USA — Guard Program Creates Troop, Family Support Networks

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2011 — Two signs stand at the entry­way to Farm­ing­ton, Minn. One dis­plays the city’s pop­u­la­tion and, just under­neath, anoth­er sign states “Yel­low Rib­bon City,” a mes­sage to all who that pass by that this city stands for mil­i­tary fam­i­ly sup­port.

These signs are crop­ping up on city bor­ders and on com­pa­ny walls across the state, thanks to a Min­neso­ta Nation­al Guard pro­gram that’s bol­ster­ing com­mu­ni­ty sup­port of troops and their fam­i­lies.

The Guard’s Beyond the Yel­low Rib­bon pro­gram aims to raise com­mu­ni­ty aware­ness of the unique wartime chal­lenges mil­i­tary fam­i­lies face and to ensure troops and their fam­i­lies are sur­round­ed by sup­port through­out the deploy­ment process and long after, explained Army Lt. Col. Bar­bara O’Reil­ly, the program’s chief.

“They’re very excit­ed to sup­port ser­vice mem­bers and fam­i­lies,” O’Reil­ly said of the com­mu­ni­ties and sup­port orga­ni­za­tions in her home state. “They see this is as doing their part and their way to serve and be involved in what we’re doing as a nation.”

The pro­gram is an exten­sion of the Defense Department’s Yel­low Rib­bon Rein­te­gra­tion Pro­gram, which offers train­ing events and sup­port to Guard and Reserve ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies before, after and dur­ing deploy­ment. Beyond the Yel­low Rib­bon encom­pass­es that train­ing, while also embed­ding com­mu­ni­ty sup­port and aware­ness into the process to bet­ter serve local troops and their fam­i­lies, explained Army Sgt. 1st Class Melanie Nel­son, the program’s chief of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing.

This sup­port is vital in a state that lacks the resources and exten­sive sup­port of a major active-duty instal­la­tion, she said. Yet Min­neso­ta is home to more than 13,000 Guard mem­bers, includ­ing 11,000 sol­diers, about 2,000 air­men, and thou­sands of oth­er reservists in the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

Com­mu­ni­ties are eager to help, Nel­son said, and the Guard pro­gram can help them under­stand what the needs are and how they can join forces on behalf of mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

Com­mu­ni­ties, such as Farm­ing­ton, that express a desire to help over the long haul can earn a Yel­low Rib­bon des­ig­na­tion through the Guard pro­gram. But this des­ig­na­tion does­n’t sig­ni­fy a sim­ple dec­la­ra­tion of sup­port by a city offi­cial. Instead, Guard offi­cials ask com­mu­ni­ties or groups to come up with a sus­tain­able action plan on how they’ll sup­port mil­i­tary fam­i­lies through­out the deploy­ment process, Nel­son explained.

This plan involves a syn­chro­nized effort with­in the com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing church­es, pub­lic safe­ty offices, schools, parks and recre­ation cen­ters and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty resources. A church may host a won­der­ful event in sup­port of mil­i­tary fam­i­lies, Nel­son explained, but could have a much greater impact if it con­nects with oth­er agen­cies on behalf of mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

“The pro­gram is about syn­chro­niz­ing the efforts of the com­mu­ni­ty to sup­port ser­vice mem­bers,” she said. “And it looks dif­fer­ent in every com­mu­ni­ty, because every com­mu­ni­ty is dif­fer­ent.”

To date, 45 enti­ties –- includ­ing coun­ties, com­pa­nies and cities -– have earned the Yel­low Rib­bon des­ig­na­tion. This num­ber includes 27 cities, 14 com­pa­nies and four coun­ties, Nel­son said.

The first city to sign with a Yel­low Rib­bon net­work was Farm­ing­ton in 2008. The city has become a mod­el for oth­ers in the pro­gram, O’Reil­ly said. “This sup­port to mil­i­tary fam­i­lies gave every­one a com­mon thing to work on,” she said.

With­in the city, 13 faith-based orga­ni­za­tions take turns host­ing a mil­i­tary-sup­port effort each month. And, rather than sparse­ly attend­ed pic­nics spon­sored by each mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion, the city now orga­nizes a com­mu­ni­ty­wide pic­nic. Last year, the pic­nic served meals to more than 600 mil­i­tary fam­i­lies, O’Reil­ly said. “It’s an amaz­ing dis­play of what can hap­pen when you work togeth­er,” she said.

