When Shakopee resident Elizabeth Clapero of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1904th Contingency Contracting Team left for service in Kuwait in July 2019, she was supposed to come back home in April. Her husband Dan and their three boys, ages 9, 6, and 4, were anxiously awaiting her return.
“We were planning a great trip,” Clapero told me. “We were going to go to Disney or Legoland when I got back.”
COVID-19 changed everything. It extended her time in Kuwait and put her vacation plans on hiatus. Her unit was supposed to have a full-team replacement, which was being mobilized in the U.S.
“There were some people who were supposed to come as replacements, but then someone in one of their families had the virus, so they were stuck stateside and had to go through the quarantine,” she said. “I thought it was going to be just a month extension, and it turned into something longer.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d experienced an extension during her service. When she was deployed to Iraq during the surge, her time was extended by four months.
“This time, I just figured that I’m not going to get mad or bothered by it unless I’m not home by the fall or by Thanksgiving,” she said. “Nobody was giving us a date to return. The uncertainty was the worst. My family would ask me questions, ‘When are you coming home?’ I’d say, ‘There are signs that I’ll be coming home soon, but I don’t know.’”
The hardest part about being separated from her family was missing a year of seeing her kids grow up. The coronavirus made being apart even worse.
“There was a helpless feeling because I couldn’t do anything about it,” Clapero said. “The kids were going through distance learning. Dan was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t do anything to help except listen, and sometimes I couldn’t even do that because my phone reception was horrible.”
Facetime did keep her in regular contact with her husband and kids until she returned home on June 30. Her family was enthusiastically waiting for her at the airport.
“My heart grew three sizes bigger,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s very surreal about being home, especially with the virus. I haven’t been to Turtle’s yet, and we used to go there every week. Everything is so different. It’s overwhelming.”
As an administrative contracting officer part of a five-person unit in Kuwait, she was responsible for the administration of contracted services. Clapero served as a liaison between the military and private contractors for essential services such as dining and ammunition supplies. If a contractor needed to perform duties that deviate from day to day operations of the contract, like buying a new oven or changing menu items, Clapero needed to approve it.
“There are commanders who can tell soldiers what to do, but once you start dealing with things that cost taxpayers money, and it’s not someone in uniform, there’s a person with something called a warrant, and they’re the ones who have the authority to approve a change,” she said.
Before the coronavirus, she was making the best of her time in Kuwait. “We could go off post. We’d go to the malls and stuff like that. It’s not home, but it was fine. We had nice gyms and nice accommodations for being on post,” she said. “It was much better than Iraq. All the creature comforts were there, then everything shut down because of the virus.”
Clapero has been serving in the National Guard for 17 years. By age 22, she was an Iraqi war veteran. In 2011, she became an officer.
“I’ve always had an interest in joining the military. My dad was in, my grandfather was in, and family members were in all the way back to the Civil War,” she said. “I like being able to do something, even if it’s only my own little corner of something, to contribute to the nation in one way, shape, or form, and make the military better.”
On a personal level, I have a lot of admiration and gratitude for those who serve our country. That’s why I welcome opportunities to talk to military members. My experience talking with Clapero highlights the fact that people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those with families, are making incredible sacrifices for our country.