When Tina Kerska arrives home from her work as a nurse at Olmsted Medical Center, she starts her second job.
Every day, there are horses and dogs to tend to. She also must restock a large boiler with wood. That's a task her husband, Col. Eric Kerska of the Minnesota National Guard, typically takes care of.
"This is one job that I'm glad when he's back he can take over," Tina Kerska said. Soon, he will. Some time on Monday, Eric Kerska will officially complete his mission as commander of the Minnesota National Guard 1st brigade Combat Team's 34th Infantry Division in Kuwait. Next week, he expects to board the brigade's last flight out of Kuwait and join Red Bulls in their transition from soldiers to civilians at Camp Shelby, Miss., before returning to Minnesota.
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Kerska's return couldn't come soon enough for his wife, who has seen her husband serve overseas three times since they were married 25 years ago. But his most recent trip was their first as empty nesters. Their 19-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, lives in Winona and 22-year-old son Jacob, lives in Mankato.
For Tina Kerska, the year of solitude without her husband has been piercing many nights in their big, empty house south of Rochester.
"The hardest part is being here by myself," she said. "There's only so many things you can say to dogs and horses and they don't talk back to you. Many times I would say 'I can't do it anymore.' "
It's been a year of readjustment for Tina Kerska and the 2,700 other National Guard families in Minnesota waiting for their loved ones to come home.
Like many military wives, Kerska sought new routines to cope with her husband's absence. She exercised and lost 27 pounds.
She also remodeled four rooms of the house with the help of Eric's co-workers from the Rochester Fire Department.
"We did the mud room. We did the living room," she said. "Eric's office is no longer an office. It is now a guest bath. ... And painted, I think I painted everything but the kitchen while he's been gone, too."
But as much as she accomplished around the house, there are some things Kerska is disappointed about, including her role as a commander's wife. She attended only two National Guard events and declined many invitations from Guard officials, friends and colleagues. She said she retreated from the spotlight to spend more time with her children.
"I feel that I should have been involved with more things and I'm not," she said. "Sometimes, I wonder if I'm not really that great a commander's wife because I don't participate, you know. And that's kind of bad. I just don't need anyone to know what's going on. I've got other things to worry about than other people, which is a bad thing, too."
Throughout the year, there was just one thing Tina Kerska craved: the sound of a call from Eric via Skype.
During a recent call, she told her husband about a family bridal shower in Winona, Easter celebrations in La Crescent and the new lawnmower they need to buy. Then, they began discuss his return home.
"Remember when you came home in 1992 and you slept on the floor for about a week?" she asked.
"Well it was hard," Eric Kerska said. "The bed was too soft after sleeping on the tank."
"I know," she replied. "That's all right. You can do whatever you want."
Eric Kerska told his wife that he looks forward to sitting on his porch and working in his hayfield this summer.
After their conversation, he said knowing she was alone in the house without their children made his tour of duty especially difficult.
"I don't know how good a job I did to help her cope. There's not a lot I can do. That's the worst part," he said. "Things happen and you're helpless to do anything about it except talk on Skype or send emails. All I can really do is try to encourage and discuss things and it's a helpless feelings, it's a terrible feeling but that's the way it is."
Tina Kerska said she has become more resilient as are many families waiting for loved ones to return.
"We're strong for them, we're strong for our selves, for our children," she said. "And I think you mature. You have to adjust to your surroundings, and I think people realize that 'yeah, I can do it."
In the next few weeks, Eric Kerska and thousands of other soldiers will reunite with their families and they'll face a new assignment of sorts -- to learn how to be a family again.