Preparing for their return
Yellow ribbons and parades have been common fare as troops have gradually returned from duty in Iraq. But for many, what comes after the welcome-home party can leave them feeling isolated, alienated and out of step with the community they left behind.
It's not that hometown residents are doing anything bad or wrong, said Minnesota National Guard Chaplain John Morris.
Communities have been friendly and supportive to the vets, but they just aren't prepared to respond to the new person who has come home.
Soldiers change during war, Morris said, and the school teacher, college student, parent, son or daughter won't be the same person they were when they left.
A service member can't leave his or her family and job for 18 months and return home with a "duffle bag, kiss their wife and kids and live happily ever after," Morris said.
Community churches, employers, schools, law enforcement officers, health workers, business people and neighbors can help ease the service members back into civilian life by getting a taste of what they experienced while on duty; how they, and their families, feel when the service members come home; and what can be done to help the service members and their families deal with the changes and return to a positive community life.
That kind of preparation will be offered Friday in Willmar during a community reintegration training event sponsored by the Minnesota National Guard.
Billed as "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," the seminar will be from 9 to 11:30 a.m. in the community room at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building.
The event is free.
"The war isn't over for most of us when we get home," said Morris. "We need the community's help for us to get all the way home."
Developed by the Minnesota National Guard, this will be about the 25th such training event that's taken place in the state.
Barb Zaeska, whose son, Joshua Strommer, 25, and brother, Wayne Sulflow, are both now in Iraq with the National Guard, said she hopes the training will help make the troops' return easier by making the community aware of the war.
If you don't have a family member who's experienced war, "you get removed from it," said Zaeska, of Pennock, and people don't understand the impact it has on them and their families while the service member is gone.
Zaeska sat through an earlier training session in Hutchinson and heard first-hand testimonials from combat veterans about the struggle to return to everyday life back home.
"It's really good information," said Zaeska, who is concerned that Minnesota communities get prepared for when about 3,000 National Guard soldiers return at about the same time from Iraq. "We'll be inundated with Iraqi vets," she said, and awareness and community services need to be ready for those that need it.
Regular military members return to a network of support at their base facilities. National Guard members who spent time together in Iraq are scattered across the state in their different communities when they come home, which can increase the feeling of isolation.
Zaeska called her former boss, Kandiyohi County Family Services Director Larry Kleindl, about getting a reintegration training event held here.
Kleindl also saw a presentation and was "very moved" by the stories the service members told and saw the need to get community leaders prepared for the return of National Guard members.
"We want to do right this time," said Kleindl, referring to the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home.
"It's one thing to say you support the troops, it's another to actually do it," said Kleindl, who took the lead in getting the event in Willmar.
Kleindl said the training will "put everybody on the same page" and allow the community to "understand that we need to make plans and prepare" to help the troops, their families and their children. By getting educated and targeting resources now, he said, the community can "be prepared to assist" the service members later to "make it as smooth a transition as possible.
Sgt. First Class Ronald Keith Huff knows about difficult transitions.
The former Litchfield man used to work at the Willmar armory during his 18 years in the National Guard. He's had two tours of duty.
The 11½ months he spent in Iraq took its toll.
When he returned in January of 2005, he couldn't escape the feeling of being threatened and under attack. He drove fast and aggressively on Minnesota highways and performed evasive maneuvers when driving through underpasses. Garbage on the edge of the road looked like roadside bombs. A question from a store clerk sent Huff into a violent rage that got him thrown out of the store. He became less involved with his church and community.
Now living in the Twin Cities, Huff still struggles with the emotional transition of being home. Three weeks ago he went shopping with a long list of items but left the store after only getting the celery and peanut butter. His cousin goes shopping with him now, which he says is a big help.
Huff admits he's the "worst-case scenario." Most service members can adapt within three to six months, he said. But the transition home is difficult for everyone, which is why the training seminar is so important for the veterans and the community.
"Everyone wants to help, and we're just showing them how," said Huff, who said the willingness of communities to assist veterans has "been a phenomenal thing."
There were no community awareness programs available when Huff came home. Within a six- day period he went from combat duty in Iraq to home life in Litchfield.
If there had been a program, "it would have made a difference with my involvement in the community and raised the sensitivity of what I was going through," he said.
Everyone was very nice, said Huff, but what he needed was for people to be patient.
"I'm not asking for a 'get out of jail free card,' I'm just asking for a little patience and understanding," he said. "It takes a while to transition back into the community. It's a marathon, not an event."
Huff is one of the key presenters in the reintegration session.
"I'll paint a picture of what it feels like to be a combat veteran," he said.
"I'm a big believer in the soldiers and not having them make the same mistakes I have. I want to make it better for the next guys coming back. That's what helps me out."
In the last eight months, about 4,000 community leaders have been trained in 25 different Minnesota communities, said Chaplain Morris. The program was created in Minnesota and is now being copied in other states. "This is an issue whose time has come," said Morris. "Minnesota can be very proud of itself."
The message he has for communities is "Please, help the soldier and family reconnect with their jobs, family and faith."
If the community helps, there will be fewer chances for service members to experience "doors closed" on them when they return. That will be good for the veterans and their families and will prevent negative ripple effects into the community, said Morris.
The parades and welcome-home parties are good, he said, but "let's go one step further" and help "get these warriors, these soldiers, to be productive citizens."