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Esko native brings state's Air Guard into 'new normal': Q&A with Command Chief Lisa Erikson

Erikson on deployments: "You just learn holidays are when you can get together with your family."

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Esko native Command Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Erikson talks about being the most senior enlisted member of the Minnesota Air National Guard on Dec. 16, 2021. She's in charge of about 2,000 airmen located at two separate wings and the command headquarters. Erikson, who has served 32 years in the Air Force, is in charge of about 2,000 airmen across the state. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

It was just October when Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Erikson was elevated to command chief of the Minnesota Air National Guard, in charge of its enlisted roster of 2,600 full-time and weekend, or drill-status, airmen.

The 53-year-old Esko native was the first woman to achieve the post. She shares an office next to her Army National Guard counterpart at Joint Force Headquarters in St. Paul. There, she’s privy to the “battle rhythms” of Brig. Gen. Shawn Manke, her boss and the governor-appointed person in command of the Minnesota National Guard.

“I completely see the whole picture,” Erikson said. “I understand now when they say we need airmen, we need soldiers, for these long-term care facilities, and here’s why. I’m on that end of it, and I enjoy getting to know the next level.”

With the new job, Erikson splits time at her home on Caribou Lake locally and an apartment outside St. Paul, where she lives with her 19-year-old daughter, Ellie.

“My college roommate," Erikson called her.

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So far, Erikson is enjoying the promotion, even as it comes during a dynamic time with a feverish workload.

"I’ve been thanked for my service a million times down there, and I’ve lived there for two months,” Erikson said. “It’s that support that gives you the drive to keep doing what you’re doing.”

Erikson’s ascension has come as the Minnesota National Guard is increasingly being called upon for domestic missions to address civil unrest and provide security for high-profile trials, while also combatting the pandemic and stemming a critical shortage of workers in care settings.

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In front of a display of holiday cards made by Hermantown students, Chief Lisa Erikson talks about the value of support from home Dec. 16, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We have airmen doing COVID testing at sites throughout the state,” Erikson said. “We have airmen working in some of the long-term care facilities, and some of our medical professionals are helping train (Army) soldiers for that as well.”

Erikson described four other airmen assigned to New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base to help refugees from the war in Afghanistan as they adjust to new lives in the United States.

“It’s at a different level than we’ve ever seen it before,” Erikson said of guard work. “In conjunction with our domestic operations, we have our federal mission. Nothing is skipping a beat … I think this is our new normal.”

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Erikson wouldn't have it another way. She professed a love for the smell of hydraulic fluid and jet fuel, having started her military career in the U.S. Air Force as a jet mechanic. She followed a male friend into the service, thinking if he could do it, she could do it also.

“Something really cool about Chief Erikson is that in the 1980s, when there were only 6% women in the military, she was a jet engine mechanic on the C-141s,” said 148th Fighter Wing spokesperson Audra Flanagan. “She was one of those breaking-down-walls gals. ... It took some grit.”

So what does it mean to be the first woman at state-level command?

"We don’t grow chiefs overnight," Erikson said. "When I first came in, women were a very small part of the military. Now we’re all maturing. If you look behind me, there’s more females coming up."

Erikson considered her mentors.

“I was good friends with Jodi Stauber,” she said, referring to the wife of 8th Congressional District Rep. Pete Stauber, and the first woman to be command chief of the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth.

“When you watched her do what she did, you really wanted to follow her lead,” said Erikson, who herself rose to 148th command chief in 2017.

Now, Erikson's the senior enlisted advisor encompassing both the 148th in Duluth and 133rd Airlift Wing based in St. Paul with its heavy unit of C-130 transport carriers.

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What follows is an abridged and edited version of an hourlong conversation with Erikson earlier this month in Duluth, where she strode the administration halls of the 148th in search of a handshake and a word with her successor there, Command Chief Master Sgt. Jozef Miketin, another Esko native.

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Lisa Erikson talks with Jozef Miketin, command chief for the 148th Fighter Wing, during a visit to Duluth on Dec. 16, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: Why did you want the big state job?

A: Because I’m passionate about our airmen, and I wasn’t done. I knew I had more to give. I can be with airmen across the state now. I have the ability to affect a lot of change and development for our airmen.

As vice chair of the Enlisted Field Advisory Council in Washington, D.C., Erikson's working to get military health insurance, Tricare, for everyone in the National Guard.

Q: Describe working in Duluth, with Col. Christopher Blomquist, the wing commander, at the 148th?

