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Battlefield to oil: Vets look to oilfield work for 'the next deployment'

Derrickhand Scott Berreth, right, rappels through the drilling rig structure as the crew prepare to restart machinery after some repairs had been made earlier in the morning, Oct. 23, 2013, in Keene, N.D.

WILLISTON, N.D. — Ben Lewis was helping his crane operator dismantle another oil rig when he heard a loud snap echo across the drilling site. Turning, he joined workers scurrying to the other side of the rig.

“That’s when I saw the crane boom collapse,” he said.

His heart racing, his breath hard to catch, Lewis looked back and saw three men sprawled on the ground. At first, he didn’t recognize any of them. Then he saw a familiar face, unconscious, hunched up against a metal storage container. It was Jake.

Lewis and his Army buddy, Jacob Edgren — their friendship fortified on deployments to Afghanistan — were again facing danger at what’s become a popular postwar refuge for America’s job-searching veterans: North Dakota’s booming oil fields.

Soldiers fresh off battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming in droves to the gold rush that’s erupted on the Bakken basin. It’s a perfect place for what one veteran called “the next deployment’’ — especially with a dearth of decent-paying jobs back home.

They’re well equipped for the oil industry’s grueling work and North Dakota’s extreme weather — hot and stormy summers to wind-whipped, bitter winters. Vets and their families also are accustomed to long stretches away from each other.

Oil companies, meanwhile, prefer to hire employees with a proven work ethic who have cleared military background checks felony-free, unlike other ne’er-do-wells lured to the oil fields by promises of low unemployment and businesses desperate for workers.

“I find being in the military on a couple deployments makes those longer days in North Dakota a lot easier,” Edgren said. “I’m more prepared mentally for what needs to be done.”

Before Afghanistan, Lewis and Edgren trained for the unexpected — jittery, waiting for something to happen.

But North Dakota? They knew days would be long and conditions tough when they drove out from Minnesota a year ago. But they figured their days facing life-or-death scenarios ended when they were discharged from the Army.

Then the crane collapsed.

“When I realized it was one of my really best friends down on the ground,” Lewis said, “I about had a panic attack.”

He thought of Rachael, Edgren’s new bride. He’d been the best man at their wedding on a summer day in Lake Elmo in 2011.

When he couldn’t find better than minimum-wage work back home in Florida, Lewis called Edgren to say he was striking out for North Dakota. “I was the reason he came up here,” Lewis said. “I felt like it was all on me.”

Lewis and Edgren met a decade ago at a U.S. Army training center in Arizona. They became roommates the next year in the barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C. Their friendship deepened during their first deployment to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2006.

Extended 15-month deployments as intelligence analysts with the 82nd Airborne followed. They endured rocket-propelled grenade attacks on their Blackhawk helicopters and explosive devices detonating at the gate of their base.

Whether they were hitting the gym or the PX on posts, they became inseparable.

So when a decade of war wound down and Lewis and Edgren returned to civilian life, it was only a matter of time until fate — and a crummy economy — reunited them.

After seven years in the Army, Lewis, 28, found himself selling phones at the Verizon store in Tampa, Fla., earning just over minimum wage.

Edgren, 30, tried going to community college, but felt out of place. He was working part time at a plastics warehouse just outside the Twin Cities for $11 an hour, making roughly $400 a week.

“That was brutal,” Edgren said. “I was not happy with how my life was going a year into my marriage — I wanted more for us.”

So when Lewis called 14 months ago, saying he was following a friend to North Dakota, Edgren didn’t hesitate: “He’s like: ‘Cool, come get me,’” Lewis said.

The Army buddies hadn’t seen each other in a year. Not that it mattered.

“They’re like brothers,” said Rachael Edgren, whose relationship with Jake dates back to middle school in Andover, Minn.

Jake Edgren is a stocky 5-foot-8, with ice-blue eyes and short cropped hair. Although outgoing, he seldom talks about personal things. “But if something needs to be said,” Lewis said, “he’ll say it.”

