CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Josh Nelson is a man of service.
The 26-year-old Boone County man spent five years in the Marine Corps reserves.
He served as provider for his wife, Brittany, going to work in the coal mines when their son, Elijah, was born.
In November he was elected to the House of Delegates as his district's first Republican, to the bewilderment and continued shock of local Democrats.
However, today marks Nelson's last day of service for the current session of the Legislature. On Saturday he leaves to fulfill a training obligation with the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Nelson is slated to come back in May, but the time away from his family will hurt.
"I'm going to miss his second birthday and my (fifth) wedding anniversary. I hope that they'll forgive me," he said, looking down at his desk in an office buried in the Capitol.
Ever since he was a little boy, Nelson wanted to fly.
"To be honest with you, my grandfather was a pilot," said the delegate, whose office is adorned with coal helmets, lunch pails and a toy bulldog in a Marine uniform.
"He lives in Greenbrier County, and when I was a young man, he took me flying — I was about 4 years old or so — at the Greenbrier airport over there. He took me up and let me take the controls slightly, let me steer around a little bit and I fell in love with flying."
That evolved to a desire to become a Marine fighter pilot. Nelson joined the Individual Ready Reserve and served as a combat engineer, or what he called "a grunt with explosives." The infantry position also requires demolition work.
But he didn't give up on his desire to fly.
While serving in the Marine reserves, he worked toward and eventually received a degree in aeronautics from Liberty University, a Virginia-based Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
He also developed an interest in politics and served two terms as class president. But both political and piloting aspirations took a back seat when his wife became pregnant.
'Walked in their shoes'
Like so many in southern West Virginia, need led Nelson to the coal mines.
"I had to do something, because I had my own college debt coming in that I had to pay for, and I told my wife I was going to go back into the Marines active duty, and she said, 'No, you're not,' " Nelson said.
"So I ended up coming home and going to work in the mines, like my dad, granddad and great granddaddy."
It was during his time in the mines that Nelson learned about the Air National Guard.
He said he kept running into people who served with the Guard and told him he could still fly with the unit. Eventually he was persuaded and transferred from the reserves to the Air National Guard.
As for his decision to seek public office, he said he has always kept up with the news and grew increasingly upset with what he considered infringements on the coal industry by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When exiting the mine where he worked one day, he decided it was time to run. After consulting with his wife, Nelson said he drove to Charleston still covered in coal soot and registered as a candidate.
Boone County Democratic Party Chair Sue Ann Zickafoose is a little skeptical of that story line.
"I'm telling you it was the money," said Zickafoose, who also works as Boone County circuit clerk.
Big coal came out to support Nelson in a big way, Zickafoose said, a move the Democratic Party didn't see coming.
Campaign finance records show Nelson raised more than $40,000, compared to $23,200 raised by his competitor, incumbent Democrat Larry Barker.
Much of Nelson's money came in the form of small contributions, but a few heavy hitters in the coal industry chipped in. During an April fundraising event put on by the Jackson Kelly law firm, Nelson received $500 each from Patriot Coal President Bennett Hatfield, Alpha Natural Resources President Paul Vining and fellow Alpha executives Henry Looney and Randy McMillon.
Hatfield eventually contributed $1,000 more, with Andrew Jordon, the head of Pritchard Mining, also contributing $500, according to campaign finance records.
"Larry was just . . . I think he realized he didn't have the heart to campaign because he had all these forces against him," Zickafoose said.