Stateline Story

In Minnesota, soldiers re-learn civilian life

  • October 12, 2007
  • By John Gramlich

MOORHEAD, Minn. - In a gymnasium on the campus of Minnesota State University, Col. Kevin Gerdes of the Minnesota Army National Guard is lecturing 350 of his soldiers on the little things about civilian life they may have forgotten during their recent 22-month deployment, which included a record 16 months in Iraq.

"Grunting is not a form of communication,"Gerdes tells the soldiers, who have assembled in their camouflage uniforms and black berets on the bleachers in front of him.

Then there's the vocabulary. "It's a 'phone,' not a 'radio,'" he says, "and when you're talking to your mother on the phone, you say, 'I love you, goodbye,' not 'Roger, wilco.'"

Scattered chuckles rise from the bleachers, where parents, spouses and other family members have joined the soldiers early on a Saturday morning (Sept. 29) for their first glimpse at a program created by the Minnesota National Guard to help its newest war veterans - some 2,600 who returned from Iraq this summer - overcome the challenges, small and large, of life at home.

Some in the crowd have driven five hours to this western Minnesota town of 30,000 just across the Red River from North Dakota - and would rather not be here. Others who have been through the program show up to endorse its value and lend their support to those still raw from their experiences in Iraq .

The first-in-the-nation initiative, called Beyond The Yellow Ribbon , requires all Minnesota National Guard soldiers returning from combat to attend three day-long training events like this one - scheduled for roughly 30, 60 and 90 days after they arrive - to help them re-learn everything from how to speak politely to how to reconnect with spouses they haven't lived with in nearly two years. The soldiers endured the longest deployment of any unit, active or reserve, in the history of the Iraq war, which has seen the largest deployment of the Guard since World War II.

Special emphasis in the program is placed on the psychological health of participants, many of whom carried out highly stressful missions in Iraq such as providing security on the country's deadly roads. National Guard officials here want to identify and help soldiers who may be showing some of the early signs of post-deployment anxiety or difficulty adjusting at home: sudden frustration at mention of the war, a compulsive need for a clean, perfectly ordered house, road rage.

Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain in the Minnesota National Guard who developed the program in January 2005 at the request of state Adjutant General Larry Shellito, says one of the most crucial aspects of the initiative - which is being watched by about a dozen other states and could become a national model under a bill approved last month by the U.S. Senate - is simply the face-to-face contact it provides for "battle buddies" who can look one another in the eye and tell whether something is wrong.

"You've had an experience no one else can understand," Morris tells the soldiers here.

The idea is to provide a support structure for troops who otherwise wouldn't have one. Unlike regular members of the U.S. military, the citizen soldiers who serve in state-run National Guard units return from war and immediately are thrust into life in their home communities, often in far-flung corners of large states like this one and isolated from the men and women they served with overseas.

Minnesota 's program forces the soldiers to come together as soon as 30 days after they return. At the events, scheduled at hotels, universities and other locations around the state for hundreds of men and women at a time, soldiers attend individual and family counseling sessions with professional therapists, informational briefings on state and federal veterans' benefits and job fairs for those needing work.

Troops are divided into groups based on their marital status - single, married or divorced - and rotate en masse between the counseling sessions and other stations in a scene that resembles students shuffling between high school classes.

At today's 30-day training event, one of the most popular attractions among the soldiers is a motorcycle that's been put on display by National Guard officials so a representative can give troops lessons on riding safety. "A lot of these guys," Morris explains, "come back with a need for speed."

Other soldiers walk through the job fair, nervously eyeing booths where representatives hand out leaflets about companies and organizations. Some of the soldiers sign up for free deer-hunting licenses provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Many others head outside and smoke cigarettes in small groups, talking and catching up.

Spec. Andy Qualy, 23, credits the Beyond The Yellow Ribbon program with getting his life back on track when he attended his first meeting in April this year - eight months after a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee near Diwaniyah, Iraq, leaving him with a fractured skull and nose, a leg broken in two places and brain trauma that regularly made him dizzy and unable to speak in complete sentences.

 

Qualy spent half a year in rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington , D.C. , before returning to Minnesota - where, battling depression, he immediately fell into a dangerous cycle of alcoholism. He began to drink from morning to night, his relationship of two years collapsed within a month and, ultimately, he found himself in jail after crashing his car while driving drunk.

"I had no clue what to do. None," Qualy says. Speaking in measured sentences about what he went through after his deployment, Qualy repeats one of the phrases that Morris is fond of using when talking about at-risk soldiers: He says he had become "a danger to myself and others."

Qualy says he was cynical about his first Beyond The Yellow Ribbon event, but soon realized that many of the symptoms of post-deployment stress that Morris described at the event - anger, anxiety, depression - exactly matched his own behavior.

"It was just really eye-opening for me to realize that, number one, I've got some real problems. Number two, there are people that exist to help me with those problems. And number three, I'm not the only one," says Qualy, who now attends training events around the state and shares his story as part of the program.

Other soldiers make no secret that they think the program is a waste of time. Pfc. Matthew Vitek, 20, says he doesn't need the help and would skip the events if he could, but "what the military says, the military does."

It's a sentiment echoed by scores of other soldiers here, many of whom want to be left alone after a 22-month deployment and resent giving up their Saturdays for the meetings. They don't like driving to events that often are held hours away from where they live in this expansive state.

Gerdes and Morris hear the complaints, but say it's worth irritating most soldiers if it means helping some of them. And others - from family members to community leaders to older war veterans - share that view.

Glen and Nancy Hoffer, who drove three hours from their home in Bismarck, N.D., to attend the training here with their son, 35-year-old 1 st Lt. Jeffrey Hoffer, say the events are worthwhile because they allow parents to discuss their own experiences, much like soldiers discuss theirs.

But if you ask their son whether he thinks the program is worthwhile, "He'd say no," Nancy Hoffer says.

Natalie Roe, the fiancee of Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Chris Ganske, says the program "will help in the long run." Roe and Ganske had to postpone their wedding when the Minnesota National Guard soldiers in Iraq were extended an extra four months in February on the same night President Bush announced a "surge" in troops. They now are planning their wedding for July 2008.

Though Roe and Ganske haven't had any problems in their relationship since Ganske came back, "It's good to know we have all these resources. That's helpful," Roe says.

Another group that supports the program is veterans of earlier wars. David Woodward, a Vietnam veteran attending today's event to express his support for the troops and welcome them home, says the Minnesota National Guard soldiers would be wise to "listen to what their chaplain is saying and get the help they need."

Asked what kind of help he received when he came home, Woodward holds up his hand; slowly and deliberately, he forms a zero with his fingers.