By Kristen Miller
Retired US Army Colonel Kevin Wilson of Cokato was the featured speaker during the Veterans Day program Nov. 11.
Wilson, who retired in September after serving 30 years in the Army, shared with the audience, consisting of veterans, community members, and middle and high school students, a quote from President Dwight Eisenhower signing a bill making the 11th of November a day to honor all veterans.
“My name is Wilson, and I am a veteran,” noted the 1979 Dassel-Cokato High School student, who was voted the most mischievous in his class.
He spoke of a sense of fulfillment he received from serving in the Army, which for him, came during his first assignment in Hawaii.
Though he wasn’t sure if it was the unit, the leaders, or the soldiers, something happened, Wilson said. “I learned the Army was an organization I wanted to be a part of I learned the value of commitment and sacrifice.”
“During my career, I have seen the horrors of war, and also the heartfelt generosity of strangers. I have been exhausted to the bone, wet and cold, but witnessed the unflappable drive of the American soldier,” Wilson went on to say, noting how he has served with some incredible people and experienced some incredible assignments and opportunities.
Wilson’s military career began in 1984, with the 65th Combat Engineer Battalion at the Schofield Barracks on Oahu, HI.
Wilson received a master’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1992, a master’s of strategic studies from the US Army College in 2006, and worked with US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
Prior to retiring, Wilson was Commander of the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, MS, with the USACE.
The center consisted of seven laboratories in four states, more than 2,500 employees, $1.2 billion in facilities, and an annual research program exceeding $1.5 billion.
The principal research mission areas included war fighter support, installations, environment, water resources, and information technology.
In addition, Wilson was on three tours overseas Afghanistan in 2002 and again in 2009, and Iraq in 2003.
During his last tour in Afghanistan, Wilson established and commanded the USACE Afghanistan Engineer District, which provided enhanced support and sustainment for Coalition and Afghan forces.
In those 30 years of service, Wilson said he learned “leadership and humility.”
“You have to have passion if you want to succeed,” said Wilson, who earned a list of awards and merits, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Bronze Star.
Wilson noted that he, however, is just one of the millions of veterans with a story to tell.
“There are currently 21 million surviving veterans today; 369,000 in Minnesota alone,” Wilson reported. “Vietnam-era veterans make up about a third of them. All of them have a story to tell.”
He also went on to recognize the men and women who are currently serving, particularly the ones who stepped forward to serve and protect their nation after the events of 9/11.
“These individuals are the best this nation has to offer,” Wilson said, adding that there isn’t a corporation that would trust them with the level of responsibility they are given in service to their country.
As a husband and father of two, Wilson also touched on how, for any service member, it takes sacrifice, not only on their part, but from their family, as well.
A common phrase he hears from his wife, Jackie, when she asks him if he remembers a particular circumstance in their lives together is, “No, you wouldn’t. Because you weren’t there.”
Despite the sacrifice and dedication it takes to be a member of the military, Wilson told the veterans in the audience, “I’m proud to be a part of the legacy you’ve created.”
As for the students, Wilson gave two ways in which they can show respect for those who have dedicated their lives to defending the nation.
First, don’t be shy or hesitant to talk to a veteran and thank them for their service. Second, Wilson suggested that when the national anthem is played, stand tall and hold one’s hand on his or her heart as a sign of respect.
More about Wilson
As a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, Wilson said he was able to partake in a lot of relevant research and development that will most likely move from the military to the civil sector.
Last January, for example, Wilson went to the South Pole to assist the National Science Foundation on infrastructure and logistics.
“We looked at expanding their use of renewable energy and expanding their heat recovery program, as well as conducted an ice engineering assessment of ice on their runway,” Wilson explained.
As commander of the 249th Engineer Battalion for Prime Power, Wilson was responsible for restoring power to the most critical areas following disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and 9/11.
His most challenging assignment was responding to disaster relief operations in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New York City in the wake of 9/11.
His mission was to have power restored by the following Monday, Sept. 17.
Noting that he is not a trained electrician, but rather, a civil engineer, Wilson said, “You just have to figure it out.”
“I always felt you can teach yourself anything, and I proved it,” Wilson said, noting power was restored by the deadline.
As far as plans for his retirement, Wilson’s current mission is to finish remodeling his 1898 Cokato home.
He also noted that having been gone so much, this is a great opportunity for him to slow down and reconnect with family.