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Minnesota National Guard
A long road to normal for Soldiers, families

The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon presentation in Princeton last week provided a two-and-a-half hour look into the minds of Soldiers, Marines, sailors or Air Force members returning home from a combat zone

The Minnesota Army National Guard gave the presentation, one of scores of such that it has been giving across the state as the months draw closer to the big event

That is, the return home of 2,600 Minnesota National Guard Soldiers after serving 22 months on active duty

About 16 months of that service will have been in Iraq

It was originally supposed to have been just a year in Iraq But the federal government extended their duty there by 110 days as part of the troop-surge strategy in Iraq

The Bush Administration decided on the surge with the idea it would quell the sectarian violence that had increased in Iraq since the US invaded the country in March 2003

That has of course affected the involved National Guard Soldiers But just as much if not more, it has affected their families at home

The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon presentation, which took place last Thursday at Cross of Life Community Church in Princeton, had a crowd peaking at 100 Army National Guard Chaplin Joel Severson is the pastor at Cross of Life Community Church

For Linda Anderson, Princeton, the presentation was worth attending Anderson's husband, Army National Guard 1st Sgt Randy Hatch, 51, heads the Bravo Company maintenance crew in the 134th Brigade Support Battalion

Anderson said this is the third such presentation she has attended

This is the second one she has been to in which Minnesota National Guard Deputy Chaplain, Maj John Morris presided Morris has "always done such a wonderful job," she said "I always hear something different each time"

What was different at this one, she noted, was the testimony by a woman telling what it was like to have her husband be away on active duty

Anderson was referring to Sgt Jonna Miller, with the Air Force

Miller began by telling how she and her husband had married Jan 3, 2004 Three months later while the two were ice skating in downtown Minneapolis he received the call that he would be deployed to Iraq

As she bid him farewell in early June 2004, it was to be the first of many goodbyes to him as he moved from training to going to the combat zone, she noted "You never know if it will be the last goodbye," she said about the uncertainty of a Soldier's future in war

As she talked, she had images projected onto a screen of their wedding day, and later when she was with other couples at a wedding In that latter photo she left a gap between her and the next person in the group to show they were missing her husband

She described her feelings as though she was in a "canoe trying to get somewhere I always felt a huge sense of loneliness"

Her husband, meanwhile, was the kind of person who liked "living on the edge," having the kind of job like he had in a combat zone with an element of danger, she indicated

Miller showed one photo of her standing in a crowd looking up into her husband's face, while he is gazing off into the distance

It seemed like for his first year back from the combat zone he was just "looking over my head," she said, with a yearning to go back to the kind of active duty he had in the military

She said the two tried mountain biking and snowboarding in a quest for something adventurous but it wasn't quite enough

Families of someone returning from a military combat lifestyle, Miller told the crowd, will have to find a "new normal for themselves"

Families go through "tremendous upheaval in their lives" when a member leaves for active duty, Miller said, and then again when they return

For example, Miller illustrated, a father may come home looking forward to his old job of mowing the lawn that he found so relaxing, only to find that his 14 year-old is doing that job now

Miller was referring to how family members assume new roles when a member is gone, and then have to adjust to switching back to their old roles or all have to compromise to find a new balance

Nothing was familiar to her husband upon his return home, she continued As an example of his trying to find something familiar, she said, was his commuting to Menominee for college classes, rather than take the same classes available at the closer University of Minnesota

Miller advised the community to not forget the families Too many will ask how the military person is doing and forget about the health and well being of the families, she said

Another piece of advice she gave was to avoid bringing up political issues Her husband's parents would ask him political-related questions and that is "not always most helpful," said Miller Just supporting the returning military person is enough, she advised

Family members also need space and time to reconnect, she said

Remember too, Miller said, that the readjustment to civilian life can take up to 18 months

Another speaker, Jennifer Iveland with the Veterans Administration's Veterans Center, also offered tips for helping with the reintegration

She suggested not to develop unreasonable expectations on how the readjustment will go, reasoning that "not everything goes perfectly" She urged employers to recognize the service and sacrifice of the returning personnel

The workforce should also be prepared and people should be careful not to assume the worst may happen to a returning Soldier psychologically, Iveland said To that end she advised employers not to label a returning veteran with post traumatic disorder syndrome, but also not to ignore harmful behavior

