Juan Berrones had plenty on his mind during the 16 months he served as an Army squad leader in Kuwait and Iraq, from the oppressive heat to the exploding homemade bombs.

What he didn’t have to worry about was whether his job would be there when he returned to Mankato or whether his family was being supported.

For much of that, he thanks his bosses at Jones Metal Products and his co-workers.

“I never had to worry. They never called and said I’ll lose my job or anything. They just said do your thing and your job will be waiting when you get back,” said Berrones, who’s worked at Jones Metal, on Third Avenue, for 10 years.

Berrones, a staff sergeant, left for active duty in June 2004 and just finished his tour about a month ago. He went back to work this week as a drafting designer.

“They kept me at my seniority. I’m in the same place as if I had never left,” Berrones said of his employer.

On Wednesday, the owner of Jones Metal and Berrones’ supervisors, were presented a certificate from the Guard and Reserve after Berrones nominated them.

The National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve recognizes businesses that go beyond legal requirements and provide support to employees who are pulled from their jobs because of military duty. Honored were Dave Olson, head of engineering and Berrones’ boss, Doug Belmore, president of Jones Metal, and Marcia Richards, the company’s owner.

Berrones said it wasn’t just the job security that helped him when he was overseas.

“Last winter, the company and my co-workers sent us a bunch of boxes of food and toothbrushes and all kinds of nice gifts. One of the guys in the shop started it, and the company paid for all the shipping.”

Last Christmas, co-workers made sure Berrones’ family — wife, Maria, 6-year-old Antonio, and 3-year-old Juan III — had something to celebrate, bringing them gifts and toys. “They showed they cared for my family here.”

Belmore said Jones Metal, a family-owned business since 1942, has had a tradition of supporting military personnel and their families. Many of the company’s 90 employees have military experience.

“We just tried to keep Juan in touch with things here and let him know we were eager to get him back,” Belmore said. “We’re just glad to have him back safe and healthy.”

Berrones has been in the Army for more than 16 years. He served six years active duty, stationed in Germany and in the United States, and has spent the past decade in the Minnesota Army National Guard. He plans to re-enlist one more time to get in his 20 years of service.

Berrones said his latest tour of duty was grueling. He first trained at Fort Dix, N.J., spent two months in Kuwait, and then was sent to a forward operation base in northern Iraq, near Tikrit.

He was a squad leader for a transportation company, the 434th MSB Co. B.

“The training we got before we left was good. But Iraq’s not like New Jersey,” Berrones said. “The heat was worse than I thought. It was just always very, very hot.”

His squad’s job was to move anything and everything troops needed, from tanks and ammunition to water and medical supplies.

Besides the heat, long hours and rugged terrain, Berrones and his fellow soldiers were constantly thinking about the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that insurgents placed along the roadways.

“We had one casualty and 15 or 20 injuries. I was close to many of them when they went off. It’s a dangerous place.”

During his tour, Berrones got home for a visit once in March. He’s still getting used to being home for — he hopes — good.

“It was an adjustment, getting used to everything again, sleeping in a nice bed, taking a shower, driving out and buying whatever you want.

“I’m very glad to be home.”

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