety and University Operations. You can watch his full message here.

Originally published by Jenna Liberto, Director of Internal Communications at on December 04, 2023.