Lewis, on the flip side, is tall and rangy with long black hair that he’s grown down to his shoulders since leaving the Army. He ties it down with a wound-up bandanna. He’s the easygoing “pretty boy,” Rachael said.

They like the same music (Korn and Chevelle) and video games (Madden and Halo).

Lewis flew up to the Twin Cities and the two friends drove out to North Dakota early last October, modern-day fortune seekers heading to a land bursting with more blue-collar, well-paying jobs than anywhere else in America. Thousands are making similar treks, trying to cash in.

For Edgren, migrating to North Dakota meant hugging his new wife goodbye for long stretches of a month or more some 10 hours away from her parents’ home in Coon Rapids.

For Lewis, finding work in North Dakota meant leaving his girlfriend, Amy, in Florida with his golden retriever, Griffey — named after the star of the Seattle Mariners he cheered for as a kid in Spokane, Wash. Framed photos of both grace the shelf over his bed in North Dakota.

“It was nerve-racking to say the least,” Lewis said. “Joining the Army, at least I knew what I was getting myself into.”

Jerry Samuelson, the veteran services officer for McKenzie County, works out of a second-floor office in the brick government building in Watford City. The prairie town’s population has soared from 1,500 to nearly 8,000 since the latest boom began.

“This is where the lure of the cash is,” said Samuelson, who served in the Navy for 20 years. “All these veterans are getting out and they don’t have the jobs like we have up here — that’s why I see them flocking here.”

It’s hard to quantify precisely how many veterans have made the Bakken their next deployment. Samuelson guesses he has seen a doubling or tripling.

“It’s not for country this time, it’s for their own well-being,” said Grant Carns, Williams County’s veteran services coordinator in Williston. “Especially for those who are coming right out of a combat zone in Afghanistan or Iraq, the oil field right now really lends itself and caters to somebody who can tolerate being alone and isolated from family.”

From vantage points such as the Watford City American Legion club, Samuelson notices a difference. “We’re especially seeing more young veterans — many of whom are just getting out.”

McKenzie County counted 564 veterans in the 2010 census before the boom. Samuelson “pretty much knew them all.”

Now, there are countless truck drivers, pipeline workers and night watchmen living in man camps with no official address. Some have their medications sent to his office. A woman who served in Afghanistan just stopped by looking for truck-driving work and housing suggestions for her family from Arizona.

Responding to the influx, the Department of Veterans Affairs has opened clinics in Williston and Dickinson, without which veterans would need to travel 400 miles to Fargo for full-service health care or wait in line to be seen at clinics in Minot or Bismarck. Appointments at the clinics are backlogged for weeks.

Edgren and Lewis crashed on the floor of the Travel Host Motel when they first arrived here, sharing a room with a friend whose company was footing the bill.

“We were eating 79-cent burritos,” Edgren said. “And drinking the cheapest vodka we could find.”

They hit the ground running, filling out applications at nine places along the strip of quickly slapped up metal storefront sheds north of town. They were encouraged that applications asked if they were military veterans.

“But we didn’t receive one call back,” Edgren said.

They insist it’s a myth that you can hop off the Amtrak or Greyhound and easily land a job in the oil fields. Despite an unemployment rate of 1.7 percent in oil-producing counties, Edgren and Lewis struggled to find work — even as vets. For two weeks, they showed up for face-to-face meetings with personnel people, growing discouraged and thinking of bailing and going home.

“Then we caught a supervisor who was a former vet at the right time, just after two guys had quit,” Edgren said.

They were hired as crane riggers, lifting chains, tearing down derricks and putting them back up to dig wells 2 miles deep and another 2 miles out at oil pads across western North Dakota.

The work was tough: moving 150-foot-tall rigs that look like a combination of the Eiffel Tower and the Cape Canaveral rocket launching apparatus.

A few weeks into that first job last November, they passed each other on a rig site out on the prairie. With three loud cranes groaning, they’d nearly finished moving the rig to the next drilling site.

Lewis was putting up some metal wind walls and Edgren was running around, trying to impress supervisors with his tireless work ethic.

