HOUSTON — A few months ago, the commander of the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team called about a dozen of his soldiers out of the sweltering 100-plus degree Baghdad heat and into his office on Camp Prosperity.
Army Col. Mark Campsey had been deployed in Iraq for nearly a year — along with about 3,000 Texas Army National Guard soldiers under his command — and was pleased with how his citizen-soldiers had performed. His soldiers had provided force protection and convoy security and supported detention centers in and around the city.
But their time in Iraq was drawing to a close, and Campsey’s thoughts were beginning to turn to their homecoming, and how well his soldiers would adapt to civilian life after the day-to-day rigors of war.
The commander asked the 12 soldiers standing before him -– a cross-section of men and women, married and single — if any of them had attended a brigade Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program event before deployment. The program’s aim is to teach Guard and Reserve soldiers how to better reintegrate with their families, friends and communities through events held before, during and after deployment.
Only two of the 12 raised a hand. The others cited child care issues, and some claimed a lack of relevance, since Yellow Ribbon only applied to married couples.
“They basically had a lot of false assumptions about a program that’s very beneficial for all,” Campsey said.
That day in Iraq, the commander made the Yellow Ribbon program, which had been voluntary up to that point, into a requirement for all of his soldiers.
Fast-forward about four months, and Campsey is standing at the front of a vast hotel conference room here, surrounded by about 1,800 brigade soldiers and family members at Texas’ largest Yellow Ribbon Program event to date.
“Yellow Ribbon has a tremendous capacity to reach people, but you have to get them there first,” he said. “The system needs to get commanders to understand the program’s importance, and then those carrying it out have to offer a quality product. We’re taking another weekend out of their time.”
Campsey’s brigade is the first in Texas to cycle through the entire Yellow Ribbon program. While the Defense Department gives services the latitude to customize programs, each branch is required to offer events before, during and after deployment: one at the alert phase, one during the deployment, and post-deployment at 30, 60 and 90 days after return.
The soldiers here were at their 60-day event, which typically puts a heavy emphasis on communication skills and resources to help servicemembers successfully transition back to work and their families. It also serves as a reunion of sorts.
As soon as they hit U.S. soil in late summer, the Guardsmen headed home to their families and to their civilian jobs. While their mission often brings them together –- the unit is nicknamed the Hurricane Brigade for its frequent response to natural disasters along the Texas coast -– for the most part they keep in contact by Facebook or Twitter. Events like this offer the soldiers a chance to reunite face-to-face with battle buddies and to introduce spouses to friendships forged downrange.
After a few words and a quick promotion ceremony up front, Campsey drifted around the cavernous conference room, stopping to greet his soldiers and their families, who were leaning in close to hear each other as a rock song blaring from sky-high speakers drowned out their words.
The commander said he’d prefer smaller venues. It’s his belief that if you need a microphone, the venue is too large. And here, people in the back were hard-pressed to hear the speaker, a resilience team officer who was explaining how personality types can either help or hinder relationships.
The speaker likened personalities to colors, and red, yellow, blue and green balloons popped up around the room to draw people of the same type together for group discussions.
It’s a challenge to carry these events off in such a large state, Campsey acknowledged, and state program coordinators are doing their best to accommodate a surge of returning soldiers.
“It’s the right program, but as money starts to shrink, we can’t go backwards,” he said. “We need to go forward, need to have more structure and surge capacity. It’s built for the smallest execution, but we need three times that when a brigade redeploys.”
Campsey also urges state program coordinators to steer clear of cookie-cutter programs. Soldiers will tune out if the information doesn’t apply to them, he noted. He cited post-traumatic stress as an example. Less than three dozen of his soldiers were exposed to an event that most people would consider traumatic, he said, so devoting considerable time to that topic wouldn’t be as useful as focusing on another topic of concern, such as employment.
“If the presentation doesn’t apply, then are we providing a service or checking a block?” he asked.
Challenges aside, Campsey is an enthusiastic advocate of the program. Prior to Yellow Ribbon, his soldiers had returned from a deployment and scattered throughout the massive state, away from the military support they had grown used to over a course of a year. And unlike active-duty soldiers, who have resources at their fingertips back home, Guard and Reserve soldiers not only are distanced from resources, but many are unaware they even exist.
“There’s probably not 150 square miles that doesn’t have a soldier in it in Texas,” Campsey said. “Trying to get all of them to a location wasn’t feasible or suitable before. Now they have started funding it, soldiers have a chance to get information.”
Families do as well, and the importance of their inclusion isn’t lost on Campsey.
“If you try and brief soldiers as they’re heading out, their minds will be on the mission and where they’re going, and if you brief them when they get home, they’re thinking about their family,” he said. “But if you bring the family in, they will ask 1 million questions about health care.”
The benefits extend far beyond health insurance, Campsey added. A soldier may not talk to his wife, but will talk to his buddies while the spouse is sitting there. As a result, she’s able to hear about experiences she might not otherwise, and also gets to meet other spouses and compare notes, he said.
Their presence also carries a less visible importance, he noted. Family support is absolutely vital during deployment.
“We have to retain families, not soldiers,” the colonel said. “We can’t do this without their support.”
Looking ahead, Campsey said, he hopes to continue to customize his brigade’s Yellow Ribbon events. This event, for instance, included a separate track for single soldiers to address their specific needs.
“The government has given us a mechanism to take care of people; we now have to structure it so we get the best value out of it,” he said.
The time is right for Yellow Ribbon, he added.
“We spend two years preparing a soldier to go to war, and we’re just now investing two weekends on preparing them for the rest of their lives with their families,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”
For more on the Yellow Ribbon program or to locate an event, visit http://www.yellowribbon.mil.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)