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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Friends plan surprise for Idaho guardsman in Iraq

Mark Mitchell, of Coeur d’Alene, is fixing up this camper trailer for Tristan Nielsen, an Idaho National Guardsman who is in Iraq. (Kathy Plonka)
Jimc@Spokesman.Com, (509) 879-7461

As he counts down the hot, dusty and dangerous days in Iraq with other members of Post Falls-based Bravo 145 Company, Idaho National Guardsman Tristan Nielsen is thinking about camping in the Idaho woods with his wife, Brittany, and new son, Benjamin.

About a month before he deployed, the Nielsens bought an early-1960s Shasta camper trailer to help out a friend who was moving to Hawaii. They were never able to use it before his unit was called up and had to enlist the help of Mark Mitchell, the father of some friends, to rescue the camper before the previous owner’s landlord had it towed away.

To say the camper now sitting in Mitchell’s backyard needs work is an understatement, but Tristan Nielsen told his wife he’d fix it up to be livable, or at least campable, when he got back.

It would be a labor of love, because it would tie together his four favorite things: camping, fishing, hunting and family. It’s a family that grew by one a year ago today, as Benjamin was born just weeks before Tristan shipped out.

“All Tristan talks about is coming home and going camping,” said Brittany Nielsen, who talks to him regularly via Skype and had him home briefly last month when he escorted the bodies of two of his good friends, Sgt. Nathan Beyers and Spc. Nicholas Newby.

While Nielsen was home on that difficult and somber duty, Mitchell decided to try to do something nice for a fellow veteran. Call it “Extreme Makeover: Trailer Edition.” Mitchell began looking for help restoring the camper, which is nearly a half-century old and shows it.

“This is the least I can do to help a guy who’s doing a lot for his country,” said Mitchell, whose children have known Tristan Nielsen since elementary school. They all knew the Beyerses and Newby, too. The deaths hit hard throughout Coeur d’Alene, he added: “That’s what prompted me to do something. I can’t go to Iraq.”

A carpenter friend, Butch Troutin, agreed to help with some of the repairs. Great Floors will donate some carpet and flooring. Lake City Auto Body has agreed to restore the paint job to its original red and white, with paint donated by Sherwin Williams. Cabela’s donated some fishing gear.

But there’s still plenty to do, from checking the propane system to locating some unusual-size tires – 250 75R 14s – to replacing some window glass. The most difficult task might be replacing the trademark Shasta “wings” that once adorned the sides of the trailer at the upper rear.

“They’re hard to come by,” Mitchell said. He may need to find someone who can copy the design and make them.

Mitchell insists he doesn’t want money; he’s looking for folks willing to donate materials or labor to help a soldier coming back from Iraq.

Just like the show “Extreme Makeover,” Mitchell hopes to surprise the Idaho guardsman with the big “reveal” when Nielsen gets back from Iraq. Instead of coming over to pick up a project in need of doing – as Nielsen will be told – he’ll find friends and strangers who helped turn it into a trailer ready for camping.

Tristan Nielsen “has no idea” this is going on, Brittany said, and Mitchell’s hoping to keep it a surprise – although if he finds out, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Brittany’s not worried about Tristan reading about the project – he doesn’t read the paper online, she said.

But if other members of Bravo Company or the rest of the 116th Cavalry Heavy Brigade Combat Team happen upon this story on the Web, try not to spoil the surprise if you bump into Nielsen.