WARREN – After 20 years and nine days in the military, Tom Ericksen must have wondered where his next steps would take him.
He tried to be a car salesman, he interviewed for the Red Cross and he spent a year working in the restaurant business, but seeing the academic difficulties his autistic son was facing helped him find a job. path for himself in special education.
Ericksen, now 45, has been deployed three times and spent a total of 38 months in Iraq, including the first deployment as he graduated from high school at 17. He was trying to choose between going to college and joining the military and ultimately chose the latter.
“I think it’s partly because I struggled with the idea of college. I didn’t think I would make the best choices there. Ericksen said.
Joining the Army was a temporary move Ericksen said he made to gain the discipline he needed for college, coupled with the financial support the Army would provide to pay for his education.
However, getting his parents’ permission to join the military proved difficult as his mother was not a fan of her eldest son joining the service. She had already seen the pain of seeing a loved one go overseas when her brother was in the military.
So Ericksen, as a kid wanting to carve out a future for himself, decided to trick his parents into signing a contract that allowed him to join the military.
“She wanted me to go to college so I told her to sign up so I could go to school and then I came home and said, ‘Hey, I’m leaving for training. base in September. She wasn’t too happy about it. Ericksen said.
In September 1995, he was sent to Fort Stewart in Liberty, Ga. He underwent One Station Unit Training – a training program that combines Basic Combat Training (BCT) with Advanced Individual Training (AIT) – which Erickson completed in January 1996.
“It was a wake-up call to be there, back when Desert Storm was still considered an active engagement, so my class received the National Defense Ribbon,” Ericksen said.
After training, Ericksen was stationed at Fort Stewart until 1998, when a change of duty station took him to Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea from 1998 to 1999.
His time there was how he finally met his wife in the United States online via a chat room where they bonded over the love of music.
“We just clicked and when I came back from Korea on leave before reporting to Fort Knox, I stopped there for about a week to see her before my own family,” Ericksen said.
At the time, his wife, Nikki, lived in Indiana about four hours away from where he re-enlisted at Fort Knox, Ky., from 1999 to 2001.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1999, he proposed, the following year they married in 2000.
After leaving Fort Knox for Fort Carson, Colorado in 2001, tragedy struck the United States later that year when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and one slammed into the Pentagon.
“We knew something was going to happen after it happened,” Ericksen said.
Two years after 9/11, Eriksen was deployed to Iraq in March 2003 on his wife’s birthday. The deployment came at a time when he and his wife were focused on the family they were building, with her pregnant with their first child, Brandon, at the time.
“You make really drastic choices in the face of this kind of news,” he said. “I wrote a letter that was to be given to him in case something happened to let him know how I feel.
“On the first day of our deployment, we were still immortal, we were untouchable, we were bulletproof, we thought nothing was going to happen to us,” Ericksen said.
That view changed when they witnessed their first casualty after losing a staff sergeant to an improvised explosive device (IED).
“These are things you don’t usually see – nothing prepares you for the first body, the explosions, the smells – it’s something you take with you for the rest of your life”, he said.
That’s when Ericksen said he focused on what he needed to get back to his wife and future child.
In June 2003, her first child was born while Ericksen was still overseas. Using a phone provided by a member of the US Embassy who crossed the border into Iraq from Jordan, Ericksen recalled nervously calling his wife while she was in labor. .
“I told my sergeant that knowing my luck I was going to call and she would be in labor cursing me for not being there.” he said.
He was only able to see his son a few weeks before leaving. After his deployment, he returned to Fort Carson from 2003 to 2005, from where he was deployed twice more to Iraq.
He spent 2006 at Fort Hood before his last stationing in South Korea from 2007 to 2009, after which he and his family moved to Youngstown. He joined ROTC from 2009 to 2015. They welcomed their second child, Ethan, in March 2016.
“I turned 20 and was done, we’re starting to reclaim that family time now,” Ericksen said.
In August 2016 Ericksen started at Youngstown State University to become an Intervention Specialist and in May 2019 he graduated and started working at Warren G. Harding High School where he works always as a teacher.
He chose to work at the secondary level in hopes that his story would resonate with students.
“I did the army, I worked as a civilian with no education, I had experience in all levels of adulthood, from being a father to working on a degree now”, Ericksen said.
The next step for Ericksen is to complete a master’s program at YSU for his director and administrator license.