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Army vet, WHS school resource officer, returns to work

Woodbury High School resource officer Jeff Zerwas converses with staff member Cindy Lanik and senior Jessica Taplin last week over lunch during "Vikings Friday." Zerwas recently returned to his job at WHS after a 10-month deployment with the Army Reserve

After spending nearly a year helping train military medics at an Army base in Wisconsin, Jeff Zerwas found himself wearing fatigues again last week. But these camouflage pants were of the purple-tinted variety and were accompanied by a "No. 28" jersey. It was officially "Vikings Friday" at Woodbury High School.

The school resource officer did not hesitate to share his "purple pride" with students and teachers even as he was still settling back into his role after taking a leave of absence from his full-time job when he was deployed to Fort McCoy last February.

"Some people think I was pretty dressed up," said Zerwas, who has been school resources officer at WHS since 2006 and a citizen-soldier for more than 27 years. "But when it comes to the Vikings, this was toned down for me."

Administrators at the school said it is not uncommon for Zerwas, a Woodbury police officer, to find ways to connect with staff and students. His participation in "Vikings Friday" is evidence, said Sarah Sorenson-Wagner, an assistant principal at WHS who works closely with Zerwas.

"(Officer Zerwas) has a personality that is outgoing and he uses that to build report with the students," Sorenson-Wagner said. "Having him in the building every day really builds credibility with the kids and I think he enjoys working in this capacity."

Zerwas said he's glad to be back at what he considers his dream job.

Officially, Zerwas is employed by the Woodbury Public Safety Department. He has been a police officer with the department for 15 years. He was one of the first patrol officers to go through paramedic training as the department began evolving its police officers into dual, crossover roles that it is well known for today. Nearly all of its police officers are trained as paramedics or firefighters.

A passion for education

Zerwas said he spent time working as both a patrol officer and an emergency medical technician for the department. He has also worked the investigations desk at the department. But when he began teaching the anti-drug DARE program to area elementary students several years ago Zerwas said he began to realize how he could use his role as police officer to try to better student's lives.

"If you approach this job thinking you can cure everyone's ills you are sadly mistaken," Zerwas acknowledged. "But if you come in here with the idea you can help kids the best you can and maybe make even a little bit of difference in their lives than you know you've accomplished something."

That's what made his temporary departure from WHS almost a year ago a little bittersweet for Zerwas. A long-time veteran of the Army National Guard and Army Reserves, Zerwas was activated and deployed to Fort McCoy for 10 months to take soldiers through military combat medical training.

In all, Zerwas said he was responsible for training nearly 1,800 medics who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he enjoyed his time serving his country, but definitely missed family at home and at WHS.

"I thought about the kids a lot," Zerwas said. "It's tough, because I wasn't serving overseas, but I was still very busy for 10 straight months. And it was a rewarding experience, but there is no doubt I'm glad to be back."

In his stead two other Woodbury police officers, Jean Hancock and Chris Rheault filled in until Zerwas finished his Army Reserve deployment.

"We love that (Zerwas) is really seen and accepted as a staff member at the high school," Vague said. "He's so valuable to us as someone who can be in the school at all times and do his job to make it a safe environment. It's a natural fit for him to be working in that environment."

A military family

Although Zerwas said it didn't take him long to transition out of the military barracks back to the home life, he acknowledge not everything has returned to normal.

His wife Lisa, who serves in the National Guard, was deployed to Iraq while he was in the middle of his deployment at Fort McCoy. In the process, their two youngest children, had to move in with their grandmother in Wisconsin. The kids won't come home until their mother does, just in case Zerwas is activated again.

"It's still a little different right now," Zerwas admitted. "But these are the sacrifices we make. It's part of being a citizen-soldier."