Crow Wing County Board: Nelson reappointed as VSO

Bob Nelson will continue to serve as Crow Wing County's veteran services officer, the county board decided Tuesday, and the office will no longer be under the purview of community services.

Bob Nelson, Crow Wing County veteran services officer, smiles after the Crow Wing County Board reappointed him to a four-year term Tuesday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Bob Nelson, Crow Wing County veteran services officer, smiles after the Crow Wing County Board reappointed him to a four-year term Tuesday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

Bob Nelson will continue to serve as Crow Wing County's veteran services officer, the county board decided Tuesday, and the office will no longer be under the purview of community services.

The decisions were met by thunderous applause and cheers from about 200 people, most donning clothing or hats noting military service, who packed the room and spilled into the hallway. Many of these people responded to a call from area veterans to support Nelson, who was under fire from superiors for what they characterized as a "failure of leadership and alignment with organizational priorities."

After the board's decisions, Nelson said he was overwhelmed by the support and would begin working immediately on establishing his office as a stand-alone department.


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"I think that we'll put together a good plan and make it work, and we'll continue to serve veterans and work hard," Nelson said.

Whether to reappoint Nelson was originally further down the county board's meeting agenda, but Commissioner Paul Koering, board chair, said he wanted the issue moved up to accommodate the crowd.

Commissioner Paul Thiede opposed Koering's suggestion, noting some in the audience might be there for other business on the agenda.

"I don't know who is in the room but I know that this is not first on the agenda," Thiede said. "I understand there's a lot of people here, but we also have business people were expecting to hear."

A motion to amend the agenda was approved 4-1, with Thiede opposed.

Board hears from public

The board again heard from members of the public concerning Nelson's performance as veterans service officer (VSO), both in support of Nelson and in opposition.


Brainerd resident Frank Nader, who identified himself as a disabled veteran, presented a chart he prepared based on statistics from the state and federal veteran's administration offices. The figures show Crow Wing County ranks second among the 12 Minnesota counties with the largest veteran populations when it comes to veterans receiving treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The county also ranks eighth in total payments to veterans, despite ranking 12th in overall veteran population.

"That's a reflection of a man doing his job," Nader said. "You cannot convince me that diversion into other areas is not a disservice to veterans. You're taking a man who knows what he's doing and doing it well and replacing with you don't know what yet."

Dick Huff of Garrison said up until about 40 years ago, veterans did not have any representation locally for assistance with benefits, but now some who have been waiting for decades have been able to get help.

"Since Bob (Nelson) came here, we have hundreds and hundreds of people who had been trying to get benefits for at least 20 years, and this man implemented it," Huff said. "He might step on a few toes, but that's what we want. We want someone who can go to the top and get the benefits our people deserve."

Two men spoke in opposition to Nelson's reappointment. Charlie Makidon, a Crow Wing County resident with a Backus address, repeated the concerns he expressed at the board's Feb. 10 meeting. Makidon said it took Nelson four years to work on his claim and it was completed only after Makidon took his concern to the county board previously. He also pointed to a "veteran sitting in Bay Lake Township needing dialysis treatment" who Makidon said Nelson denied providing a ride to.

"Brothers, maybe he helped all of you, but he's not done until he's helped every single one of us," Makidon said. "Please deny Mr. Nelson's reappointment at this time and open the job to some other veteran that can do the job better."

Makidon's statements were met by loud booing and a smattering of applause from the crowd.

JoElla Converse, former veterans service office support specialist, said Makidon was wrong and the length of his wait was not Nelson's fault.


"The VA can be slower than a ding dong," Converse said. "I have worked with them on claims for at least four years."

Nisswa resident Richard Mathers said he did not receive the help he needed until he went to the Stearns County Veterans Services Department. Mathers said he was suffering from a rash and was told it could be service-related. When he visited Crow Wing County's office, Mathers said Nelson spent little time researching and told him he was unable to confirm the ship Mathers served on had been in Vietnam. According to Mathers, Nelson also told him he made too much money at the job he'd recently retired from and to come back once he'd been on Social Security for awhile.

Mathers said the Stearns County VSO found his records right away and helped him receive full disability benefits after his rash was attributed to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Nelson took to the podium and said he's taken the last two weeks to re-evaluate his office, "trying to make sense of where we missed the boat." He apologized to Mathers and said five minutes was not enough time to spend with him.

