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Minnesota National Guard
St. Paul joins Yellow Ribbon Network

By Tad Vezner

Posted:   05/15/2012 12:01:00 AM CDT

St Paul's military commitment stands out statewide St Paul has more residents serving in the National Guard than any other Minnesota city More troops from St Paul have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than from anywhere else in the state

And this week, the city will become the largest in the state to join the military's Yellow Ribbon Network -- a network that some see as simply a collection of road signs, but others see as a lifeline for military families feeling isolated or abandoned in their communities

Director of Military Outreach Annette Kuyper vacuums in the family room as the Farmington group of Yellow Ribbon City in Minneapolis aids in the cleaning of the home of the Daniel Rawley family in Lakeville on Saturday morning May 5, 2012 Daniel Rawley is currently deployed in Bagram, Afghanistan (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

The network was started about six years ago; the war in Iraq was well under way, and military officials heard increasingly frantic pleas from relatives of those deployed

"They were on life-support -- sweat equity, if you will The third year in, spouses were saying, 'What are you doing? We're stuck here home alone' When troops came home, people give them a big hug and kiss, and two days later, they wake up alone," said retired Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, head of Minnesota's Department of Veterans Affairs

"We needed to bring them all the way home"

Minnesota was one of the first states to get funding from the Pentagon to start a formal program to enlist municipalities, and the organizations and businesses within them, to make specific commitments to military families

In 2006, Farmington native Annette Kuyper's son deployed to the Middle East She volunteered with the National Guard as a family readiness leader -- trying to get support for families while their spouses and children were away

"They (the military) went around with this concept of what to do, but they didn't really have a process for it There were meetings that were well attended, but the National Guard would just leave Communities said, well, that's a great idea, but nobody ever did anything about it," Kuyper said

Kuyper gathered together 40 Farmington residents at city hall -- including the mayor, police chief and several council members -- and tried to come up with something more formal: commitments from churches, schools, businesses, police and the city itself

Within a year, Farmington became the first "Yellow Ribbon" city, in one of the first states to start the program

"We really wanted to go over and above what other communities did, like hang a flag outside city hall or whatever -- we needed to go above that," Kuyper said

In nearby Lakeville, public school teacher Kim Rawley, 37, was holding a teacher conference with a mother who seemed overwhelmed

"She was in tears Her husband was deployed," Rawley said "I could completely relate" With four children of her own, and a military husband who was also deployed, the two had plenty to talk about Rawley found Kuyper on the Internet and told her about her student's mother As Kuyper shot off questions, something became apparent

"What about you, Kim?" Kuyper finally asked

Rawley grudgingly agreed to accept a little help with housework

"I even kind of cleaned before they came I kind of pre-cleaned," she said

When the half-dozen Yellow Ribbon volunteers showed up, they cleaned every room, raked the leaves in the back yard, filled her freezer with meals and took all her dirty clothes to be cleaned

"I do have a washer-dryer -- but there was so much of it that it was just easier to go to the laundromat," Rawley said

Oh, and they repaired water damage to her ceiling

"It's kind of hard to ask for help, but there's so many people that want to help," Rawley said

Kuyper now helps command a group of 250 volunteers with a variety of skills What do they do, exactly?

"Whatever they ask for," Kuyper said

Ashley Laganiere, 27, heard about the Farmington network -- and said it was one of the main reasons she bought a house there

When she did, she asked the group where she could rent a moving truck at a discount She mentioned that her husband was in Kuwait and didn't have family in the area

A week later, in March, 15 network volunteers arrived at her doorstep with a moving van

"They showed up with coffee, donuts, lunches As we cleared out each room, they cleaned They had everything into my (new) house in 21/2 hours Then they worked on the garage door for another two hours, put together chairs

"These people were from the town I was moving to, and I didn't know anyone here"

At this point, St Paul's "action plan" is more like a call to duty There is a skeleton of structure, which organizers hope to flesh out with more volunteers

Organizers admit they have some work to do here yet The city will mostly just be charged with raising awareness for the program and connecting veterans with the people who can help them best

"Big cities are harder than some of the smaller ones to get together," said Melanie Nelson, a National Guard spokeswoman who works with the Yellow Ribbon program "In a smaller town, everyone knows each other, knows where to go"

The action plan currently includes services such as crisis and couples counseling; help with meals, chores, landscaping and housework; financial and tax advice; and a volunteer attorney for wills and estate plans Concordia University, Hamline University and the University of St Thomas have committed additional financial aid for student veterans

But by and large, St Paul's plan appears to consist of dozens of smaller efforts: The Building and Construction Trades Council, for instance, is offering free plumbing services once a year to up to 10 families The Minnesota Realty School is offering 25 full scholarships for service members to receive a realty sales license The Metropolitan Financial Mortgage Company is offering lower rates on many mortgage fees and waiving appraisal fees for vets

"It's somewhat open-ended We always kept coming back to: 'anything else you need' You can't list everything that a veteran or service member could potentially need," said Jake Spano, the marketing director for St Paul's mayor's office who is heading St Paul's Yellow Ribbon steering committee

It will be a challenge because the St Paul project is massive in other ways

"St Paul by far has the most service members in the Army and Air National Guard in Minnesota," said National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Olson

"Ramsey County is really heavily populated with Guard people, and the thing is they're invisible People don't know," said Grant Abbott, who for eight years served as executive director of the St Paul Area Council of Churches He now heads up the "faith-based committee" of St Paul's Yellow Ribbon program

While Abbott notes he was a strong opponent of the second Iraq war, "I always felt those who oppose wars like this have a greater obligation to those who fight it We should not have a recurrence for what happened in Vietnam It's not what I believe Jesus would do"

He's put on paper that he'll help with concrete things -- the things Kuyper notes are the most asked-for

"Meals, cleaning, handyman repairs Those are our top needs," Kuyper said

But so far, Abbott said, he has enlisted only about 10 of St Paul's dozens of churches in the effort

"In terms of actual involvement, not that many yet It's a very difficult time right now Churches need volunteers to run their operations They can only do so many things," Abbott said

Spano and other Yellow Ribbon organizers note that St Paul is just starting out -- Farmington began with a few dozen people talking at a table As more volunteers come forward, Spano said, he hopes St Paul, like Farmington, will have a larger array of services

But one thing many returning soldiers need -- jobs -- will be challenging To join a Yellow Ribbon network, cities need only meet a fairly broad requirement: that some businesses have "demonstrated support of service member(s)"

Kuyper said service members seeking jobs were not as frequent in Farmington as one might expect In St Paul, "Help finding a job is the number one thing we'll hear," Spano believes

While the action plan includes companies, such as Comcast, willing to organize an occasional job fair, or help with resumes and job-seeking skills, only one company -- the Spectacle Shoppe -- listed actual job opportunities in the action plan Spano also noted the city has a veterans hiring preference ordinance, and will organize a veterans job fair this summer

But Shellito notes that Yellow Ribbon cities are about more than formal commitments

"The key to it is, it's not a program, it's an attitude St Paul has always been doing this, to be honest"

"When I came home, you didn't dare wear your uniform in public (Now) when I go into a grocery store, before I walked out I had four different people say 'thank you for your service' That is the Yellow Ribbon program"

As of this week, the Yellow Ribbon Network will include 23 cities in the metro area and nearly 54 statewide Military members needing help in St Paul can call 651-266-8527


What: St Paul joins the Yellow Ribbon network West St Paul and Blaine also will be honored for being part of the network

When: 6:45 pm, Thursday, May 17

Where: Opening day at Midway Stadium, 1771 Energy Park Drive
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