Beyond the Yellow Ribbon
WORTHINGTON -- The flags fly high, people wave and cheer, and ceremonies with community and state dignitaries are filled with pomp and circumstance.
It's a scene many people in southwest Minnesota have experienced in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 -- since the citizen soldiers went off to war half a world away and returned home following their tour of duty.
What happens, though, to the soldiers who left for battle not with a hometown unit but on their own? They have no return celebration in their honor. They are sent home roughly 300 hours after their last war mission, even though training to get them to the battlefield took about two years.
With 3,000 Minnesota National Guard troops slated to return home to Minnesota in March, these men and women will need help reintegrating from soldier to citizen.
"It will create a state of emergency," said Minnesota Army National Guard Chaplain John Morris. "How will we meet the needs of these combat vets?"
That question was posed to more than 60 community leaders throughout Nobles, Rock and Jackson counties Monday afternoon during, "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Training communities to help combat veterans and their families after the war." The program was developed by Minnesota National Guard Adj. Gen. MG Larry Shellito and has been presented more than 35 times in communities all across the state.
Nobles County Veteran Services Officer Mark Joldersma organized Monday's event in Worthington to help community leaders prepare for the return of troops from the Rock-Pipestone and Jackson-Fairmont units of the National Guard. Soldiers in those units are slated to be among the Minnesota troops to return home in March.
The program offered attendees ideas on everything from how to talk to a soldier returning from active duty to the resources available to them upon return. As importantly, it provided a glimpse of the transition soldiers must make to leave the war mindset behind.
Morris said if there was one thing attendees took with them following the program, it was that the war is not over when the soldier returns home.
"We need the community to walk with us, at least for another year after we return," he said.
He likened families pre-service to riding a balanced canoe. When one of the family members is called to serve, the canoe gets thrown into a tailspin. Families are forced to deal not only with their soldier being away from home, but also with managing family life and dealing with the constant barrage of news reports of soldiers dying.
When the soldier returns, despite the obvious excitement of family, there are a number of challenges soldiers face when reintegrating to civilian life. They must adjust from insecurity to security, from danger to safety, chaos to order, survival to thriving and mistrust to trust.
For Andy Davis, a native of St. Peter and former Army Ranger who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, those adjustments are still coming -- some two years after returning home from war. Davis said it took him a year and a half before he could sit with his back to a doorway and trust that someone wouldn't enter and try to hurt him. To this day, he still can't ride mass transit -- a result of seeing too many buses used for suicide missions.
Davis was responsible for not only himself, but also nine other soldiers during his tour of duty. While he said his military service was tough, it wasn't near as tough as coming home.
He racked up three speeding tickets in a short amount of time, jumped at the sound of thunder, couldn't sleep more than two hours at a time and would wake up in the night grabbing for his gun. Those experiences are common among returning vets, but Davis didn't realize that until he formed the first veteran's support group on the University of Minnesota campus, where he had enrolled in classes. It took him a full six months at the U of M before he told anyone he was a veteran -- a secret he kept because he was unsure how people would react. Today, the university's veterans group includes more than 500 members.
Developing a support group for returning soldiers is something communities can do to help -- to reintegrate soldiers back into their communities.
Tavis Delaney, a veteran from Chicago, Ill., who returned home in March from a mission in Afghanistan, said support groups -- even established counseling services that don't have repercussions -- would be a great benefit to returning soldiers.
"We are programmed to have a can-do attitude," he said. "We are taught to stuff our issues and emotions ... you don't want to ask for help. No soldier wants to ask for help."
Delaney said he was impressed at the work Minnesota is doing with the "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" campaign and said other states should consider ways to help reintegrate their soldiers to civilian life.
One of the issues presented Monday was that returning soldiers are too often diagnosed by non-professionals as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when in reality, they may simply need to share their experiences with people who have experienced the same things.
"They don't need a mental health professional -- they need people (they) can talk to," Delaney said.
Having people to talk to, people who can help returning soldiers, will help keep them from turning toward negative behavior, such as alcohol or drugs, Morris added.
SFC Ron Huff, who shared his personal story of life since Iraq, said of the 36 soldiers in his unit, three were cited for driving under the influence (DUI), five were involved in serious vehicle crashes, two were arrested for assault, one was divorced, and one has a divorce pending since returning home. Multiple soldiers have lost jobs or received speeding tickets. Huff is among those statistics, crashing his Harley Davidson motorcycle within two months of his return from active duty, and divorcing his wife.
Joldersma had hoped more people would attend Monday's program.
"I'm really very disappointed in the community leaders from the three-county area," Joldersma said, adding that more than 1,000 invitations had been extended to individuals who work in mental health, human services, law enforcement, clergy, fire departments and city and county offices.
"It's very, very important for people to know how (soldiers) feel and what's behind those feelings, so we can help them cope and come back to civilian life," he said.