In Minnesota, coolers are just another picnic accessory. In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where temperatures typically range well above 100 degrees, their value is right up there with precious metals and Google stock.

Which is why Jeff Grates, a detention deputy with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, is collecting a couple dozen coolers to send to a deployed colleague in Afghanistan for parched troops. Grates knows what a difference a cooler can make: He's been deployed in the Middle East himself.

Grates' volunteer work is one facet of the Sheriff's Office SMART program, started by Sheriff Rich Stanek two years ago to ease the burden for department employees serving abroad. The program helps the newly deployed fill out the endless paperwork, keeps in touch with them, fills needs during deployment and provides retraining after they return.

It's been so successful that the Sheriff's Office is getting an achievement award next month from the National Association of Counties.

"If we don't take care of our employees, we know we'll lose them for the longer term," Stanek said.

At the same time, he added, he wants to make sure that Sheriff's Office personnel safely transition from trained warriors to peacekeepers for the public's sake as well as their own.

An average of a dozen Sheriff's Office employees serve abroad at any one time. Hennepin County reimburses them, like all county workers, for the difference between their military and civilian pay.

Grates recently retired as a technical sergeant after more than 22 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Six of those years were spent on active duty in Kuwait and Iraq. He's worked at the county jail for eight years and hopes before long to become a licensed deputy.

Stanek called Grates three times when he was in Iraq. "He wanted to know if I needed anything and he was concerned about my safety," Grates said. Now he figures it's time to return the favor.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455