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New VSO takes over

Douglas County’s new veterans service officer, Brian Erickson, addresses the County Board before his appointment to the position. Erickson a former Marine and retired Naval Reservist, started this week. Courtesy of Carissa Skifstad / Douglas County Veterans Service Officer

When Brian Erickson watched his older brother combat the effects of Agent Orange, he also witnessed the battle with the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration.

The former marine and retired Naval Reservist — now Douglas County’s veterans service officer — is determined to ensure the estimated 4,300 veterans living in the county don’t face the same fight to get the benefits they’re due.

"I’d like this to become a stress-free worry-free — tell me what you need, what we have, and we’ll see what we can do," Erickson said. "It would take a lot of the burden off of the veterans because they have a lot of other things that they have to think about."

Erickson grew up in the Itasca neighborhood in Superior, before joining the Marine Corps at age 17. A 1976 graduate of Superior Senior High School, he spent four years serving in California and a year in Okinawa, Japan.

"After I was away for 12 months, I decided I would get out of the Marine Corps," Erickson said. He said he came back to Superior and spend some time at the University of Wisconsin majoring in political science and criminal justice.

"I decided that wasn’t for me and decided to go back into the Marine Corps," Erickson said. "I went in as an intelligence analyst, then I became an imagery analyst."

After the four-year stint was up, Erickson said he got a job with the Environmental Research Institute in Michigan — known today as General Dynamics. He also joined the Naval Reserves and retired from there in 2000 as a chief petty officer.

At General Dynamics, he did a variety of things supporting the defense industry; he became a project manager overseeing a number of classified projects.

But during that time, there were always trips home.

"While we traveled around a lot and lived in a number of different places, nothing was every home," Erickson said. "We knew when we were done, we were going to move up here and retire, and head out for the good weather."

While Erickson anticipated a few more years overseeing projects for General Dynamics, his family had other ideas.

The father of three girls said it was his daughters’ decisions that brought him home again.

First his youngest daughter made the move to Superior, then his oldest, followed by his middle child. With his children and grandchildren living in his hometown, Erickson said his wife decided it was time to make the move back to Superior.

"We were going to do the move anyway, so we just did it early," Erickson said. "All of our children and grandchildren are here. It worked out very well."

The couple moved to the town of Superior in January 2013.

Initially, Erickson started a handyman business, but when that didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped — helping seniors with inexpensively-priced services — he closed the business a few months later.

He applied for veterans service officer position in September 2013 when it opened up, but wasn’t hired.

After working in a job that involved a lot of travel and teleconferences, he decided something a little more low-key might be a good fit. He went to work as a custodian for the Superior school district, working in schools his grandchildren attended.

The work was a little more low-key than he liked, which prompted him to apply for the veterans service officer position again when it opened up late last year.

Douglas County Administrator Andy Lisak said it was a combination of factors that elevated Erickson to the top of 30-plus applicants for the job.

It was "his number of years in service, both in the Marine Corps and the Navy, but also his management and leadership skills that he obtained not only from being a chief petty officer, but dealing with complex management issues in his civilian life," Lisak said. "I think his personality — he talked about what he saw his brother go through — and this whole idea of compassion. I got that sense of compassion when we met with Brian. It’s one of our priorities … one the county board established."

He said it was a combination of competency and character that elevated Erickson to the top during a process that involved an application process, testing, a panel that screened and interviewed about a half dozen candidates.

"My vision is … outstanding service for every veteran that walks through that door," Erickson said. "If they don’t fit into one of the VA’s categories, we’ll see what we can do to help them and provide for them."

The Douglas County Board affirmed the appointment late last week, and Erickson started Monday. Over the next couple of weeks, Erickson will be out of the office for training and a conference, but he expects to be in the office again April 10, ready to go.

"We’ve got a great staff here," Erickson said. "They’re already taking care of veterans very well."

An open house is planned for 9:30-11:30 a.m. April 15 at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center to give veterans a casual opportunity to get to know Erickson.