LOWELL — During his more than 21 years in the U.S. Air Force, Jerry Bjornstad served in some of the most politically sensitive locales in the world.
But due to the nature of his job, the northwest Iowa native, who worked his way up the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel, still can’t talk openly about his missions.
Bjornstad, who now owns a bed and breakfast on the banks of Dexter Reservoir east of Eugene, said he was overwhelmed to be named one of the 2017 Distinguished Veterans.
“I cried,” Bjornstad said. “I was truly blown away and humbled. I really couldn’t comprehend it.”
He and others were honored Friday night at the Veteran of the Year Banquet.
Bjornstad grew up in the farming community of Spencer, Iowa. His father operated the family pharmacy and like his friends, Jerry grew up attending the annual Clay County Fair, one of the largest in the entire country.
After graduating from high school in 1968, Bjornstad enrolled at the University of Iowa and was headed toward a degree in geology when he drew a low number in the military draft. The Vietnam War was in full swing and his brother Bernie was already serving overseas.
“But I got a letter in the mail saying that I could join ROTC, get my degree and then serve in the Air Force,” Bjornstad said. “I switched my major to general sciences and graduated in 1973.”
He was commissioned as a maintenance officer and began his duties working on the famed SR-71 Blackbird, which had a top speed of more than 2,200 miles per hour.
Thus began a career working with some of the most top-secret airplanes in the world.
“So many everyday items came out of that program,” Bjornstad said. “Titanium was used extensively and Teflon was used to cool its fuel. It carried a very sophisticated astro navigation system, the predecessor to today’s GPS units.”
Bjornstad served on active duty until 1976 and then was attached to the Iowa Air National Guard before going back to active duty based in England.
During that time he met his future wife, Judy, in Sioux City, Iowa. She had a 4-year-old son, Ian, and Bjornstad soon became a family man.
“The Air Force had drawn its numbers down too far after Vietnam and were recruiting pilots, engineers and doctors,” Bjornstad said. “I wasn’t any of those, but they took me back in.”
His first assignment was in England, where he worked on highly classified missions.
He took care of RC135s, the EC135s, KC135s and SR71s and C130 cargo planes.
“There was a lot going on that that time,” Bjornstad said. “We were in the Cold War and things were exploding in Iran.”
Bjornstad was then assigned to a Strategic Air Command unit based in Athens, Greece, doing airborne reconnaissance. He was there in 1981 when Gen. James Dozier was taken hostage by members of the Italian Red Brigade and held for 42 days.
“We put an RC135 in the air and triangulated their position in the days when there were no cellphones,” Bjornstad said. “We didn’t get it exactly, but we were darn close, within 10 feet, and we got him out.”
In the 1980s, Bjornstad worked with worldwide strategic reconnaissance and was chosen to work on the predecessor to the current space plane.
He also spent time attached to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war and said he was honored to meet many Afghan refugees.
During this time, his family of three added two new members — adopted daughter Megan, now 31, and son, Gunnar, now 30.
Another of Bjornstad’s adventures was working for 3 ½ years on the Looking Glass Project — the airborne nuclear command post — out of the SAC base near Omaha, Nebraska.
“We had planes in the air 24/7 and we spent 8 hours per shift playing thermonuclear war,” Bjornstad said. “We worked with some very sophisticated equipment.”
Bjornstad said a highlight of his career was being stationed at the Joint Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, as the director of air logistics, where he worked with special forces from each of the military branches.
“We worked with the Deltas, the SEAL Teams,” Bjornstad said. “It was one of the most amazing times in my life. These people are highly motivated and extremely intelligent.”
As director of logistics, Bjornsgtad developed the procedures to get men and equipment to the places in the world they needed to be.
In 1991, Bjornstad was deployed during the first Gulf War in Northern Saudi Arabia. He was a major, but was promoted to lieutenant colonel after his deployment.
“We were so far north in country that it was hard to get things to us,” Bjornstad said. “That’s when I got to know Prince Abdullah, who became King Abdullah, because he was our host. He provided security for me to leave the base and get supplies.”
From 1993-95 Bjornstad was stationed at the embassy in Cairo where he worked with Egyptian aviation forces.
In 1997, he was transferred to the embassy in Muskat, Oman, where he was commander of executive coordinating agency, which stored and deployed materials when and where needed primarily in the middle east.
Bjornstad retired in 1997 and returned to Nebraska.
After the 9/11 attack on the United States, Bjornstad decided he had expertise to offer his country and took a job setting up federal security systems at airports in every state except Hawaii.
“I started off by evaluating people and became director of operations in the field,” Bjornstad said.
After completing that contract, he took a job as director of Iraqi operations for a Middle Eastern company based in Baghdad supporting Iraqi, American and British forces.
But it was a return trip to the USA in 2003 to attend his daughter’s high school graduation that saved his life. Three engineers with whom he worked and who lived in the same villa as he did were kidnapped by insurgents and beheaded.
“I decided I wasn’t going back,” Bjornstad said.
In 2004, he was offered a position in Muskat, Oman, with DynCorp International. That job lasted eight years.
He retired in 2011 and a year later, he and Judy moved to Oregon. She died in May.
Today, Bjornstad shares his large bed and breakfast complex with Dugan, a fluffy white 100-pound Great Pyrenese dog.
Bjornstad has also become involved in numerous community functions and has served on the school district’s budget committee, is a member of the Grange, was a parks commissioner, city budget committee member and economic development committee member.
Although his military adventures remain guarded, Bjornstad’s home is filled with family heirlooms and furniture he and Judy picked up during their travels around the world.
Bjornstad has also turned a former RV garage into a “man cave” complete with pool table and big screen TV. A loft also holds mementoes of his military career, including newspaper clippings about his comrades who were captured and killed.