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Minnesota National Guard
Troops look beyond the yellow ribbons

For area Soldiers recently home from Iraq, returning to Minnesota marked the start of a new journey: reintegration into home and community life

In coming months, local troops will participate in a pilot program through the Minnesota Army National Guard titled "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," a comprehensive effort to provide Soldiers with the tools and resources needed for successful reintegration into everyday life

This particular reintegration program is the first of its kind," said Cpt Aaron Krenz, one of the top officers coordinating reintegration sessions for Minnesota troops "No other state in the nation is doing what we're doing"

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon differs from other reintegration efforts in that it follows up with Soldiers at 30-day intervals after their return from service In other states, Krenz said, contact between National Guard officials and Soldiers may not occur until 90 days have passed

Troops from the 136th Infantry will meet in Moorhead Sept 29-30 for their first follow-up program The goal of this session is to connect Soldiers and their families with service providers through workshops and round robin stations

After 60 days, the National Guard will host another session to address anger management, substance abuse issues and other negative behaviors related to combat stress Members of the State Patrol will update Soldiers on laws that changed while they were away and remind them of existing laws that guide everyone's behavior

A lot of the Soldiers have been the law of the land [in Iraq]," Krenz said "We want to ensure that Soldiers know that they're still subject to the laws"

At 90 days, Soldiers will attend sessions without their families, where they will complete their Post Deployment Health Re-assessment, meet with counselors if necessary and turn in any remaining equipment When Soldiers return to normal weekend drill training shortly thereafter, they will continue to have access to resources through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Krenz said

Meanwhile, the Otter Tail County Veterans Service has already begun working with returning troops to connect Soldiers with veterans benefits According to Director Jourdan Sullivan, teams of county service officers from around the state traveled to Fort McCoy to help Soldiers fill out the paperwork needed to enter the Veterans Affairs health system Soldiers must fall under a certain gross income level -- $27,790 for a single veteran, $33,350 for a veteran with a spouse and progressively higher levels depending on the number of children -- or fall under an asset limit of $80,000 to qualify for system coverage

It is important to register Soldiers in the system as soon as possible, Sullivan said, to ensure coverage for the rest of their lives

Once we have them in the VA system," Sullivan said, "they'll be grandfathered into the system"

The Veterans Service also helps Soldiers receive compensation for service-connected disabilities Sullivan said he expects to see many cases of bilateral hearing loss and tinnitus -- ringing in the ears -- due to the high number of improvised explosive devices Soldiers encountered in Iraq A potential hearing problem should receive attention early to ensure attention in the future

It may not be very extreme now but in 40 years it will be exacerbated by age and more noise," Sullivan said, adding that he also expects to see back and knee injuries among returning Soldiers

"These guys are bound to have some musco-skeletal problems from the weight they've been humping around out there in the desert," he said

Beyond health care, the Veterans Service connects returning Soldiers with pension and educational benefits Securing these benefits can be a long, complicated and controversial process, but Otter Tail County staff are committed to helping veterans as much as they can

"We feel very strongly that veterans have earned the benefits that the government has provided for them," Sullivan said

With 2,680 veterans, Otter Tail County is the eighth largest county in the state in terms of the number of veterans, Sullivan said The county's Veterans Service office -- in which six people work full-time on benefits work -- has an annual budget of $360,000 It distributed about $20 million in veterans benefits last year

By Lauren Radomski | The Daily Journal

Published Wednesday, August 8, 2007

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