Nelson thanked everyone for their support, becoming visibly emotional as he thanked his wife, and used the opportunity in front of a large audience to call for more volunteer drivers to help disabled veterans get to appointments.

"We can't always be there for everybody," Nelson said. "We'd like to be. We'll do the best we can with what we have to do that, if I'm fortunate enough to be reappointed."

Thiede expresses opposition

Following Nelson's comments, Commissioner Rosemary Franzen moved to reappoint Nelson and Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom seconded.


Thiede said there is more to Nelson's job than counting the dollars veterans receive and the issue is Nelson not responding to directives given to him by his supervisors.

"I can't believe that all the veterans in this room would just throw out the hierarchy of command," Thiede said. "I'm a veteran, and I don't know all the intricacies of veterans' benefits. That doesn't mean that I shouldn't have to, if I'm in that position, be accountable to who I report to. That's what troubles me about this. Being a successful commander means you bring people along."

Thiede said although the business plan requested of Nelson has since been completed, it was several months late with little explanation. Nelson's superiors cited a failure to develop a business plan despite assistance and repeated requests to do so as one of the reasons for his unsatisfactory performance.

"To say that somehow you don't have the time to do that, then come before the board and tell us what it is you're lacking in that office," Thiede said. "I just would not want this motion to come forth without saying some of those things."

The motion to reappoint Nelson was approved in a 4-1 vote, with Thiede opposed.

Franzen moves to separate offices

Franzen immediately followed up with a new motion, this time to remove the VSO office from the community services department. The motion was loudly applauded by the audience and then seconded by Nystrom.

Until 2008, the VSO was considered a department head and reported directly to the county administrator and county board. A reorganization of county government placed veteran services within community services, a move that at the time faced criticism for likening veterans to welfare recipients.


Tim Houle, county administrator, said the reasoning behind the move came from both a desire to streamline county government and a recognition that some veterans also need assistance from other areas of community services.

Thiede asked Franzen for an explanation of what her motion would mean.

"We hire the supervisors in this facility, and we have them report to us on a yearly basis," Franzen said. "I think that we would ask the same from Bob (Nelson)."

Thiede corrected Franzen, noting it is not supervisors but department heads that report to the county board.

"I don't see Bob (Nelson) as a department head, or the need to see this is as a separate department," Thiede said.

Nystrom said Nelson's managers were directed by the county board to work with him to provide a business plan and her support of separating the office was not due to problems with management.

"I would be really remiss if I did not tell you that our managers were doing what we asked them to do," Nystrom said. "Mr. Nelson has been a great VSO for us, but we need these reports as well."

Thiede said in his discussions with veterans, he's heard negative comments about the office being within community services, but nothing about the structure actually having a negative impact on the services provided.


"I see this again, this motion, as a popular reaction to pushback from what's there," Thiede said. "I do not see this as an indictment of what we have done with the structure for caring for veterans."

He said the structure allowed veterans to access other services easier than if the VSO office were stand-alone.

Franzen pointed to an operational evaluation conducted of the office last June, where the report noted it is traditional for a county VSO to report to the county board. The evaluation also discussed the previously mentioned statistics ranking the county as eighth in collecting veteran benefits.

"Crow Wing County is above average," Franzen said. "Bob (Nelson) is doing a great job. Just based on this report, I don't know how this action ever got to this point."

Franzen's comments again drew applause. Thiede said Crow Wing County was not unique in its structure and half of all veterans in the state were serviced by offices under community services, including Cass County.

Commissioner Doug Houge said it took two years for Nelson to provide a business plan and he is concerned about who would provide daily guidance to him if he reported directly to the board.

"How is this board going to gather the information we need to make sure one or two (veterans) don't fall through the cracks?" Houge said. "I don't think by having him move under us we're going to give him the direction, the guidance, the tools he needs to improve that office."

Franzen said she disagreed with Houge.

"I think we are capable of doing this," she said. "It will take a lot of work, but I'm willing to do that work."

The motion to separate the offices passed 3-2, with Houge and Thiede opposed.

Houle said because no timeline was attached to the motion, it is effective immediately.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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