Edgren recalled hollering, “Nice job, Cherry,” a military moniker for rookies.

Edgren could see chains falling from the crane’s main and whip lines. He yelled that the crane’s boom was coming down before blacking out.

The collapsing crane tossed him against a metal shipping container that protected him as if he were under a bridge. Two other men were knocked out nearby. “Initially I thought they were dead because they were not moving,” Lewis said.

He ran to get a stretcher and someone called for a helicopter. Then came the good news: Edgren came to, suffering only a bruised hip and side. An ambulance zipped him to a hospital in Williston. The other two men also survived.

Lewis watched as the helicopter took off and the ambulance bounced away with his friend, its lights flashing. “I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I almost felt that it was.”

Thirty-seven workers have died on oil-related jobs in western North Dakota the last four years. That toll is roughly half the workplace fatalities the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Bismarck office has investigated in both Dakotas since Oct. 1, 2009.

OSHA fined Halliburton $14,000 for the death of Mike Krajewski, 49, a Duluth father of three and Air Force veteran killed in January when a fracking pipe struck his head.

Edgren dislikes talking about the crane. Dangerous things are better left unsaid. “In Afghanistan, I told my wife I worked behind a desk and never went outside the wire.”

This was different. “We trained eight months for Afghanistan and were constantly waiting for something to happen because we knew it would,” Edgren said. “The crane collapse was so scary because I didn’t expect it. I was in shock and only later realized how close I was to dying.”

Starting their second year out here, both work and living conditions are improving for Lewis and Edgren — like they are for many of the workers in North Dakota’s latest oil boom.

They left crane rigging for a job fueling frac trucks for Thomas Petroleum. And with it, they upgraded from cheap burritos and vodka. For most of the spring and summer, they found a home at the Black Gold Lodge, a man-camp labyrinth of dimly lit metal hallways, shared bathrooms and shoebox-size sleeping quarters built out of shipping containers north of town.

Employers such as Thomas Petroleum fork out $140 a night for each worker to Black Gold — an Alaska-based oil-field logistics firm — to house and feed its workers three meals a day. The man camp houses up to 400 workers.

Some man camps live up to Old West stereotypes, with booze, brawls and prostitutes. Black Gold is all business. A guard’s shack prohibits unregistered guests from entering the dirt parking lot. Anyone caught with visitors or alcohol in his room is given the steel-toed boot.

Edgren and Lewis usually saw each other every day. Their rooms were a few doors apart, so even though they often worked opposite shifts, they’d grab a few minutes to talk as Lewis got off his 12-hour night shift on a drilling site near Alexander, N.D., and Edgren headed off to work at dawn.

They work more than 100 hours a week, earning $20 an hour for the first 40 hours and then bringing in time-and-a-half for the next 60-plus. Often that means getting up at 6 a.m., working as late as 10 p.m., wolfing down a bite to eat and then grabbing four hours of sleep. They work for a month and then get a week off.

By midsummer, Lewis and Edgren had left the man camp for a townhouse near the airport, paying $800 each a month with two other guys for granite countertops, their own bathroom and a weekly cleaning service.

Lewis may call it quits soon to head back to Tampa. That’s one difference from military service: They can leave whenever they choose.

“I don’t think I can handle another winter up here,” he said. “It was brutal with winds and snowdrifts and nothing else to look at.” He is hoping to parlay his military intelligence experience into a job in Washington once the car loans and debts are paid off.

Edgren is working on his commercial driver’s license. He and Rachael broke ground in August on a $240,000 house near Zimmerman, Minn.

Without the oil and the paychecks, they’d still be paying off student loans and likely living where Rachael does now: with her parents. He’s not sure how much longer he’ll stay, joking with Rachael that another year would get her a BMW.

“It’s starting to pay off now,” he said during a recent week back home. The new house should be ready by Thanksgiving.

Rachael quietly wonders if her husband can soldier on without Lewis. “I don’t think they would have lasted that long out there,” she said, “without each other.”

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