JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Aaron Helgerson grew up a long way from the ocean.
A quick online search estimates the shortest path from his hometown of Freeman to a body of water that large is about 1,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. A trip to either the west or east coast is roughly 1,500 miles. The largest body of water near Freeman, Silver Lake, is notoriously shallow and despite sporting a boat ramp, rarely hosts such crafts on its waters.
But these days, Helgerson is always a few steps away from deep water. That’s thanks to his position as the commanding officer of the USS Billings, a littoral warship in the United States Navy stationed in Jacksonville, Florida.
It has been a long road from South Dakota to heading up one of the newest ships in the most powerful Navy in the world, one that began in a town of about 1,200 people where everyone knew your name and the high seas were something mostly read about or seen on television and movies, not experienced.
“When I grew up in Freeman, the constant was that nothing ever changed,” Helgerson said recently. “It makes you feel safe. You grew up with the same group of kids in your life.”
It was a nice way to grow up, Helgerson said. Born in Yankton, his family lived in Menno for a short time before moving to Freeman before he entered kindergarten. There he experienced the process of growing up in a small town in South Dakota in the 1980s. He rode his bike, played with kids in the neighborhood, was a member of the high school football and wrestling teams, and took part in activities like model rocketry and quiz bowl.
He remembers those days fondly, looking back to the times when kids could walk out the front door of the house and roam as they pleased as long as they were home by curfew.
“As a kid, it was kind of nice. There wasn’t a lot our folks had to worry about. They could let us roll out the door and not have to worry about you until supper time,” Helgerson said. “That was a great part of growing up in Freeman. (People in town) knew you, and really it feels like when you look back at it they took good care of us.”
He met his wife Traci, a Sioux Falls native, during his high school years and they married the summer after high school graduation. Soon after they moved to Vermillion, where Helgerson attended the University of South Dakota for a couple of years before he started to think about his future. While he remained an excellent student, Traci was driving round trips to Sioux Falls daily for work, and Helgerson thought it might be time for a change.
“Does anyone know what they want to do at 18 or 19?” Helgerson asked.
As an adolescent, he had always been interested in the military. An uncle, Paul Helgerson, had served in the Navy, and he had learned over the years that his grandfather Delmar Helgerson had served as a Naval aviator. Aaron thought there might be a future for him in the Navy. Conversations with his uncle led him to look more into it.
“(I thought) the Navy definitely doesn’t sound like a bad thing. It would give a chance to travel and definitely give some financial stability. That’s really how I decided to join,” Helgerson said.
So he called a recruiter and they talked. While he had thought about pursuing a role as an officer, the recruiter encouraged him to go the enlisted route. He was soon undergoing the rigors of boot camp, where he learned the ins and outs of being a sailor, as well as studying in the field of electronics.
“I tell people that I never expected myself to be a commanding officer of a ship someday. When I was at USD, my goal was to join as an officer, but I loved being an enlisted sailor,” Helgerson said.
From there, his Navy career took off in earnest. After enlisting in 1995, he was selected for the Enlisted Commissioning Program in 1999. He later completed his bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Nebraska in 2001 and later earned a master's degree in management from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
He served on sea duty assignments aboard the cruisers USS Lake Erie, USS Chosin and USS Hue City, having been deployed multiple times to the Fifth Fleet Area of Operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
While the ships on which he served are massive, they reminded Helgerson in some ways of the small community from which he came. There is a bond that develops among people living and working together, he said, just like the closeness he remembers from growing up in Freeman.
“(Those ships) are a small town in and of themselves. You get close. That was something I didn’t necessarily expect would be like. But when you experience it, it feels good and right that everybody is looking out for each other,” Helgerson said. “That part is the biggest reason I stayed in, knowing that my shipmates have my back.”
'A sense of pride'
After 25 years of service, and now sporting the rank of Commander, Helgerson received his own command in April of this year. The USS Billings is described by the Navy as a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed for operation in near-shore environments, yet capable of open-ocean operation. It is designed to defeat asymmetric threats such as mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft.
Littoral warships have twin crews that alternate the operation of the ship. Helgerson is part of the Blue crew, which is currently not on the ship while the Gold crew mans the boat. He has about 70 crew members under his command. And while far bigger than any fishing boat the Midwest has to offer, it’s the smallest ship he has served on.
“A cruiser has about 300 sailors, and here’s 70. You have a lot more of a personal connection with everyone on board. You know if they’re married or have kids. We’re a pretty tight group,” Helgerson said.
There have been challenges. Keeping the crew safe and ready for duty in an era of COVID-19 can be tricky, but Helgerson credits clear guidance from the Navy and a culture of rules and regulations in helping mitigate the spread of the disease among sailors who are often together in tight spaces for long periods of time.
For now, Helgerson and the Blue crew await their return to their ship. And while people around the country are observing Veterans Day with reflective programs and tributes, he said the view from active military personnel is much the same as it is for the civilian population, as a time to reflect on the service of others.
“Active service people, we say Veteran’s Day is not about us. It’s for the ones who have retired and things of that nature,” Helgerson said.
But they do observe it in their own way. Helgerson noted two of the ships he has served on, the USS Chosin and USS Hue City, are both named after military battles, and on occasion, personnel who fought in the battles for which the ships are named gather to share memories, stories, enjoy some food and generally share their experiences with the current crews.
“When you listen to those guys talk, it gives you a sense of pride and amazement of what they had to go through and what they sacrificed for their country,” Helgerson said. “You’re walking in their footsteps, and they’re the reason we do what we do, which is protect freedom and democracy around the world.”
Despite the work and schedule of a Navy sailor, Helgerson and his wife have raised a family. Two adult girls, Darian and Madison, are still in Florida, working as a zookeeper and a veterinary technician, respectively. His parents, Sherril Dubs and Mark Helgerson, both still live in South Dakota, and he still has family in the Menno area, as well as a sister, Tera, in Sioux Falls.
His job can make it difficult to get back to South Dakota as often as he’d like, but he said he has no regrets about his decision to enlist back in 1995. The Navy has treated him well, he has made lifetime friendships everywhere he has been stationed and it has allowed him to serve his country.
While military service may not be for everyone, Helgerson encouraged anyone interested to at least look into it for their own information. He went from a call to a recruiter to command of a Navy warship. It took some time, he said, but it is worth it if it’s the right match for the individual.
“If you don’t know much about the process, talk to somebody you can trust. I would walk them through the process and make sure they have an idea of what they want to do,” Helgerson said. “There are a whole lot of goals you can accomplish. If you want to serve your country or take advantage of the GI Bill, even if that’s four or five years of service, it’s a lifetime of experiences. The places you’re going to do and see? For me, it opened up a whole new outlook on the world.”