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

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

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.

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.”

‘I see them flocking here’

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.”

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