ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — One frigid morning in November, Col. Eric Kerska watched young soldiers at Camp Ripley struggle to assemble a 50-caliber machine gun perched on a table.
After a while, the group of National Guard soldiers locked the M-240’s barrel in place.
“We’ve got some young guys and we’re watching them learn,” Kerska said. “They’re still struggling. So we have the old hands helping them out.”
Kerska wants his soldiers to have plenty of practice, because during his last deployment, troops had a hard time getting used to machine guns.
“It takes time for the guys to get confident with it, to get good with it,” he said.
Earlier this year, more than 1,200 members of the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division Red Bulls returned from a year-long deployment in Iraq. Now another 2,700 men and women are preparing for a new assignment. No one knows this routine of coming and going better than Kerska, the 1st Brigade’s commander.
During their weekend training exercises, the soldiers under Kerska’s watch prepare with as many war-like experiences as possible before they deploy. The drills help build their confidence with the weapons. Watching them learn reminds Kerska that this time around, he’s the one in charge.
“As the commander, it’s different because now I’m responsible,” he said. “When you’re the operations officer, as I was last time, I had a boss that I made recommendations and he made the call. And now I have to make the call, and the calls aren’t that easy to make. Usually there’s no good answer. You have to choose from a whole bunch of less than wonderful answers.”
Kerska’s role as commander began on July 1, 2009. He’s been a soldier for nearly 30 years and in the National Guard for more than 20 of them. This will be his third tour of duty in the Persian Gulf. The Department of Defense won’t say until closer to deployment exactly where the Red Bull soldiers will be stationed.
Kerska’s 6-foot-3-inch frame is immediately recognizable, especially in the halls of the Rochester Fire Department, where he works as a battalion chief.
He chose a career in firefighting 17 years ago, in part to avoid sitting behind a desk all the time. These days, he splits his time training new firefighter recruits and dealing with administrative issues.
Inside Rochester’s Fire Station No.1 on a recent weekday morning, Kerska made sure everything was ready for a controlled burn exercise planned for the latest group of recruits.
As he headed to the burn site at an abandoned farm just east of Rochester, he said he’s used to solving problems — big or small, at work, at home or with the Guard.
Under Kerska’s watch, Fire Department recruits spent hours setting up hoses, filling up portable water stations and running through four practice burns. By mid-afternoon, everyone was exhausted.
Kerska said that in many ways his duties with the Fire Department and National Guard are identical. Both have people, equipment and problems to solve.
“They’re trained for a certain mission,” he said of both. “You continue to train and build teams to do whatever your mission is. And every once in a while they call you and you have to do battle, and then you come back and fix your stuff and continue the training. It’s the same tactics, the same strategies.”
People who know Kerska best say he is a meticulous planner. He keeps lists and is always on time. He’s earned nearly two dozen military medals and ribbons.
The walls of his home office are covered with plaques and awards honoring both his military and firefighting careers — among them, firefighter of the year for the Rochester Fire Department. Recently, he completed a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Army War College.
But those who assume this two-time Iraq veteran and self-described “boots on the ground” leader is all serious all the time peg him wrong.
He married his wife Tina after proposing to her inside a tank at the Duluth armory 23 years ago. They have two children, 18-year-old Mackenzie and 20-year-old Jacob.
Both recently moved out of the family’s sprawling 22.5-acre hobby farm just south of Rochester. There, they have a barn with a couple horses and a shed where Kerska restores old Minnesota firetrucks in his spare time.
On a recent weeknight, Kerska restocked the wood furnace and took care of other chores. He’s the kind of person who gets bored if he’s not doing something.
As the deployment gets closer, he said, one of his biggest concerns is knowing this will be the first time his wife Tina will be home alone — without their children.
“The biggest problem is I’ve got to get enough wood stockpiled for next winter if I’m gone,” he said. “I’ve got to get enough stockpiled so Tina’s got heat while I’m gone.”
Back in the house, his wife agreed that the coming deployment will be very different. She’s even thought of finding a night job to keep herself busy.
“That’s going to be the hardest part,” said Tina Kerska, fighting back tears. “It’s me being by myself. … But you get used to it.”
Although Eric Kerska tries to put aside the structure of his day jobs and enjoy the routine of cooking dinner or watching old westerns with his wife, she has a harder time separating the different roles. She’s ready for her husband’s career with the military to be finished.
“If he wants to stay when he gets back, that’s fine. I’m OK with that,” she said. “But I’m hoping that this will be the last one.”
Kerska is close to his family, including his 89-year-old grandmother who lives in La Crescent and whom he considers one of his key advisers. For years, he’s taken horse camping trips with his family. His wife is planning a getaway when he returns from this deployment.
“For our 25th wedding anniversary, we’re going to Hawaii,” she said. “That’ll be in 2012, when he’s back. I can’t wait.”
As the departure for the Persian Gulf nears, Kerska reminds himself of one of his favorite sayings: “A leader’s job is to protect a soldier from himself.”
“I’m going back as a colonel and hopefully we’re ending it. Hopefully putting it to bed,” he said. “Most of my idealism is long gone. It’s all about the people. It’s all about the brigade. That’s all I care about.”
By ELIZABETH BAIER