Neilsen photo CW5

Stars align perfectly for Nevada Guard aviator promoted to ultimate warrant officer rank

By Master Sgt. Erick Studenicka

Nevada Army Guard

RENO, Nevada – After his promotion ceremony to Chief Warrant Officer 5 in Reno on Friday, Carson City resident Steve Nielsen compared his military career to a rare celestial event.

“Every star in the galaxy had to align just right for me to reach this point in my career,” said Nielsen, the longtime Nevada Army Guard aviator whose extraordinary life has included several brushes with death, behavioral health challenges and – as he attests – some unadulterated pure luck.

After his ceremony at the Army Aviation Support Facility, Nielsen, 47, became just the fifth of the 3,500 current Nevada Army Guard Soldiers to don the rare rank along with Chris Wolfe, Dan Walters, George Cohenno and Sean Lazier. Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry presided over the event and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter – the greatest helicopter in the military according to Nielsen – served as a backdrop to the ceremony. Chief Warrant Officer 5 is the highest rank in the warrant officer corps; it was established just three decades ago and essentially replaced the U.S. Army’s Master Warrant Officer 4 rank.

Renowned for his even-keeled demeanor, Nielsen was pleased to reach the pinnacle rank of the warrant officer corps and celebrate with his family, including wife Jeanette and daughter Kaylee (son Dylan was unable to attend), and friends. But Nielsen’s elation remained tempered knowing that one of his friends, Warrant Officer Adrian Stump, was not in attendance — a reminder that Neilsen’s remarkable career could have abruptly ended with his own untimely death 18 years ago.

Nielsen can easily pinpoint the pivotal moment in his life that he can’t forget and will never escape. On Sept. 25, 2005, while deployed as a Chinook helicopter pilot with D Company, 113th Aviation in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Nielsen and Stump switched mission assignments. It was Stump who volunteered to go on the ill-fated Mustang 22 mission that resulted in the Nevada Army Guard Chinook shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade and the deaths of Stump, Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Flynn, Sgt. Patrick Steward, Sgt. Tane Baum and Sgt. Kenneth Ross.

“Talk about survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder – I certainly have experienced those responses,” Nielsen said. “And at times since then, I did not cope well and it did affect my health and relationships.”

Nielsen recommended Soldiers and Airmen battling PTSD and survivor’s guilt should consider attending the Nevada Guard’s Purple Resolve program, a course designed to strengthen an individual’s mental health and resiliency. Nielsen said his participation in the course and other counseling stabilized his own responses to his traumatic past.

Now at the apex of an unarguably successful military career, Nielsen admits he had an unassuming start in the Army. After graduating from Carson High in 1994, he joined the Army on active duty as a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Operations specialist at Fort Polk, La. While watching the helicopters buzz overhead at Fort Polk, Nielsen had the notion it would be fun just to ride in an Army helicopter. The idea of piloting one during that chapter of his career never entered his mind.

After completing his initial enlistment and earning a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern State in Louisiana in 1999, Nielsen returned to Nevada and pursued Army aviation by cold-calling the 717th MEDEVAC Company based in Stead and pleading for a job despite no previous aviation training. With the unit set for an international deployment, his timing was good: The unit gave him a ground position as a Flight Operations Specialist and he soon found himself in Kosovo supporting Operation Joint Guardian.

While in his ground role with the 717th, some of the veteran warrant officer pilots, including Jeff Ducharme and Greg Lubbe, encouraged Nielsen to apply for flight school. He applied, was accepted, and was set to become a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in 2004.

During Warrant Officer Candidate School, however, Nielsen injured himself during physical training and his flight school enrollment was delayed six months. With D Company, 113th Aviation set to deploy the following year, Nielsen abruptly found himself set to become a CH-47 Chinook pilot.

Nielsen had barely graduated from flight school when the unit deployed in January 2005.

“The first non-training flight of my career occurred when I flew to our mobilization station,” Nielsen said. “I was sure not to tell the Soldiers in the back how inexperienced I truly was.”

It was a steep learning curve for Nielsen once he began piloting aircraft in Afghanistan during the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was a harrowing time for Chinook pilots in Kandahar Province as they ferried personnel and cargo in the lumbering, behemoth two-rotor helicopters that were the aviation workhorses for the U.S. Army during the conflict.

Although he has rarely revealed it, Nielsen was shot down during the deployment while piloting a Chinook. He was able to guide the aircraft to a secure zone in the province and the crew was recovered without casualties. The airframe was eventually fixed in place and returned to service.

After his return from Afghanistan, Nielsen resumed a more conventional Army aviation career and recorded stints as the state’s instructor pilot, safety officer and maintenance test pilot (not a comprehensive list of positions). In 2010, he deployed to support Operation New Horizons in Haiti and he was also selected to assist the Republic of Singapore’s Air Force flight training under the auspice of the Foreign Military Sales program.

Nielsen succeeded Chief Warrant Officer James Baumann as the Nevada Army Guard State Command Chief Warrant Officer in 2021 when Baumann retired. The list of past Chief Warrant Officers is shorter than the list of current Chief Warrant Officer 5s: the only other warrant officers to hold the position since its inception are Nancy Roza-Ramey, Dave Anderson and Baumann. In his role as State Command Chief Warrant Officer, Nielsen advises the Adjutant General on all matters concerning the approximately 100 warrant officers in the Nevada Army Guard.

Nielsen said his overarching goal nowadays is to help young Soldiers realize potential opportunities on their own respective military career paths – just like the seasoned warrant officers in the 717th initially helped him.

“The senior warrant officers I worked with early in my career were the Soldiers who mentored and guided me and helped open my eyes to the possibilities a warrant officer career has to offer,” Nielsen said. “In my position now as a senior warrant officer, I want to do the same and be a leader Soldiers look to for sound advice and judgment – regardless of whether the person seeking advice is a warrant officer, an officer or enlisted Soldier.”

Nielsen’s ceremony Friday also served as a veritable impromptu reunion of the Nevada Army Guard’s past and present aviation community. Some familiar aviators in attendance included: current Nevada Army Guard Brig. Gen. D. Rodger Waters, the commander of the 717th MEDEVAC Company in 2001 when Nielsen and the unit were deployed to Kosovo; retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Mike Billow, the first Nevada Soldier to attain the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 5 in 1993; and retired Lt. Col. Roger Capps, Nielsen’s commander in D Company, 113th Aviation in 2005 when the unit was deployed in Afghanistan and Nielsen was fresh out of Chinook flight school.

In fact, Waters was Nielsen’s first commander in Nevada nearly three decades ago after Nielsen transitioned from the active-duty Army to the National Guard.

“It has been a great honor to serve with Steve for almost 30 years now. This promotion is a clear acknowledgment of his superior leadership skills,” Waters said. “Steve has always exemplified the priorities that define the Army as a profession, including trust, honorable service, military expertise, stewardship and esprit de corps. His passion for service and professional presence continue to inspire the entire organization.”