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Friday, December 14, 2007

House, Senate Pass Defense Bill Nationalizing Minnesota's 'Beyond the Yellow Ribbon' Reintegration Program

This week was a good one on Capitol Hill for returning veterans and their families. The House passed its version of the Defense Policy bill on Wednesday and the Senate followed today. Each contains a provision to nationalize Minnesota National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program (see related links below for more on the state's efforts over the past two years).

The program encompasses the full military cycle from deployment to return home, rallying the resources of the National Guard and Reserve units, state and local governments, and community service providers to deliver mandatory reintegration programs for both soldiers and family members. They also offer support services to help husbands, wives and children through the process of readjustment.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

From the MSP Star Tribune:

Minnesota's program, created by the Guard's Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito in 2005, has been heralded for keeping tabs on at-risk vets in the months after they return from combat zones, when war-related emotional disorders could start to surface. It includes workshops at the 30-, 60- and 90-day marks that focus on marriage and parenting, substance and gambling abuse and anger management.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican, said the whole country could benefit from such a program. Kline authored the amendment on the House version of the bill, which every Minnesota representative cosponsored. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Norm Coleman, a Republican, cosponsored the Senate version.

Interesting note:

Until granted a waiver, the Minnesota National Guard technically violated a Department of Defense rule exempting National Guard troops from mandatory activity within 60 days of returning from combat, which was intended to give them well-deserved time off.

"The problem was that in those months when they came back they started running into problems," Kline said. "Sometimes they didn't have a job waiting for them, sometimes there were marital difficulties. ... We needed a waiver so we can bring these soldiers back every 30, 60 and 90 days, basically just to see how they're doing."

Kline's amendment would repeal the 60-day provision for all state guard organizations and would allocate funds to pay soldiers for the time they spend in the sessions. It would also provide $23 million to administer the programs, and to analyze effectiveness of programs across the country. Shellito said the most beneficial element of the program is that it reunites troops who truly understand what their colleagues are going through.

"They're just so happy to see each other," Shellito said. "But once they start talking, they realize some of the things they're feeling, all their buddies are feeling the same thing."

Before Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, Kline said there wasn't much of a program in place. At the end of their deployment, Guards members would fly into Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for a few days' worth of briefing on information such as which veterans benefits they would qualify for.

"Frankly, let's be blunt about this, the soldiers are typically not paying a lot of attention," Kline said. "They've been gone for a long time, they're nodding heads and checking boxes and signing papers and can't wait to get back to their families."

The psychological and emotional problems soldiers often face after returning home often don't surface until weeks or months later. Initially, there was some grumbling from soldiers who didn't think they should have to go through the training because they didn't think they needed it, Shellito said.

"By the time they got back home, Mom and Dad, the wife and kids or the husband and kids said, 'No, we're going. And if not for you then for us,'" he said. "The satisfaction rate once they go through it is extremely high."

"As a nation, we have an obligation to wrap our arms around those who serve and sacrifice for us," Klobuchar said. "What works in Minnesota can work in other states."

More from the Examiner:

The state program reassembles units at 30, 60 and 90 days after their return so the Guard can get a sense of how its members are doing and provide them with assistance.

"It's in the 90-day period that problems arise," Kline said in a telephone interview Tuesday. Soldiers might not know where to turn if they run into problems with their families, jobs or other aspects of their lives, he said.

"After you've gone home, now is the time to come back and find out what's available to you," he said. "Most importantly, it's an opportunity for leadership to talk to a soldier and find out how it's going."

Although soldiers are allowed to come back now, Kline said that without the mandatory sessions, many don't know where they can turn for services.

"Or they may be worried about the perception they're not tough enough," he said. "We don't want that. We want to make this is as easy as possible." Kline said he wasn't worried about any objections about the mandatory meetings. "These men and women are members of the armed forces," he said. "And responding to orders is not unconstitutional, or unusual. And when they come back they will be paid."

The cost of the legislation is estimated at $123 million a year. Adjutant General Larry Shellito, head of the Minnesota National Guard, said he was excited that the legislation is moving forward.

"It's going to have a significant impact," he said.

This past week, Minnesota Public Radio Midday show hosted Maj. John Morris, Chaplain of the Minnesota National Guard involved in creating the state's program. Well worth a listen.

Additional details on the defense policy bill from AP:

The Senate on Friday passed a defense policy bill that would offer more help to troops returning from combat and set conditions on contractors and pricey weapons programs. ... The 90-3 vote follows House approval earlier this week and sends the measure to President Bush to sign, which he is expected to do.

"Caring for our troops and their families must always be our top priority," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which helped write the bill. ... The bill would authorize a 3.5 percent pay raise for service members. It also would guarantee that combat veterans receive mental health evaluations within 30 days of their request and prohibit fee increases to the military's health care system.

In one provision that is likely to be particularly costly, troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are guaranteed three more years of Veterans Affairs health care after being discharged. Current law gives troops two years to file claims.

Advocates say the extra time is needed because conditions can worsen over time or take more time to become obvious, particularly in cases of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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