A: If you know him at all he’s very serious. He’s very mission driven. I was a really good balance for that. I was the people person. And together we made a really good team. He’s still the wing commander here. It was a perfect balance between the two of us. That’s why I did well in that position.

Q: You never wanted to be an officer?

A: Nope. Never. I was a worker. I came from blue collar. My dad was a truck driver; my mom was a secretary, so I was raised to be a worker. And I always thought the enlisted were the working, the backbone, the gut of the operation.

Q: You started out in college and said you really didn’t know what you wanted to do. I’m curious about the arc that takes you from there to becoming command chief of a whole state outfit.

A: Once I realized, when I was a jet mechanic, I could learn that and do that and be that and still be true to who I am, then I thought nothing’s going to stop me. I wanted to try different things. I changed jobs. I have five different Air Force specialty codes. I’ve moved around to a lot of different jobs. Just because it was interesting and fun and a challenge. Once I was in a position for three years, I thought, let’s try one more thing.

Erikson worked three years in recruiting while her sons were in high school, recalling it as a rewarding time because of all of her local connections. She was a training manager in civil engineering — " the most fun job I’ve had" working with plumbers, carpenters, electricians and the unit to which her own 32-year-old son Jason is currently enlisted. She also was superintendent of the 148th medical group for more than eight years, ensuring airmen got the access to on-base clinic and medical answers they needed.

Q: You made yourself a well-rounded person here at the 148th. Did that fuel your rise?

A: That definitely helped. It showed people I’m willing to take on a challenge, and I’m not going to just stay on one career path.

Q: How do the domestic missions change what you folks do?

A: Well, it feels different, doesn’t it? It’s not us packing our bags and going overseas. Readiness now means not just having your military life together, but also your personal life. They have to have a resilient family that will be there to support them when they walk out the door. Especially with state missions. We’ve had to call people to state active duty in 72 hours: “You’re going to go to Minneapolis and we don’t know when you’re coming back.” So they have to be ready all the time for that.

Q: What can you tell me about the international work unfolding, given that we’re not in any active conflicts right now?

A: They’re still deploying to locations in the Middle East and doing missions over there. We fly sorties, we serve food. We have service folks who are cooks and MWR — morale, welfare and recreation and lodging folks. They’re there doing that, caring for all of the other airmen and branches that are there and making sure they have the lodging and food and all the things they need. It’s not necessarily an international conflict they’re part of, but they’re part of the support staff. Our security forces are also deployed. Right now, it’s not a big aviation deployment (to both Africa and Southeast Asia).

All told, there are 130 Minnesota Air National Guard members deployed worldwide, including five dozen members of the 148th and 80 airmen from the 133rd.

Q: I just read about some members of the 133rd coming home early.

A: Yes, the security forces were able to come back two months early. They were slated to be in their location for six months and came back at the four-month point, which is super rare. But it was a really good news story. It was a great Christmas gift, all of these airmen got to come home early for their families.

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Command Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Erikson wears the two-starred insignia of her rank and position. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: Let’s talk about the sacrifices you and your folks make. You go into this understanding not every holiday is necessarily your own, don’t you?

A: Right. Absolutely. I draw back on my active duty (Air Force) days. I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I was 20 years old. By myself. You just learn holidays are when you can get together with your family. And sometimes family is defined as the people you work with, especially when you’re in the military. I had four Christmases away from home. My parents came for one Christmas in Okinawa. You learn to adapt and overcome. In my family, because my son’s in the military, I’m in the military, my father-in-law was in the military and my brother-in-law, it’s a natural feeling for all of us. Like how we said to my mother: Holidays are when we can be together. It might not be on the 25th of December, but we will celebrate Christmas. We will have a holiday together, when we’re all together.

Q: Tell us about your family's sacrifices.

A: I would say those four people (husband Jeff, and sons Jason, Jon, and daughter Ellie) are the ones who have made the hugest sacrifices for me to do what I've been able to do. I went to a lot of training schools, a lot of things. My husband always had the home front cared for. I never had to worry. He never once told me no. He always encouraged me and was always the one pushing me out the door to go make things better for us.

Q: Where does Esko fit into your story?

A: Growing up in that small town I was always comfortable and I was always cared for, so I knew I could leave and come back and things would be OK. That’s what gave me the courage to step out. My mother (the late Sheila Maki) had always wanted to do something like this as a girl. She was the baby in her family and her brothers were in the Korean War. At that point, women in the military was not a thing in the '60s. She was envious of what I got to do and what I’ve been able to do. She was a huge influence in why I wanted to get out and see the world.

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