By Matt Kane
DELANO Ben Jerde sat in the Delano High School office Tuesday afternoon waiting for a meeting with Principal Matt Schoen.
The senior may have had the typical bout of nervousness that often accommodates a visit with one of the school’s disciplinarians, but any uneasiness over the visit soon turned to happiness by who walked into the waiting area from the hallway in the back of the room.
It wasn’t Principal Schoen in his finely-fitting suit and tie who entered the room, but Jerde’s older brother, Stephen Jerde, who was dressed head to toe in a tie-less suit colored with the Universal Camouflage Pattern, the unmistakable combat uniform worn by the U.S. Army.
With office staff looking on, the Jerde boys embraced in a typical brotherly hug short, but firm.
The reunion was supposed to be Wednesday, so Ben was surprised by his brother’s arrival a day early.
“He told me he was coming home tomorrow, so I was just trying to get through the day so I could see him tomorrow,” Ben said. “It’s really exciting.”
While Ben and Stephen had been in contact through text messages, monthly e-mails, and an occasional Skype visit from across the ocean, that hug Tuesday at the Delano school was the first time the brothers had made physical contact with each other in 10 months.
Forty minutes later, at the Delano Elementary School, Stephen Jerde received a second hug, this time from his youngest brother, Curtis, a third grader in Teresa Langton’s class.
Just seconds after Elementary School Principal Darren Schuler interrupted a post-recess game to tell Ms. Langton a special guest was on his way to the room, Stephen walked through the door to the hush of the young crowd gathered on the floor.
After taking a second to process who was standing there, Curtis sprang to his feet, ran to his uniformed brother, and jumped into Stephen’s arms, the younger’s skinny legs hanging limply as the older held him tightly with his right arm. (Stephen’s left arm was fresh out of a sling after suffering a separated elbow just weeks earlier.”
“I thought it was going to be someone else when I heard Mr. Schuler say, ‘There was a special guest coming,’ but it was him,” Curtis said later as he walked to the car with his two older brothers, their mother, Jackie, and the boys’ aunt, Kirsten Jacobson.
“His younger brother missed him so much,” Jackie Jerde said, referring to Curtis missing Stephen.
“It felt good,” Curtis said of the hug.
“Awesome,” said Stephen of the two hugs with his brothers.
Joel Jerde, Stephen and the other two boys’ dad, was not at the school.
The Jerdes said goodbye to Stephen Aug. 1, 2011, the day he was deployed to Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division, also known as the Red Bulls, out of Rochester.
From September through the middle of December, Stephen served in Iraq. After the decision was made for the United States to pull out of Iraq, Stephen was in the last convoy of around 20 vehicles to exit the country. He then stayed in Kuwait, not knowing where he was to be sent next.
On April 23, he arrived back in the United States in Mississippi, where he spent a week debriefing. Stephen finally touched down back in Minnesota at midnight May 1, the day he reunited with his brothers. He slept at his grandparents Gilbert and Judy Jerde’s home in Maple Plain Tuesday morning to keep the surprise for his brothers alive.
“It felt good to complete the trip. It didn’t feel real until I got back home (to Delano),” said Stephen, who joined the army in April of 2010, five years after graduating from Delano, where he played football and ran track. “When we got to Mississippi, it didn’t feel real yet, because it was all the same people and the same uniforms. Finally, this morning, we heard the pilot say, ‘Welcome to Minnesota.’ It was cold.
“There was lots of cheering. Finally, it was over. We were all just happy to see our families.”
And those families were happy to see their husbands and wives, and sons and daughters again.
“I’m very thankful that he is home, and I am proud of the things he has done for our country,” mom Jackie Jerde said. “I don’t think I knew how much I missed him until I got to see him again.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Stephen hadn’t done much since returning home, and that was just fine with him. For now, he is appreciating the simple things in life.
“It feels good to finally be back home and to see green again. It was nice to take a shower again without flip-flops on. It’s nice not having to kick sand out of your boots when you are done walking. It’s nice to breathe fresh air,” he said. “I am looking forward to getting back to normal again. Being able to put my hands in my pockets again.”
It’s all about being normal.
“Just getting back to normalcy,” Stephen said of what he most looks forward to. “Just being able to open the refrigerator to get something I want to eat. No more MREs (meal, ready to eat). I’m looking forward to getting back to work and finishing school.”
Stephen has his two-year degree in law enforcement, and will continue his eduction in that field.
As for normalcy in Iraq, there’s wasn’t any.
“None,” Stephen said. “Every day was different, depending on what they needed at the time. One day, you could have a day off and all of a sudden, you have to go gear up in the truck because something happened. Our missions kept changing so we never knew what we were going to do. There was a lot of uncertainty, especially when Iraq closed. We sat in Kuwait, not knowing where we were going or what we were going to do.”
One thing Stephen looks forward to doing is getting away by himself.
“(I want to) spend time at my cabin in the peace and quiet, where I am not surrounded by 50 other dudes,” he explained. “We are like brothers and I love those guys to death, but it is nice to take a little break from them.”
Stephen, an army specialist (Spc.), will see those “dudes” again. He is committed to the army for four more years. There is a good chance Stephen’s unit will be deployed again, possibly in 2013.