The walls and floors were caked with dried blood when Lt. Tim Sevcik and other soldiers in his Bravo Company unit burst into the village building they called "the torture house."
Three Iraqi citizens, apparently beaten and cut with the lead pipes, chisels and knives later found on the floor, were handcuffed to beds and bound in chains, Sevcik recalled from his office in Coon Rapids of that early morning raid this year in Iraq.
"I don't think anybody wants to be in the middle of the action, but somebody's gotta fight the battle," said Sevcik, 28, who joined the National Guard when he was a Northfield High School junior. "Better that it should be me and the other guys in the unit who have been trained for it than somebody from the outside."
As the natural resource specialist for Anoka County parks, Sevcik prefers spending as much time outside as possible. He has moved from the torture house to the greenhouse.
Before leaving Iraq in July, Sevcik was trying to save lives -- like those of the tortured captives his unit freed. Now, he is trying to save Anoka County's park system from the spreading of Dutch elm disease and Eurasian milfoil.
Sevcik runs county programs that help novices and naturalists alike learn the art of maintaining flower beds, planting trees and collecting native prairie seeds. But the one seed he refuses to plant is that he is a hero.
"I think he's a hero," said his wife, Maren, who met Tim in Northfield when they were in junior high school. "How many people put their personal life aside to serve their country overseas? Twice!"
'Couldn't be prouder of Tim'
But Sevcik, whose Minnesota National Guard unit was deployed in Bosnia in 2003 and 2004, shrugs away from the hero talk. He says he joined the National Guard 11 years ago this month because he wanted the financial benefits that would allow him to pay his way through college.
His father, Al, had served in the National Guard as the Vietnam War was waning. Tim was a big, strong kid who played on the offensive line of Northfield's state high school champion football team. When the father accompanied the son to the recruiting center, who was going to stop them?
"They sent me away, to the grocery store," said Sue Sevcik, who said she wasn't thrilled at the time about her youngest child and only son joining the military. "I couldn't be prouder of Tim, but at the time I thought, well, Tim and Al got their way."
Everyone in Northfield seemed to know Al, who ran a barber shop for more than 20 years. He helped broadcast the high school football games and was the 1981 co-chairman of Northfield's annual Defeat of Jesse James Days festival.
Al, a cook in the military, not only took his son hunting and fishing, but also encouraged him to help with the family's flower and vegetable gardens. Today Tim talks about canning vegetables and making homemade tomato sauce with the same enthusiasm he uses to describe the family's camping trips to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
"His dad was always there," Maren said.
But during Tim's senior year in high school, Al Sevcik, only 45, suffered a fatal heart attack at home.
"It was a shock, so hard for all of us," Sue Sevcik said. "Can you imagine how hard that would be for an only son?"
Little talk of the military
While a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, Tim joined the North Dakota State University ROTC unit, threw the shot and participated in other weight events for the Concordia track team. And he began dating Maren, also a Concordia student, with whom he had become good friends around 10th grade.
Eventually, there was talk of marriage. Maren said Tim didn't talk a lot about the military -- and says he still doesn't -- but the anticipated military obligations were very real.
But while Tim was training for the possibility of sitting for days in a bunker, he was also planning for the natural resources career that has blossomed in Bunker Hills Regional Park.
In his five years working for Anoka County, Tim has been involved with attempts to manage the county's deer population, worked with various lake associations, helped operate a greenhouse, and worked with Boy Scouts who plant seeds in a prairie restoration program.
In between, there has been a deployment to Bosnia, Tim and Maren's wedding in April 2005, and then his experience in Iraq this year.
"You go into villages, you talk to kids, you bandage up people in rural areas who can't get to cities," he said of his experiences. "You meet with local leaders. You try to clear up debris."
Ready for anything
He heard the roadside bombings -- and not always from afar. He mentioned fellow Guardsmen from his unit, like Sgt. John Kriesel Jr., of Vadnais Heights, who lost his legs to a roadside explosion a year ago.
"Those, to me, are the real heroes," Sevcik said. "When Kriesel was wounded in action, other guys took care of him. You know anything can happen. We're trained to deal with any situation."
The challenges of managing the 2,000 square feet of flower gardens at his home or marking diseased oaks for the county are very different. Maren is expecting their first child in June, so the greatest challenges await.
His job with Anoka County's parks is as soothing as it is challenging. "I love this job and plan to be here as long as they'll have me," he said.
And if duty again calls?
"This job is long term," he said. "This is who I am."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419