When veteran Melissa Hildebrandt applied for and received the open Pierce County Veterans Service Officer position and learned what the duties entailed, she knew she was in the right place. The …
When veteran Melissa Hildebrandt applied for and received the open Pierce County Veterans Service Officer position and learned what the duties entailed, she knew she was in the right place. The hometown kid from Ellsworth was where she belonged.
“I’ve always had a passion for serving, even when the uniform is off,” Hildebrandt said. “My passion is taking care of veterans. I grew up in Ellsworth and in the area. Having been active in the Legion for 15 years, a lot of the folks who come into the office, I know. To me, that’s the most special part. It’s a great feeling to be back home and taking care of people.”
Prior to taking over the VSO position Aug. 21, 2023, Hildebrandt worked in Ramsey County, Minn. for 18 years, most recently as a sergeant at the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department in the adult detention center. She also served as the Commander of River Falls American Legion Post 121, a role she held for almost two years. An Army veteran, Hildebrandt served as a Corrections Specialist at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She and husband Jeff, a Prescott dairy farmer, have two daughters, Madison and Makenna.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Hildebrandt said. “That was my goal. I enrolled at UWRF because I grew up as a farm kid.”
Halfway through her first semester, a recruiter contacted her and asked her how school was going. While it was going well, she didn’t know how she’d pay for the next eight years of schooling. Before she knew it, she enlisted and found herself at boot camp a month and a half later.
“I was basically a correctional officer in the military,” Hildebrandt said. “Leavenworth is a very old prison, like the ones you see in the movies with all the bars and 1,000 inmates in a unit, that’s what Leavenworth was like. All the inmates were in the military of course, male and female. We had some on death row.”
When she and her recruiter were talking, a new prison was proposed to be built at Leavenworth. The Army needed corrections specialists to build up manpower in order to have enough officers to make the move to the new prison.
“Just like any government operation, it didn’t go as planned,” Hildebrandt said. “I thought it would be a quick in and I’d go back to school. But I was there for two years on active duty; then I came back home and started working at Oak Park Heights in the prison and carried on what I did in the service in civilian life.”
While she was still in the National Guard and a young mother, she joined the River Falls American Legion around age 26. She didn’t attend meetings but paid her dues each year. One day two Legion members came to her door and invited her to a meeting. She was nervous to attend.
“I thought for sure that I was too young,” Hildebrandt said. “I had the perception that the American Legion was old vets sharing stories and having beers. I was nervous to show up. But I went, and when I walked in the door, it was automatically like I had a new family. There was that sense of camaraderie. I was accepted. It is accepting, they want you there regardless of when and how you served. I’ve been active ever since.”
Hildebrandt took part in many Legion activities, including the Honor Guard, planning the building remodel, modernizing the website and posting on social media, assisting at Bingo, the Christmas tree lot and chicken fries, and participating in River Falls Days, Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
The VSO provides advocacy, advice and aid to veterans, their families and dependents with disability compensation, pension and insurance claims under federal laws; loans, grants and education entitled benefits under state law. Duties also include informing the public of services rendered and veterans’ rights, reviewing legislation, regulations and precedents impacting benefit claims and rights; and preparing correspondence to acquaint veterans with current legislative activities and initiatives.
When Pierce County Benefits Specialist Tami MacGregor spoke to her at a Legion meeting about the open VSO position, something inside Hildebrandt clicked.
“It was time to do something that truly means something to me,” Hildebrandt said. “Making a difference and being able to help other vets and their families. It was kind of a no-brainer when the job came open.”
Hildebrandt and MacGregor help veterans in filing for benefits, disability, pension, spouse/survivor benefits, burial benefits and more. The county also provides van rides to VA appointments. The commission fund provides money to county veterans who may have a financial need, such as struggling to pay for rent or bills.
“They have a review with us because they often have a string of problems we can help with,” MacGregor said.
The Pierce County VSO serves about 3,500 veterans annually; Hildebrandt is not sure how many county veterans don’t seek their services but wants to find out.
“That’s kind of my goal, is to find different ways to reach our veterans in Pierce County,” Hildebrandt said. “You don’t always know if people are veterans. We want to reach them all. I think the education piece is a big one. How we do that, I don’t necessarily know yet.
“For many years, I didn’t file for benefits because I was not informed. That is a very big piece for me, how do we communicate that to different ages and eras. Some benefits apply to different groups in different ways, from college to nursing homes, to survivor benefits.”
MacGregor said they want to make the VA less daunting and more approachable, especially when filling out complex forms. They also want to help veterans access other services in Pierce County, Hildebrandt added, such as those offered by Public Health or the Aging & Disability Resource Center.
Veterans are invited to a free event at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9 at the Ellsworth American Legion Post 204 (139 S. Oak St.) to learn about veterans benefits from Hildebrandt, funeral and cremation planning and advance planning. The event, hosted by Mahn Family Funeral Home, is free to honorably discharged veterans and their spouses (or guest of choice). A picnic-style dinner will be provided, along with a chance to win door prizes. To register, call 715-941-5021 or email email@example.com.
For more information about Pierce County veterans’ services, call 715-273-6753.