Capt. Michael Nelson is a cyber operations officer in the U.S. Army, stationed at Maryland’s Fort Meade.
But, for the past two years, the 2018 Saint John’s University graduate has doubled as a White House military social aide.
The job entails managing guests who visit White House functions and attending to their needs. The highly selective program dates back more than a century to the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Applicants volunteer and wear their dress uniforms. They must already be assigned to duty in the National Capitol Region and undergo rigorous background checks.
On average, they devote between 6 and 15 hours per month – days, nights and weekends – to serving at the White House. Nelson said he has worked 62 events during the past two years. His final function took place July 19, and he is now allowed to speak about his experiences since his time in the aide program has ended.
“The unique aspect of it is that it’s not a full-time assignment,” said Nelson, a graduate of the Fighting Saints Army ROTC Battalion, comprised of students from SJU, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint Cloud State University. “Every single White House aide also has a full-time job. This is an additional duty they’re carrying out on top of everything else they’re already doing.
“But the White House is the seat of the U.S. government. To get the chance to be any part of what happens there really interested me.”
Not to mention the fact that the job offers a front row seat to glitz, glamour and history being made.
“I was a physics major as an undergraduate, but I grew up in Europe as part of a military family and history is something that has always intrigued me,” said Nelson, a 2014 graduate of Vilseck American High School in Germany, who ran both cross country and track and field at SJU.
“The White House has always had an aura of mystique. So this was truly the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Nelson has had the chance to meet President Joe Biden several times, as well as other members of the first family and the cabinet. He’s also met Gen. Paul Nakasone, a 1986 SJU graduate and current Commander, U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service.
Which makes him … well … Nelson’s boss.
“The first time I had the chance to meet Gen. Nakasone was in July of 2022,” Nelson said. “I was working a quadruple Medal of Honor ceremony. All four were Vietnam veterans. I was escorting Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii, who was one of the recipients. Gen. Nakasone was there as one of the guests, and after the ceremony was over, he came around to congratulate Dennis and the other recipients.
“He saw my cyber insignia, so we started to talk. Then I told him I was a Johnnie and we talked a little more about that. Later, I was able to get an office visit with him, which was an incredible honor. He’s been a role model of mine for a long time, and his schedule is so busy. So for him to take the time to have a conversation with me really meant a lot.”
Nelson has also met Denis McDonough, a 1992 SJU graduate now serving as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
“There was an event where cabinet members were bringing their families into the White House for a tour,” Nelson said. “He passed by and I said, ‘Go Johnnies!” So he stopped and we were able to talk for a while on the steps of the East Wing.”
Then, of course, there have been the celebrity encounters …
“I’m a huge Seattle Seahawks fan, and I was working the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2022,” he said. “(Former Seahawks and current Denver Broncos quarterback) Russell Wilson was there with his wife, Ciara, and their children. He was on kid duty, but I did get the chance to talk to Ciara and that was fun.
“I had the chance to meet (“Seinfeld” and “Veep” star) Julia Louis-Dreyfus. That was cool. I actually made (“Tonight Show” host) Jimmy Fallon laugh once. I was pretty proud of that. But when I told my brothers, they kind of rolled their eyes at me and said, ‘That guy laughs at everything!’
“That may be true, but it was still a pretty memorable experience.”
Those who knew Nelson at SJU are not surprised that his infectious personality and positive attitude continue to serve him well.
“Michael was a bonus recruit,” Johnnies cross country coach Tim Miles recalls. “He went to high school in Bavaria, and we don't typically recruit Bavaria. His family has some Minnesota roots, but he found us.
“Everybody loves him. He’s always upbeat and has a distinctive laugh. He was an excellent student. He was able to excel in the classroom and ROTC while still being with us 100 percent in both cross country and track and field.”
Nelson said he looks back on his time at SJU fondly, especially the experience he gained being part of the Fighting Saints program.
“The way I’ll put it is this,” he said. “I went into college as a timid freshman and I came out a complete and capable leader. If you look at the amount of commissioned officers who graduate every year, and then look at what some of those graduates have gone on to achieve, it gives you a pretty good idea of how well that program prepares you.”
Nelson, who has served in the military the past five years, will soon end his term of service and plans to enroll at the Harvard Business School.
But he said he will always cherish the memories of his time at the White House.
“I’m not that big into scrapbooking, but I decided I should put together a scrapbook of some of this stuff,” he said. “These are things that I’m going to be able to look back on 10, 20 or 30 years from now. It’s been such a special experience and one I’m truly grateful for.”
Capt. Michael Nelson was one of thousands of people on the White House lawn for the Fourth of July fireworks in 2022.