SLAYTON - After spending a year defending his country, Staff Sgt. Aaron Larson is home from Iraq and able to hold his little boy close - something that means a lot to a man who suffered the loss of his boyhood friend, Jacob Wetterling, when he was just 11 years old.
Larson came home to Slayton on Friday morning and was greeted with flags, balloons and family. Saturday morning, he sat in his living room and talked about his son, his time in Iraq, and the event that altered his life.
"He has changed a lot," Larson said, watching his 2-year-old son Anikan scamper through the living room with mom in pursuit. "I came home in November for his birthday, but he has changed even since then."
Larson, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, served as a Technical Engineer Specialist with the Third Expedition Sustainment Command (ESC) at the joint base in Balad, where he worked to make sure the 17,000 military men and women had what they needed to complete their missions. Larson's job was to review construction projects over $250,000, but he was also able to work with local Iraqi people on smaller projects.
"I liked meeting the people, and getting a feel for their lifestyle," he stated. "It was interesting to ask them questions. We talked about how their lives have changed in the last few years, and I heard from them about how things are improving."
At an old Iraqi Air Force base just 60 kilometers north of Baghdad, Larson met local people who were grateful for the presence of the U.S. Military personnel - who said infrastructure has improved and jobs are becoming available. Meeting people who are happy about the U.S's involvement was a good feeling for Larson, who said he could understand how being military personnel in areas where their presence was resented must be frustrating, especially for men and women who would rather be home with their families.
"You want to go over and accomplish so many things," Larson said in a wistful way. "There is so much you can see that needs doing."
The hardest part about being away was the separation from his son and his fiancée Jackie Tentinger, who has had a long year of being Anikan's only parent.
"It's a big, huge sigh of relief," Tentinger said of having Larson home. "It has been a year of me and Anikan, and now I can say, 'OK, your turn.' And it is so nice to hear Anikan say, 'Daddy.'"
"But I've missed out on so many little things," Larson commented. "Things I'm never going to get back."
Unlike some military deployments, Larson was able to communicate on a regular basis with family and friends via email and phone, which helped make his time away easier to bear.
"Some of the guys called home daily," he explained. "I talked to Jackie every couple of days and could email almost 24/7, because I was on a computer every day."
When he was called to active duty a year ago, he was given nine days of advance warning of his deployment, which caused wedding plans to be left by the wayside.
"Our wedding was planned for Sept. 9," Larson said. "But obviously the Army isn't going to plan around my schedule. We'll work on setting a new date now."
Born in Murray County, Larson moved with his family when he was 4 or 5 years old, he said. The family settled in St. Joseph, and he became best friends with Jacob Wetterling. Larson was 11 when he, Jacob and Jacob's 10-year-old brother Trevor rode their bikes to a convenience store to rent a video. On that Sunday, Oct. 22, 1989, a masked man approached with a gun and ordered all three to throw their bikes into a ditch and lay down on the ground.
He asked each boy his age. Trevor and Larson, one at a time, were told to run toward a nearby wooded area and not look back or else he would shoot them. They ran, but they looked back to see the man grab Jacob and drag him away.
Now 31 years old and with a child of his own, Larson wonders if he will be too overprotective as a parent, and understands how difficult it must have been for his mother to not hold on too tight after Jacob's abduction.
"What happened changed who I was," he admitted. "That one night changed the course of my life."
When Larson and Trevor ran home that night and reported what had happened, cars began to arrive. The Wetterling house was packed with people, he said - authorities, family, media.
"There were police cars everywhere, and every time someone pulled up I would run to the window and look," Larson said. "I'd expect to see Jacob getting out of the car because he had been found or returned."
A friend of the families called the media immediately, which Larson said was a good thing.
"He knew to get the media involved right away," Larson said. "Before, it could take days to get the word out."
Larson remembers returning to school the following Tuesday, but not staying for the whole day.
"Everybody looked at me, like they were kind of in awe," he recalled. "I remember getting walked out of the school by a police officer, but I'm not sure why. Maybe for protection or something?"
For the next two weeks, Larson was at the Wetterling house every day, where he said it felt good to be around people that understood what he was going through.
"Other people didn't say much to me. I think it was awkward for them," Larson said. "I was an 11-year old boy, and not very emotional."
Trying to get back to any kind of normalcy was not much of an option, because the person he played sports with, hung out with and spent so much time with gone.
"Normalcy was what I did with that one person," Larson explained. "He wasn't there."
The uncertainty was difficult, and the experience left him "a little more guarded," he explained, adding, "I lost my best friend."
"When it first happened, I was assured he'd be back," he said. "It wasn't 'if' Jacob came back, it was 'when.' You never really lose hope. It's good that they are still looking, because people need resolution."
In 2002, Larson moved back to Murray County. In the summer of 2003, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves. He liked the idea of the new experiences the reserves might bring.
"At the time, I was kind of teeter-tottering, and didn't know which way to go," he stated. "I'm a competitive person and always up for a new challenge, and I thought I could also learn new skills."
His mom was surprised to hear he had joined up, but Larson said she is definitely proud of her son.
"I'm glad I did it," Larson admitted. "I have met a lot of great people."
Still, he is glad to be home and planning to spend some time with friends and family before heading back to his job as a special lines claims adjuster with Progressive. He has been in touch with the company throughout his year away, but no specific date has been set as of yet for his return to work.
"Right now I just want to go to the lake and play and hang out," he said, cuddling a wiggly Anikan close before setting him free to run. "While I was gone, Jackie would ask Anikan 'Where's Daddy?" and he would point to a picture, even when I came home for his birthday and was sitting right there. Now he points to me."
"Now that Daddy is home, Anikan doesn't want to let him out of his site," Tentinger interjected, smiling at her two men, back together again.