Elk River lost the battle but it’s winning the war

Elk River lost its fight to land a VA clinic here, but I am happy to report the community’s resolve to meet the needs of service members and their families is as strong as ever.

Elk River didn’t retreat from  its efforts to help those who have served — and sacrificed. The community of Elk River continues to demonstrate why it would have been a good host to the VA clinic. What it may lack in political clout it makes up for in its collective heart for veterans and their families.

One visible sign of that heart is the early success of the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign. A group of community leaders began meeting just a few short months ago, and it has already made enough progress to set a date for its community kick-off of the program. Mark Jan. 7 on your calendar and watch the Star News for more details.

The local community has also come through for the Elk River American Legion when it was about to close. That struggle is not over, but the desire to keep it open as a hub for both veterans and the community remains strong.

Churches and community groups continue to make strides in reaching out the families affected by deployments.

And now all these efforts will coalesce with a new VA Clinic six miles down the road in Ramsey.
The clinic opened two Tuesdays ago. Four days prior to that, there was a Veterans Day celebration and clinic open house  to recognize the new clinic, which was billed by officials and dignitaries as a real visible sign of gratitude for the service of veterans — both current and future. Well said, folks.

At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest of the 11 clinics in the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. It’s both attractive and functional, with space for primary care, dental care, ophthalmology, audiology,  women’s health and mental health.

This clinic, which can be seen from Highway 10 in the former Ramsey Town Square that is now called COR, will serve veterans in the northwestern suburbs from Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties to Isanti, Mille Lacs and western Hennepin counties.

That’s great news.

Elk River, which was initially tabbed as the future home of the clinic, lost the political game of chess to the muscle of Anoka County, which has feisty politicians and thousands of veterans who waged war for the right to site the clinic there.

But Elk River did not retreat from its efforts, especially with the formation of a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization. The group, which is divided into eight key areas and meets monthly, will work tirelessly to identify more members and line up local resources that can help military families. You and your business or organization may be tapped next if you haven’t already been asked to get involved. There is plenty of synergy in the community to make the effort a success.

Take, for instance, the recent effort launched by River of Life Church to prepare more than 400 care packages for soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.  A volunteer team of 15 to 20 people led that effort and another 20-plus businesses helped make the effort a success.

Even more impressive than that is the church’s broader efforts to reach out to families and develop relationships with these soldiers and families through a wall of honor.

Other churches in Elk River have successful models to reach soldiers and their families, too.
Members of the community welcome a chance to help service members when they are given concrete ways in which they can help. Beyond the Yellow Ribbon will be able to connect the dots.

The program is a recognition that support for soldiers cannot end when they return home from deployment and yellow ribbons are untied.  Support is needed before, during and long after deployment to assist with the reintegration process.

The success of the program is based on the goodwill and the desires of the community to determine what its response will be for the next greatest generation of men and women. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Minnesota has deployed more than 20,000 soldiers and airmen in combat and peacekeeping operations around the globe.
The impetus for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program came from Major Gen. Larry Shellito, former Minnesota National Guard adjutant general who saw service members experiencing some of the same challenges with reintegration that he did when he returned from the Vietnam War.

That’s downright scary from what we know about the treatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam. I think the vibe in Elk River today is a far cry from what it was back then, but there are still needs that must be met.
Gen. Shellito asked Lt. Col. John Morris, the chaplain of the Minnesota National Guard, to design a program to meet the needs of today’s service members and their families. Inspired by some of his own experiences, Morris did just that.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty championed the program from the beginning, saying communities around the state needed to match the commitment of veterans with words and deeds.

“We need to make sure it’s more than a term,” he said in a documentary on the program when it was in its infancy. “It needs to be a meaningful and deliverable set of services that reflects the best commitment we can make as a state and nation for the men and women who risked their lives and take on great burdens for the cause of freedom, liberty and security in this country.”

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is not a military mission. It is a state and community responsibility. It’s a comprehensive program that creates awareness for the purpose of connecting service members and their families with sustainable community support, training, services and resources.

The Elk River community is committed to become more aware of its military families, those who are deploying and those who are returning  — or have returned. It’s also compiling lists of what their unique needs are and developing plans to meet them.

That means some systems will have to be created. But it also means that organizations and agencies simply need to connect more effectively.

A few things the organizing committee has learned already is that there are 186 National Guard soldiers with addresses in the 55330 ZIP code. This does not include the Army Reserves and active military personnel that Beyond the Yellow Ribbon also hopes to assist.

Members of the group also now know there is a clearing house for military families in need through 10 Family Assistance Centers (FAC) around the state, including one in St. Cloud.

Family Assistance Centers were the brain child of the Department of Defense in response to the unmet needs of guard and reserve members and their families who don’t have the benefit of a military base. That being said, the FACs work to help all branches of the military.

The St. Cloud FAC and local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group have met and have already agreed to work together.

There’s also the Military Family Care Initiative that was created by former First Lady Mary Pawlenty.
This Web-based program is designed to help families during times of deployment. This initiative unites community organizations and businesses with military families to provide volunteer services and discounted services to the families of military personnel during times of separation from their loved one.
This effort now falls under the umbrella of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, but has garnered little attention in Sherburne County.

With a Yellow Ribbon group in place, there’s now a means to filling in the blanks of such a delivery system.
The true success of the local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group will not be known for some time, but done right it could be bigger than landing the VA Clinic here.

That would have been nice, too, but take heart in that the chances of the needs of service members and their families falling through the cracks is diminishing as we speak and work on their behalf. I can think of no better way for our community to say thank you to these brave men and women and their families. — Jim Boyle, editor