Kerry Studer: In command
Kerry Studer’s mind was probably on the holidays, not an overseas deployment, when he received a telephone call in late December 2009.
The colonel on the other end of the line had an “opportunity” for Studer, an Army Reserve major who works for Principal Financial Group Inc.: Assume command of a transportation unit deploying to Iraq.
“At the end of the conversation,” Studer recalled, “I said, ‘Hey, sir, I think I’m in on this; I’ve got to talk to my wife. But are you asking me or telling me?’”
“Is there a difference?” the colonel replied.
Studer spent the next three months assembling and training a group of soldiers from 19 states to form a 300-man unit that would depart in April 2010 for Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. From there, the unit would carry supplies and troops from the port to locations throughout Iraq.
“Probably 40 percent of my unit had been deployed before, so there were different expectations,” Studer said. “Some were very excited; others were very apprehensive about getting in that truck. It just takes a while to make sure each soldier is not only on the bus moving in the right direction, but also on the right seat on the bus to get the job done.”
Studer first boarded the bus as a citizen-soldier in 1988, when he enlisted in the Army Reserve as a private assigned to a military police unit in Pocahontas. He learned quickly that the needs of the military came first. He had just returned from basic training and stopped by his unit to find a line of buses boarding soldiers to deploy for Kuwait, in what would become Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. After serving in the first Iraq war, Studer went to college and received his commission to became a transportation officer, serving in numerous units across the state. He served in a stateside deployment in 2003, and returned to Iraq in 2009, both in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During his most recent deployment, “there wasn’t an installation in Iraq that we didn’t go to,” Studer said. “Our longest mission was 24 days round-trip. We saw a lot of Iraqi country, that’s for sure.”
As a unit commander, Studer found there were few sounding boards, “and sometimes you don’t know if you were doing the right thing,” he said. “But at the end of the deployment, you reap the rewards (in hearing) soldiers say, ‘Hey, sir, you’re one of the best commanders I’ve ever had.’ But as you’re going through stressful times, you always have the chance to second-guess your decisions.”
Studer, who has been a Principal employee for 15 years, makes loans on commercial real estate for Principal Global Investors. Though the size of his department decreased from about 20 people to a handful during the recession, Principal found a place for him when he returned from Iraq earlier this year.
Studer said he took some leadership cues from his company’s chief executive, Larry Zimpleman, who during the worst of the recession would send out companywide emails of encouragement every few weeks. “Whether you’re wearing a uniform or you’re wearing a suit, if you admire the people you work with, I think there’s a lot of things you can do as part of a good team,” he said.
During his deployment, Studer sent out a unit newsletter each month to his soldiers’ families. That bridge to Afghanistan prompted Principal employees to raise money to purchase workout uniforms for the entire unit, consisting of printed T-shirts, shorts and visors, along with numerous care packages. An employee committee also designed and produced a commemorative coin for Studer to present to each member of his unit.
“You get a lot of sense of pride seeing people for nine months straight turning wrenches and moving equipment,” Studer said. “It was a big mission and a lot of people, and I think the support of Principal really kind of carried us through.”
Last month, a number of soldiers from his unit joined Studer in celebrating his retirement after 22 years in the Army Reserve.
“It was kind of a bittersweet decision, but I wanted to get involved in other things,” he said. “I’ve always thought if you’re going to take a bite of the apple, you need to do it to the best of your ability. It was a great run and one of the best things I’ve ever done.”