Jim Olson joined the North Dakota National Guard when he was 17. The end of January will see him officially retire from the Guard and begin a new chapter in his life as an Otter Tail County Veterans Services officer.
The 51-year-old is now looking forward to being known as “Jim Olson, civilian first class.”
“I don’t know what I don’t know yet,” said Olson, who started work at the Otter Tail County Veteran Services office in Fergus Falls last Monday.
He joins long-time veterans service officer Charlie Kampa in helping local warriors of all ages handle questions regarding health care, prescription medications, pensions, disability benefits and a myriad of other issues that arise. Kampa will continue working for veterans from a county office in New York Mills.
Olson was an engineer during his active military service and deployed twice to Kosovo and once to Iraq. One truth his many years of service taught Olson is that the experiences of all veterans differ. It is one of the reasons he is especially grateful to veterans of the Vietnam War. Many of them returned to a country that viewed them with distrust and anger because of the unpopular war of which they had been a part.
“The Vietnam veterans have specifically been so gracious I think to my generation of veterans, those who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Olson said. “I feel very grateful to all veterans but I am aware of how things were for them when they came home.”
Olson grew up in Turtle Lake, North Dakota, a town of roughly 800 in the central part of the state. His gratitude to veterans of all eras runs deep.
“My father was World War II era and I grew up around his friends,” Olson said. “The thing I tell people is that if it weren’t for veterans and veteran service organizations there would have been a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t have been there for me.”
Olson believes his new job will allow him to give something back to vets.
“I just look forward to getting my feet wet and getting on the ground to see what we can do and advocate for them,” Olson said Friday before hitting the road.
One of the enduring challenges Olson sees for the local veterans service office is to promote outreach to military veterans.
“Getting them to come in and see what it is they have earned, what benefits might be available; then just link them up with that and help them navigate with those processes,” Olson said. “There are some for whatever reason have decided not to pursue those things. To some degree maybe there were good reasons why they didn’t. There may be things out there they might not be aware of.”
While the help is available, Olson has seen how hard it is for some vets to seek it.
The brother of some friends is one of those people. He served in Vietnam for a year but he just would not reach out.
“For him I think it was just hard because he had to relive some things through that process and he just didn’t want to. It was kind of tough,” Olson said.
Olson and his wife, Kathy, live in the Lake Park area and are looking forward to spending “off-duty” time exploring the Minnesota outdoors. His wife comes from Sauk Centre and Olson has a sister living in Perham. They have also lived in three North Dakota cities and in Wisconsin. The couple has two kids in college.
“The two of us have been very transient,” Olson laughed.