by Britt Aamodt
Anyone who’s served in the military since 2003 probably has an Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait story. Jon Ostercamp has one.
A major with the Army National Guard out of Bloomington, Ostercamp knew the bulk of his unit, the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division, would be deploying to Iraq in 2005. He, however, was told he’d be remaining stateside.
“Then I got a call about a week before,” he says. “The caller said, ‘Guess what? You’re going to Iraq.’”
That was that. Ostercamp packed his duffel, said his goodbyes and exchanged his civilian routine for a military tour of duty.
He was stationed at Camp Adder in southern Iraq. Like everyone else, he says, “I was scared of the unknown. I didn’t know what it was going to be like there.”
There turned out to be a stretch of uninhabitable desert scrubland southwest of Nasiriya, where 120 degrees in the shade was cooling off. Vehicles and machinery scorched to the touch. And water consumption was mandatory. It was also, of course, a combat zone.
But what Ostercamp found at Camp Adder was the culmination of nearly 20 years of military service.
“Iraq gave me the chance to do something that had meaning,” he says. “We had a purpose for being there. We knew why we were there.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Ostercamp presided at a flag-raising at VandenBerge Middle School in Elk River. He didn’t talk about his Iraq story but about the meaning of Veterans Day.
The Rev. Paul Johansson of Elk River’s Central Lutheran Church opened the ceremony with a roll call of the dead. He recited the names of every military member who died the past month in fighting in the Middle East.
Veterans Day, he said, was a day set aside to remember not just the living veterans of war but those who have died.
Ostercamp followed up the pastor’s roll call with a brief history of Veterans Day, originally named Armistice Day in recognition of the 1918 peace agreement signed by the Allies and Germany “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” to end World War I, Ostercamp said.
The Elk River Honor Guard, composed of members of the Elk River American Legion and VFW, did the flag-raising, while VandenBerge’s choir and band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Speaking afterwards, Ostercamp cited a statistic: Only 1 percent of the American population serves in the military. He also paraphrased one of America’s greatest soldiers.
“George Washington said that future generations willing to join the military will base their opinion on how veterans are treated on their return. Soldiers coming back from Vietnam were called baby killers. People threw tomatoes at them,” he says. “Today, maybe people don’t support the war, but they support the soldiers.”
Because the Iraq War has been shouldered by a large number of reserve and guard troops, these soldiers are also individuals with established civilian lives back home. When not in uniform, Ostercamp is a technology education teacher at Elk River High School.
He put that job on hold to go to Iraq. Like everyone else in his unit, he was eager to get back to work and family when the tour of duty ended January 2007.
“But we got word we were being extended until July, and you could see people going through the five stages of depression,” Ostercamp says.
The unit decided to do something to lighten the soldiers’ spirits and give them a taste of home. They held a Minnesota Fishing Opener at Camp Adder, which has its own fishing hole, Lake Wisconsin.
Ostercamp’s Iraq story isn’t about the one that got away.
“I caught the first fish, a tiny little fish,” he says. Still, it was good enough to win the first-ever Minnesota-Iraq opener.