After yearlong deployment, 'it's great to be home'
For many people, the Fourth of July was a day off work, a time to head out of town, watch some fireworks, and spend time with friends and family.
It was just another day at work for Eric Kerska of Rochester.
"I'll be protecting our city," the Rochester Fire Department battalion chief said before starting his holiday shift on Wednesday.
The shift came about two months after Kerska, a colonel in the Minnesota National Guard, returned home after completing his third deployment to Iraq since 1991.
"It's great to be home — it's wonderful to be home," he said. "It takes a little while to get used to life back home. It sounds odd until you've experienced it."
Kerska and his wife, Tina, have two grown children.
The adjustment is a challenge, as life is entirely different during deployment, said Kerska, who recently completed his mission as commander of the Minnesota National Guard 1st Brigade Combat Team's 34th Infantry Division in Kuwait.
"The biggest thing is, try to imagine working with a group of people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a year or more, and then suddenly one day they'll all gone, just 'boom,'" he said. "That support system you've come to rely on, your new family if you will, your deployment family, is gone."
Kerska previously was deployed to Iraq in 1991 and in 2006-2007. Coming home has been much different this time, he said, because of the the ongoing assistance provided by the veterans support group Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.
"They get us back together 30 days after we're home, then 60 days, and then 90 days," Kerska said. "We've got a tracking system to check in with each other, so weekly phone calls."
There was still violence in Iraq last year, Kerska said, but it was a "night and day difference" compared to 2006 and 2007, when conditions were much more volatile.
"What I found most striking for how far Iraq had come was the number of women wearing Western clothing in Baghdad," he said.
In 2012, the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division will turn its attention to the Pacific region, with plans to participate in an annual U.S./Japan bilateral military exercise, according to its website.
Kerska said he doesn't think he will be sent to the Pacific for those exercises, but added that it isn't 100 percent clear if that will be the case.
"I think the soonest I would go anywhere would be next year, but I don't know that for sure," he said.