The town of Lakeville, anoth­er Yel­low Rib­bon com­mu­ni­ty, unit­ed efforts on behalf of fam­i­lies whose loved ones died in com­bat. With­in months, an Army staff sergeant was killed in Iraq and an Air Force major was killed in Afghanistan.

“Lakeville came togeth­er as a whole to sup­port the fam­i­lies through the cri­sis,” Nel­son said. The com­mu­ni­ty raised mon­ey all sum­mer so it could place a memo­r­i­al bench in the town’s park in hon­or of the ser­vice mem­bers. The com­mu­ni­ty again came togeth­er on behalf of a mil­i­tary fam­i­ly when a sol­dier returned from Afghanistan as a dou­ble amputee, Nel­son said. “We ask them to make what­ev­er com­mit­ment they can make,” she said of the Yel­low Rib­bon com­mu­ni­ties. “We’re not telling them they have to do ‘X, Y and Z,’ but to iden­ti­fy to what they can do and com­mit to doing it.”

An added bonus of this net­work, she said, is that it’s there for what­ev­er is need­ed. Nel­son cit­ed Hugo, anoth­er Yel­low Rib­bon city, as an exam­ple. Just months before it was pro­claimed a Yel­low Rib­bon city, a tor­na­do hit and caused sub­stan­tial loss with­in the com­mu­ni­ty. The bud­ding net­work of com­mu­ni­ty agen­cies helped the city spring to action quick­er in the wake of the nat­ur­al dis­as­ter, she said.

“This idea of a syn­chro­nized com­mu­ni­ty makes you bet­ter able to react to any type of com­mu­ni­ty-relat­ed cri­sis or event,” Nel­son said.

The Guard will be call­ing on the com­mu­ni­ties again soon. This spring, the state may see its largest deploy­ment yet, Nel­son said. The last time the state faced a large-scale deploy­ment was in 2004, ini­ti­at­ing the start of Beyond the Yel­low Rib­bon.

In 2005, retired Maj. Gen. Lar­ry Shel­li­to, then Minnesota’s adju­tant gen­er­al, tasked the state chap­lain to cre­ate a pro­gram that would ease the home­com­ing process for return­ing sol­diers. He want­ed their home­com­ings to be far dif­fer­ent from the one he received as a sec­ond lieu­tenant after he returned from Viet­nam and hid his uni­form before he got to the air­port, con­cerned about the recep­tion he’d receive wear­ing it.

When the sol­diers returned in 2006, they did so to a com­pre­hen­sive rein­te­gra­tion pro­gram that helped to ensure a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion back to their every­day lives.

To step up sup­port for troops and fam­i­lies dur­ing this next deploy­ment, O’Reil­ly said, they’re call­ing on unit com­man­ders to admin­is­ter an assess­ment so they can take stock of what the actu­al needs are. Guard offi­cials then will be able to pro­vide com­mu­ni­ties with a by-region list of actu­al needs. Fam­i­lies in a farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty, for exam­ple, may have dif­fer­ent needs than those in a city, she explained.

“We’re excit­ed to see how this moves for­ward,” O’Reil­ly said. “We’ll have a clear pic­ture of what the needs are and how com­mu­ni­ties can help.”

The Guard also has 14 fam­i­ly assis­tance cen­ters locat­ed in com­mu­ni­ties across the state to assist troops and their fam­i­lies, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who are impact­ed by deploy­ment. These cen­ters aren’t there to fix the prob­lem, Nel­son explained, but to ensure fam­i­lies are direct­ed to the resource or per­son who can.

Mil­i­tary peo­ple are very proud, and typ­i­cal­ly are hes­i­tant to accept help unless they’re in cri­sis mode, O’Reil­ly not­ed. “It takes time to build the trust of mil­i­tary mem­bers and their fam­i­lies,” she said. “We’re hop­ing to build rela­tion­ships now, so fam­i­lies know who to turn to for help when need­ed,” whether it’s with shov­el­ing snow, bring­ing in crops or help­ing with home main­te­nance or child care issues.

“With the work we’re doing now, build­ing rela­tion­ships, when there’s a need, the rela­tion­ship will be there,” she said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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