Thursday, December 14, 2017

Veterans seek jobs in oil fields

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 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.

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.

Lewis flew up to the Twin Cities and the two friends drove out to North Dakota early last October.

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.

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

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.

"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.

A few weeks into that first job last November, they passed each other on a rig site.

Lewis was putting up some metal wind walls and Edgren was 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. 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 past 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.

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."

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