BETHESDA — Those who have spent any time at Walter Reed or Bethesda Naval/NNMC in the past 18 years most likely know the name Bob Nilsson — whether it be a wounded warrior, caregiver, active duty or civilian care provider, or even a dedicated staff member of a nonprofit that frequents the hospital. Nilsson, of Centreville, has touched each and every one of them.
The president of 100 Entrepreneurs Foundation, Nilsson is a Walter Reed staple, and the community has benefited greatly from his enduring optimism, camaraderie, brutal honesty and belief that healing is most effective along side brothers and sisters in arms, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
On Aug. 22, Nilsson received the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Distinguished Citizen Award. This society of military heroes selects those who, through their life’s work, have distinguished themselves as Americans dedicated to freedom and the ideals represented by the Society.
In 2002, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Nilsson had retired from his 33-year career at Turner Construction, still doing a little consulting. He was compelled to visit the newly wounded, just to say hello and lend an ear. Nilsson, a Marine Corps captain during the Vietnam War, said he felt he could offer some support.
He himself was sidelined during his tour in 1967, due to a broken leg. Once he was mostly healed, Nilsson was assigned to St. Albans Naval Hospital and Marine Barracks Brooklyn, N.Y. It was the perfect experience to prepare him for the significant role he would play 30 years later at Walter Reed.
Nilsson initially connected with Bethesda’s Marine Liaison Office in 2002, and they welcomed him up to the fifth floor to visit with a few OIF/OEF wounded warriors. What started as a couple visits became a passion and possibly the most rewarding endeavor of his life.
Since then, Nilsson has made over 3,000 visits to the Historic Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., and Walter Reed NMMC in Bethesda. He was trained as a peer visitor, started a scholarship for wounded veterans with the Urban Land Institute raising $250,000. Nilsson was part of the Turner Construction Team that built the Military Advanced Training Center, as a temporary amputee care facility at Historic Walter Reed; built the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, to care for traumatic brain injuries at Walter Reed NNMC; and built the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Northern Virginia. Nilsson also participated in Turner’s wounded veteran internship/hiring program. This resulted in some 50 employed veterans, hired by Turner, subcontractors and owners.
As time went on, Nilsson began to realize traditional employment would not work for many of the patients at Walter Reed, yet these were young people with much to contribute. A new mission was paramount to recovery and a successful transition home. He began to offer entrepreneurship education in a conference room, just feet away from the MATC.
He later connected with Amanda Weathersby, through Turner Construction. Weathersby knew a vast array of entrepreneurs in the D.C. metro area willing to attend the meetings to inspire, teach and expand the minds of those catastrophically injured in the war.
100 Entrepreneurs Project became an official nonprofit almost 10 years ago. The organization has hosted almost 3,000 participants, including wounded warriors, caregivers, health care providers, children and therapy dogs.
100 Entrepreneurs Foundation has about 300 veterans/families that have started over 200 businesses. Their mission is to be a stepping stone to new opportunities, encouraging participants to see beyond the hospital walls and military gates.
Nilsson also has hosted several golf tournaments in his community to raise money for the service members attached to Walter Reed. He is a board member of SemperMax, a nonprofit that focuses on TBI/PTS and hosts an annual retreat at a Virginia Farm for combat injured and their families.
Nilsson also is a big supporter of All Marine Radio, a daily radio station focused on everything Marine. Nilsson and the host, Michael McNamara, and several others are promoting “Post Traumatic Winning,” which presents a new way to live with trauma.
“Veterans don’t just get wounded heal and go home like new,” Nilsson said. “The opposite is true. While they heal on the surface, so much more is needed to heal on the inside, and every day citizens can play an important role.”