Iveland suggested that clergy members try to provide a safe, welcoming environment and not make judgments about the Soldier politically

"Don't condemn us because of foreign policy decisions," Iveland said, speaking for returning veterans "We're just doing our duty executing the decisions"

Iveland urged law enforcement officers to know who the combat veterans are and to expect they might have increased traffic violations due to the conditions the veterans were used to in a combat zone

Officers should be prepared for possible expressions of aggression, anger and hostility from some returning vets and should watch for their having weapons, said Iveland Assume they are armed and they would use their weapons, she added

Law enforcement should try not to escalate any bad situations that might develop involving returning veterans, Iveland said At the same time, she said, these veterans should not be given "free passes," or be free of having the law enforced on them

Iveland urged health care providers not to talk condescendingly to the veterans She suggested some veterans may become tense and agitated over the loss of control over things that they might have once had

One of the themes brought out in the presentation was how so many of the American Soldiers or Marines sent to Iraq are very young, yet have been given huge responsibilities and power Some operate heavy machinery, are armed with powerful weapons and are given assignments involving life and death decisions daily They may be told to shoot at anybody, whatever their age, if they get too close or cross a security boundary, Morris said

Not only is there a loss of responsibility in coming back, said Maj Morris, but they may have scars from forced decisions to shoot when they did not want to

Another speaker, Andre Sanchez, who was in the army in Iraq, received his orders on Valentine's Day 2003

Sanchez used graphics to explain the sudden shock created by going from civilian life to military patrol in what he said was this far off place of Iraq that he had only seen on TV

One of his photos was of a Highway in Iraq, with an overhead sign bearing the city names, Basrah and Baghdad, in English and then the Iraqi language alongside

The Soldier is also "put into a marriage" with fellow Soldiers, Sanchez continued "Their lives are in your hands and your life is in their hands," Sanchez explained

Just the experience of hearing the first explosion over there was something quite different, Sanchez went on It caused a reverberation that could be felt through the body, he said When first hearing that, a Soldier does not know what to do, he said

Sanchez said his return to stateside had pitfalls

He said he felt like he was someone "10 feet tall who could walk on water"

He went on to say he felt disappointment when the adulation didn't come and he had to adjust, he said

Sanchez also had to deal, he said, with feeling guilt that he should have been killed by the bomb that killed a fellow Soldier he knew, in Iraq

"I thought it would be blue skies when I returned home," Sanchez said about his expectations "I didn't know it would be partly cloudy"

Sanchez was also critical of how he was not given more than three days off after his return before being put on more military duty at his stateside duty station

Then there was the personal challenges of his daughter not recognizing him at first and his wife finding it difficult again to adjust to the noises of a sleeping spouse

Meanwhile, as he was looking for space to be alone, he didn't find enough of that with children around, he said

Sanchez, who now works for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, vowed to try to make the transition better for returning veterans than it had been for him

One of the dangers that veterans returning from a war face, Maj Morris cautioned, is "boredom" Therefore, they may find it very difficult finding a job that gives the same adrenalin rush they had on active duty, Morris predicted

Morris showed a video of an American Soldier in Iraq falling to the ground after being shot He explained the video, which showed the Soldier then getting up and finding cover behind a military vehicle The Soldier lived because of wearing Kevlar body armor

Morris talked about the mistakes the Soldier had made by being too complacent where he was on duty, and for standing straight up after getting shot But it shows how difficult it is to react properly in split second events, even with intense military training, said Morris

Advice from Anderson

Linda Anderson talked on Tuesday about a delicate balance that spouses will have in giving their returning Soldiers space, yet not letting them stay in a type of shell too long

"You need to know your Soldier," she said, "because at some point if he is still sitting, staring at the TV after five months, he is crossing the line"

People need to "back off" the first two weeks or so to give them space but the Soldier also has to reintegrate by doing such things as finding a job, she said

It is difficult for a Soldier to be trained for a military job of shooting at people or driving big machinery worth millions of dollars, and then returning to civilian life, said Anderson

"The way you [the returning Soldier] were [before active duty] is not the way you are now," Anderson added "You are not going to go back to the way you were But you have to come back to some kind of normal"

Joel Stottrup "¢ Princeton Union-Eagle
April 5, 2007
In The News: 4/5/2007
A long road to normal for soldiers, families

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