MONROE — Pat Gjerde wasn’t old enough to buy a beer by the time he became a disabled veteran.
He was 18 when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1992, and less than two years later was honorably discharged after a knee injury. He healed, settled down in Monroe and eventually became a firefighter.
More than 20 years after Gjerde’s first deployment, he re-enlisted and went to Afghanistan to fight again for his country. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of his wife and his friends at the fire department, he said.
“I always felt a sense of guilt that I got off easy, and the guys I was in with were still there,” Gjerde said. “To see the death tolls and death reports and everything like that, I just felt, it’s hard to label it. Guilt? Why should I be here enjoying the finer things when you have 18- and 19-year-olds over there?”
Completing the commitment
Gjerde grew up in a military family. All the men had served, starting before World War II. He was the first to become a Marine.
He and his wife, Janet, met at Bothell High School and got engaged before his first deployment to Kuwait. They married in 1993 and moved to Monroe in 1997. He started volunteering at the fire department the next year.
Always in the back of his mind, he wanted to finish what he had started, he said.
His instincts told him to re-enlist after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“When the towers hit I was at work, and I remember quite candidly my wife and I having a very open discussion about me going back into the Marine Corps that day,” he said.
Monroe was planning to hire full-time firefighters that October, so he and his wife made a deal: He would apply for a job, and if he didn’t get it he could return to the Marines.
He made it onto the fire department.
More than a decade later, the fire truck driver and member of the water rescue team had a daughter and was turning 40. He was nearing the military’s cutoff age.
At the time, the fire department was considering layoffs. He needed a backup plan.
Together, he and his wife decided he would return to the military, just not the Marines.
“He was infantry in the Marines, so they were the first in conflict and that was stressful enough the first time,” Janet Gjerde said.
Gjerde chose the Navy Reserves, so he still could work closely with the Marines.
“The way I saw it, it was my opportunity to go back and take care of the young guys doing the front-line fighting, because I couldn’t be there, although I wanted to be,” Gjerde said.
He was sworn into the Navy Reserves in December 2012. The ceremony was at the fire station, in front of his crew, his wife and his daughter.
Janet Gjerde remembers asking herself, were they really doing this again?
“It could have potentially changed our lives forever, and it did,” she said.
They later were told Gjerde would deploy to Afghanistan from January to October 2015. He had six months to make arrangements at home and at work.
Taking care of family
He found out that almost his entire schedule needed to be covered to keep his income at the fire department. His best friend Stacy Arnold started a sign-up sheet, and more than 20 firefighters volunteered to cover all 60 of Gjerde’s shifts.
One of those was Jason Bowen. Bowen used to be in the U.S. Air Force, and knows how difficult it can be to worry about what’s happening at home while deployed. He wanted to ease that burden for his friend.
He knows Gjerde is forever grateful, but Bowen doesn’t think it was much in comparison, he said. “He had bullets flying over his head,” Bowen said.
Firefighters often become close, and this was about taking care of family, Bowen said.
On his wall at home, Gjerde keeps a list of everyone who helped him.
Gjerde makes sure to be there whenever his colleagues need something, but he’s not allowed to take any of their shifts, said Curtis Greiner, another Monroe firefighter.
“We wouldn’t let him, because otherwise it’s not a gift,” Greiner said. “It was our opportunity to serve as well, so it wouldn’t count if he paid us back.”
The crew also went to the Gjerde home to take care of house and yard work.
One day, they arrived with a dump truck filled with gravel for the driveway.
“There must have been 20 guys,” Janet Gjerde said. “I was standing in the driveway watching car, after car, after car drive up. It was really emotional.”
She didn’t expect so many of her husband’s coworkers to show up on a day off, she said.
She couldn’t hold back her tears, but there were more than a few shoulders to cry on.
“I had to leave, I couldn’t help bawling,” she said. “I left everything wide open and told them to lock up when they left.”
She had to be strong
While she had help around the house, Janet Gjerde also had to be there for her daughter, then just 8.
Explaining the situation to a child was more difficult than she anticipated, Janet Gjerde said. She tried keeping those nine months as normal as possible.
“I had to be strong for her. She couldn’t see me cry or get upset, so I did that away from her,” Janet Gjerde said.
The couple agreed to keep parts of their lives separate while Gjerde was gone. She wouldn’t bring up problems at home, and he wouldn’t talk about living in a war zone. They had to stay focused on their roles.
Waiting for him to return was the worst time of her life, Janet Gjerde said.
“I just wish people would understand it’s not just the service member,” she said. “It takes a village. If someone also could thank the family, that would be huge.”
Actually being able to speak with each other was a change from Gjerde’s first deployment in the 1990s.
Back then, the sweethearts sent hundreds of letters to each other while he was in Kuwait. She wrote him every day.
They tried to video chat just as often while he was in Afghanistan.
Gjerde told his wife, “If you don’t hear from me in seven days, then we have a problem.”
If the silence turned into the unthinkable, Janet Gjerde had a list of people to notify.
The longest they went without talking was four days.
The date of Gjerde’s homecoming was kept a secret from almost everybody but his wife. She picked him up at the airport without any banners, just like he asked.
“He’s pretty low key. He doesn’t want a lot of recognition,” she said.
They surprised their daughter, who didn’t expect him for another couple of weeks. She was keeping track of the countdown in her bedroom.
She had stayed the night at a friend’s house, and her dad was making breakfast when she came home.
“I heard you wanted some pancakes,” he said, still wearing his uniform.
She gave him the “longest hug ever,” Gjerde said.
He considered staying in the military until retirement. That meant 14 more years of service, and deployments.
Gjerde decided not to re-enlist. He took care of that business while in Afghanistan.
His duty now is with his family.
Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.