Forty-one year Army veteran and mayor of Rice Lake fighting his - KBJR 6 Your Weather Authority: News, Weather & Sports

Forty-one year Army veteran and mayor of Rice Lake fighting his biggest battle

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On the North side of Duluth sits Rice Lake.  It's been a governmental body for nearly 150 years, and recently, Duluth tried unsuccessfully to annex what was then a township. It took the work of many people to save the township from annexation, and ultimately turn it into a city. 

One of the driving forces behind the process was John Werner. His family has ties in Rice Lake going all the way back to 1870.

"The Schultz Road is named after my grandmother's family because they homesteaded way up there," said Werner. 

Talks to annex the the area go back several decades, according to Werner.  "Ever since I was a little kid, there was always the threat Duluth wanted to Annex," he said. 

It wasn't until early in the second decade of the 2000's, talks heated up, and Werner took a stand.  Through a series of meetings between the two bodies, and countless hours in front of a law judge and many other governing bodies, Werner, with the help of the Township board, helped Rice Lake become a city, saving it from annexation.

Werner said, "The people wanted to remain Rice Lake residents. They did not want to become an unknown part to the city of Duluth."

After Rice Lake became a city, Werner threw his hat in the mayoral race. He won in a landslide, receiving more than twice the amount of votes as his challenger.  It's a job most people would consider a career, but this is Werner's retirement job.

"Some might consider me a workaholic because I get involved and I keep on going. In a lot of ways it's a defensive shield so you don't have to spend all your time thinking about it, because sometimes thinking can drive you crazy," said Werner. 

He is talking about his past. 

"I had served 35 years, which is mandatory retirement for the army/military. So, I retired. About 6 months later, I got a phone call asking if I would come back," he said. 

Werner agreed to go back, and spent another 5 years serving the United States. His combined service history spans 4 decades, 6 of the 7 continents, and the countless military conflicts the U.S has been in.

He said, "I've seen the world on Uncle Sam's dime. The good the bad and the ugly."

During his career, Werner served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Vietnam, where he began in 1969, might have been the most challenging. 

"You didn't go, and you didn't hold ground. You expended lives, and then left. And then you'd go back the next year and you'd fight for the same ground again. It was a different war, you weren't fighting for territory, you were just our there wandering around trying to kill people. And that was the biggest frustration," said Werner, describing one of the United State's most notorious wars. 

It was a war Werner says forever changed the live of thousands of soldiers, "The army that went to Vietnam was a professional army. The army that returned was a skeleton," he said. 

Serving as a Command Sgt. Major in the Army came with some lofty expectations for Werner and his superiors. He said shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001, he and his commanding officers had about 25,000 troops under their command. 

"After the attack, and mobilization orders started coming down, we were on a glide slope to mobilize 17,000 troops. These were all young soldiers, very few had been combat veterans, and there was a lot of anxiety, there was a lot of unknown apprehension," said Werner. 

On a mission in southern Afghanistan Werner narrowly escaped death after missing his position transfer due to a sandstorm.

"In the second vehicle, where I was to ride in the front seat, that's the one vehicle that got blown up by an IED. There was one empty seat in that vehicle, and that was supposed to be my seat. The other three guys in there were killed," he said. 

Werner's career ended not long after that. Of his 41 years in the service, 21 were spent as a Command Sgt. Major, the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer in the Army, and he retired highly decorated.

In Werner's basement there are dozens of medals, ribbons and awards. He said the Legion of Merit Award, which is given for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements, is the highest award he received. 

Hanging underneath various war artifacts, pictures and memorabilia, is Werner's Honor Guard jacket. It is adorned with more than a dozen campaign ribbons, and other military honors. The jacket represents 41 years of service, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

"People say 'well, isn't that heavy?' which is the comical part because it's about 6 inches of awards and ribbons. And I say ' no, they're not heavy, the memories are.' Those ribbons are the face of all the people I've served with, those that I lost, and the places I've been," he said. 

But there's one mark that he carries daily that isn't displayed on his jacket.  On April 15th of 2015, Werner got the call that would change his life. An avid runner, who is routinely physically active, and does woodworking as a hobby, Werner said he wasn't feeling normal. A visit to the doctor's office told him why. 

"[I have] Leukemia Multiple-myeloma, It's a blood cancer, and it's a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange from Vietnam," he said, "I was told flat out, at the initial, there is no cure."

But Werner isn't going without a fight, "When the grim reaper comes looking for me, I'm not home, he's going to have to come find me," he said. 

While the cancer is in remission now,  it's something he's been fighting since his campaign for mayor began, and continues to battle with daily.

"It's hard to explain the depth with which your emotions will take you, but, you deal with it. My wife was always there, my kids were always down, but that one particular moment I was alone, and that's when you really start to think. It is quite a shock. But I can honestly tell you that we've always been a religious family, and at that moment that night, I prayed," Werner said. 

The faith that has helped Werner cope with his post war life is the same faith that got him through his his most difficult times as a soldier.

"Do your job, and leave the rest to God, because there is no right or wrong answer. You know, why that guy, why that guy, and why not me? And I've experienced that a number of times - to the left and right of me, they fall, I didn't. I can't explain that, nobody can that's been through it," Werner said. 

All those experiences have led Werner to what he is today. His military career has long since come to an end, but he continues to fight for the people of Rice Lake.

Werner said, "I will continue to do my job until the good Lord says it's time."

His term expires in 2020. Werner said, provided his cancer stays in remission, and he's able, he'll run for re election at that time.

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