For veterans, North Dakota oil fields have become the next deployment

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2013 - 10:46 PM

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are flocking to North Dakota’s oil fields, braving new dangers and spartan lives to chase after big pay days.

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 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.”

Inseparable buddies

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.

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