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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

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.

Cheap vodka, cheaper burritos

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

“We were eating 79-cent Wal-Mart 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.

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