Green Beret, sniper team leader, oxen medic: Sergeant Major (Ret.) Karl Erickson wore many hats throughout his nearly three decades of service in the U.S. Army. Now retired from military duty, Erickson is using his unique skills and experience—and a new relationship with FLIR Systems, Inc.— to help keep private citizens and law enforcement professionals safer.
Erickson spent most of his military career as a member of U.S. Special Forces (SF), commonly known as the Green Berets—one of America’s most-storied-yet-misunderstood special operations elements. “We are called the ‘quiet professionals,’” Erickson explains. “Basically, our job is to train other countries to fight for themselves.”
Since the group’s establishment in 1952, the Green Berets have served behind the scenes in every global hotspot, working to win the hearts and minds of local residents, stop insurgencies, and often lead indigenous troops into battle. In doing so, the U.S. Special Forces members not only learn how to be superlative soldiers, they must also become skilled at more esoteric trades ranging from well drilling to dentistry.
When SF soldiers drop behind enemy lines, they immediately work to gain rapport with the local population—not just by organizing military forces, but also by helping to solve other community problems. That mission usually includes providing healthcare and supporting local agriculture. Interestingly, veterinary training is one of the special skill sets a Green Beret must learn.
“What if a local farmer has a sick ox?” Erickson asks. “It pulls his plow in the field and hauls his cart to market to sell everything. If he loses that one ox, his family has no food. That’s why we have to learn to be veterinarians.” Erickson uses the example to highlight the overall philosophy of the Special Forces: “While Green Berets may not be the best at any one particular subject, we excel at being very, very good at pretty much everything.”
That broad pool of knowledge helped Erickson, owner of three Bronze Stars, as his military career was winding down in 2010 when he joined the Maximum Warrior competition, a web-based reality show pitting active members of the military against one another in a series of diverse challenges.
“I got a call from an old buddy of mine,” Erickson explains, “and he said ‘Hey, Maxim Magazine and Jeep are putting together this event. You want to compete?’ I told him I wasn’t interested, but after a lot of talk, he finally said, ‘no, you don’t understand—even if you take last place, you still get to keep the rifle, the pistol, the body armor and even the clothing!’ So I agreed.”
In the end, it wasn’t the lure of free swag that won Erickson over. Rather, it was his core belief in constant practice under the pressure of competition to ensure maximum proficiency that brought him into the Maximum Warrior competition. “I’m a big believer that you can learn, improve and keep skills sharp through competition,” says Erickson. “I would always encourage my guys to compete, so I decided I needed do the same.”
The event was tough and the competitors even tougher. “There were three SEALs (member of the United States Navy Sea, Air and Land Teams), Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Corps veteran Dakota Meyer, an Air Force guy and a couple of other gents,” Erickson explains, “and then one crusty old Green Beret.”
That crusty old Green Beret wasn’t even in top form. Shortly before the event, Erickson smashed his trigger finger with a sledgehammer while working around the house.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win,” the retired Special Forces soldier says, “I just didn’t want last place, because my old unit would never let me live it down. I didn’t feel any pressure, because I wasn’t trying for first place. I just did what I always do: react to the situations that I’m given.
At the end of the Maximum Warrior competition, Erickson ended up walking away with a brand new Jeep Rubicon, handily beating the other elite competitors.
In the days and years since, Erickson has worked as a consultant and in the training industry, spending several years with a well-known firm that worked with U.S. and international military clients to train special operations soldiers. He also returned to host subsequent seasons of Maximum Warrior, and now works as a private instructor who trains law enforcement officers and corporate executives.
“I’m passionate about teaching,” Erickson says in reference to his post-military career. “I train law enforcement on many subjects—including night sniper operations—and also help to prepare executives who need to travel to bad countries by themselves with no security detail.”
Night vision devices (NVDs) and thermal imagers are a big part of Erickson’s training programs, because they greatly enhance situational awareness. Erickson used these technologies many times on the battlefield during his nine combat deployments, and they are now available to civilians. That’s why a partnership with thermal and NVD industry-leader, FLIR Systems, Inc., was a natural fit.
“Throughout our combat operations (in Afghanistan),” Erickson explains, “we primarily did raids and my unit provided sniper support for those raids. Ninety-nine percent of those operations were done at night. I’ve had two decades of working in the field with the best thermal and night vision gear available, so when FLIR asked me to help them and come onboard as an Ambassador, I was all about it.”
“I used my first thermal imager in 1986,” Erickson notes with chagrin. “It was 40 pounds. That ungodly thing ran on compressed gas bottles and big batteries. Now, we’re down to the FLIR Breach that’s the size of a pack of cigarettes and you can carry it with you in your briefcase or shirt pocket. That means anyone can now enjoy the significant benefits of FLIR’s thermal technology.”
Erickson believes his hard-earned experiences will resonate and help both hunters and civilian law enforcement learn the “tricks of the trade” for using today’s cutting-edge FLIR products. “I hope people can learn from my mistakes and successes,” Erickson says. “I hope they can learn to better utilize thermal and night vision— whether they are hunting coyotes, collecting evidence and intelligence, conducting surveillance, or simply staying more aware of their surroundings.”
The U.S. government gave Karl Erickson a priceless education and several lifetimes’ worth of experience. Now, he wants to continue giving back to others. “I want to train as many people as I can to become aware of their surroundings and how to react properly to situations so they can help save the day,” Erickson says earnestly. “Don’t rely on other people to take care of you; step up to the plate! Together, working as a team, we can make this world of ours a much better and safer place.”
And maybe even heal a sick ox or two.
Learn more about SGM (Ret.) Karl Erickson, his current work and available training sessions at TacticalRifleman.com. Learn more about FLIR Systems’ cutting-edge thermal and night vision products for the hunting, tactical and law enforcement markets at FLIR.com.