A new war veteran joins the ranks
As Veterans Day is being celebrated this weekend, Jon Erickson said he'll have a hard time putting himself in the same category as an esteemed veteran of past wars. Compared to the harsh conditions veterans of past wars fought in -- and the sacri...
As Veterans Day is being celebrated this weekend, Jon Erickson said he'll have a hard time putting himself in the same category as an esteemed veteran of past wars. Compared to the harsh conditions veterans of past wars fought in -- and the sacrifices they made -- Erickson said his time on duty
After all, he had air-conditioning in his tent, three meals a day, laundry service and he could regularly e-mail his family back home.
And even though his stay in Iraq was extended by four months -- which by all accounts was a crummy deal -- he said the 16 months he spent at Convoy Support Center Scania south of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 doesn't compare to spending three years in a muddy trench in the 1940s.
"I'm proud to have served my country. I'm very proud of that," said Erickson during an interview at his rural Atwater home.
But the father of three said he is "not in the same class" as other American veterans who served while enduring extremely harsh living conditions.
"I wouldn't ever consider comparing myself to them and the sacrifices they had," said Erickson. While downplaying the danger of war and living conditions he experienced, and humbly assessing his own role in the long history of American soldiers, Erickson said those who have consistently made equal sacrifices during centuries of war are the families who remain at home. The worry, the burden of keeping a home operating, the loss and pain borne by spouses, mothers, fathers and children of soldiers has been a part of war for generations, he said. Erickson, who recently joined the Atwater American Legion, said he hopes he can eventually possess and emulate the "same quality of spirit" as the veterans of past
wars who now carry flags while walking down Main Street in community parades.
Holding the rank of a chief warrant officer, Erickson is the battalion targeting officer for the 1st Battalion, 125th Field Artillery based in New Ulm.
He was deployed Oct. 12, 2005, for five months of training in Camp Shelby, Miss., and arrived in Kuwait in mid-March of 2006. He spent 16 months in Iraq -- most of it at Convoy Support Center Scania, located about two hours south of Baghdad.
In a camp about the size of four football fields surrounded by a concrete wall where 1,100 soldiers lived in tight quarters, Erickson's main job was serving as engineer and projects officer where he oversaw building projects, including construction of a church, which he said provided "a touch of home."
While wearing 73 pounds of gear in temperatures that soared as high as 147 degrees, Erickson also did foot and vehicle patrols in search of weapons, insurgents and improvised explosive devices.
During a presentation Wednesday for the Willmar Noon Rotary club, Erickson spoke tersely about the sophisticated tactics Iraqi insurgents now use to create IEDs that kill soldiers and civilians. He had a very close call with an IED just two weeks after he arrived in Iraq and a fellow member of his unit, Josh Schmit of Willmar, was killed when an IED exploded under his vehicle.
Living in canvas tents surrounded by bunkers, Erickson said he grew accustomed to 2 a.m. rocket and mortar fire that hit the camp two to three times a week.
While cautiously stepping around the politics of the war, Erickson said when he first arrived at Convoy Support Center Scania, the region was relatively peaceful, with most of the violence taking place in Baghdad.
After the "surge" by American troops, the violence moved to the outer regions. "It's just a very dangerous place to be," Erickson said.
While he was deployed, Erickson kept his family, friends and community up to date about his activities by penning columns that were printed in his hometown newspaper, the Atwater Sunfish Gazette.
In the articles, Erickson wrote about the daily life in camp, the various construction projects he was working on and the dangerous patrols that were part of his responsibilities.
The informative, upbeat articles didn't dwell on the monotony of the same-thing-every-day routine of his job, or the horrendous life and death aspects of war that he saw.
"I tried to write positively," Erickson said. "They didn't need to know we were getting blown up every day."
He enjoyed writing the articles, he said, until word broke that he and the other Minnesota National Guard troops there would be required to stay in Iraq four months longer than expected.
After that, Erickson said, the deployment drug on and his concern grew for his family and his Atwater-based construction business that he had left behind. "I was really worried I wouldn't find any work," he said.
Erickson returned home at the end of July -- 22 months after being deployed.
The worst part about being in Iraq was not being with his wife and three children.
The best part about coming home was being with his wife and three children.
Other than attending a welcomehome party at the Atwater Community Center, Erickson said for the first couple months he just stayed at home so that he could be with his family and catch up on all the things he missed with his kids.
He had a difficult time "being around a lot of people" at first, and on a couple of occasions, he said he ducked into a quick crouch and looked "for a place to run" when he heard loud noises.
When asked about the National Guard's reintegration program, Erickson said at first he didn't think he'd need the services. But coming from an environment where he was known as "Chief " and people followed his commands, to being back home where even his 5-year-old son has an opinion, has been more challenging than he expected.
Trying to kick-start his construction business has also been difficult. If he'd been able to return home in March as originally scheduled, Erickson said he could have secured jobs to carry him through the summer, fall and winter.
The extended stay in Iraq, plus a slow construction season, has put added pressure on his business and added another layer of sacrifice for his family.
After speaking to the Rotarians, Erickson graciously accepted the handshakes and words of "thanks for serving" that were offered to him.
If he had his wish, his wife and three kids would be beside him to receive the same.