Veterans Service Officer Bob Nelson plans to retire in May
Bob Nelson not only served his country, but he has been serving Crow Wing County veterans as a civilian, too, and will continue to do so—at least until the end of May and his four-year term.
The 66-year-old Army veteran is married with three sons—two of whom are in the Air Force.
"I'll do some volunteer stuff. ... We're always in need of drivers for driving vets to appointments, so I'll do some volunteer driving," Nelson said of retiring. "I'm active with the Sons of Norway, and I also sing with the Legacy Chorale, so those things will keep me active as well."
Nelson graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead with a business degree before working as a recruiter for the Army Reserve for almost eight years and working for Crow Wing County as the veterans service officer.
"I've always stayed active with the administrative stuff, so that's what kind of tied into what I do now—assist veterans—and always had people-oriented jobs with helping people move up in their careers or apply for things," Nelson said.
Nelson was hired in 2007, but his tenure has not been without criticism. His reappointment to the position four years ago came after accusations of unsatisfactory job performance from his superiors but support from area veterans.
"I put in my intent to not seek reappointment. I'm going to retire," Nelson said Tuesday, Jan. 29. "I've been doing this type of work for 21 years after 28 years in the military. I became eligible for Social Security, so I figured time to let some younger blood take over."
Among issues with Nelson's job performance cited by county supervisors in 2015 was he did not have a business plan in place for addressing various veteran populations, he had not put any result-oriented metrics in place, and he was described as disengaged in team meetings.
Nelson has said in his defense that his position differs from many other department heads because of his direct customer service duties.
"I think it was a good experience for both sides. It was an opportunity to express the direction that we felt that the office needed to go, and our focus has never really changed and that is to assist veterans and their families in getting benefits for moving forward," Nelson said.
Nelson's commitment to veterans and the service he provides should supercede concerns related to his management skills and supervisory responsibilities, Nelson's supporters said, noting Crow Wing County ranks high among Minnesota counties for gathering veteran benefits.
"The approach to that has always been client-centered," Nelson said. "I think that's the toughest thing for people in social work is that you deal with clients who have issues and you'd love to be able to solve everything, but you can't solve everything every day."
Some veterans had some concerns about the 2008 reorganization of county government, when veterans services moved from a stand-alone county office to one under the jurisdiction of community services.
"I think sometimes when we're always looking for efficiencies and the like, sometimes we move one direction or we move another direction," Nelson said. "And so when that happens, sometimes people don't see eye to eye, but in the scheme of things, I think things have settled down where we continue to do a great service for our veterans—or at least we hope that we do—and we've been a very busy office."
County Administrator Tim Houle said no decisions have been made regarding how the veterans service office will be structured after Nelson's departure.
"I will say that we do want to ensure that the lines of communication between the leadership team in community services and the VSO are as open as possible, regardless of how it is organized," Houle said.
Nelson is one of three department heads the county board appoints to four-year terms. The veterans service office is in the county community services building but is not under the purview of that county department. Instead, Nelson reports to the county board.
"The crossover of those veterans who are in need of financial assistance, (chemical dependency) treatment and/or mental health services, many of which may be related to their service, is pretty substantial," Houle said.
"So we do want to ensure that we are coordinating the delivery of those services to the best of our ability in order to provide the highest quality of services possible and avoid any duplication of effort. We still have time to figure out how best to accomplish that."
When Nelson's reappointment four years ago was not assured, area veterans raised more than $1,000 to buy an advertisement in the Brainerd Dispatch praising his work with veterans, calling for his reappointment and hoping to sway the county board's decision.
"It thrills me to see that type of support for us. ... Not very many places in government do people come out in that show of force to say, 'We appreciate the work that you're doing. Please keep it up,' so that was, by far, overwhelming to me. I didn't seek that out," Nelson said.
"We thought we were just doing our job, and apparently people thought we did good work for them and felt that things were pushed a little bit the wrong way, and they wanted to say, 'We think you're doing the right thing and doing a good job.'"
Nelson said what he will miss the most about the job is the people.
"I mean we get to know families quite well. We're there for the births of their children and the losses of their family members, and to go through that with them and try to settle the waters in some cases and sometimes just being there to help them through what seems a crisis," he said.
"We see a lot of people who get really happy that the VA granted their disability or whatever. And we've seen people go from homelessness to homeownership and put things back together in their lives. To us, that's what it's all about."