Beyond the Yellow Ribbon launches

by Jim Boyle

Annette Kuyper, the director of military outreach for the Minnesota Army National Guard, helped Elk River launch itself into the next phase of becoming a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community this past weekend.

Kuyper was the keynote speaker at the Jan. 7 Beyond the Yellow Ribbon  community kickoff event, which was hosted by the members of a local steering committee and was open to the general public.

Annette Kuyper, director of military outreach for the Minnesota Army National Guard, at the Jan. 7 kickoff.

The program attracted dozens of people and demonstrated that while much has been accomplished to get this effort to reach servicemen and -women and their families off the ground, a great deal of work remains.

“The Yellow Ribbon program in the state of Minnesota is creating miracles all around Minnesota,” Kuyper said. “It’s creating a whole new way we can support military families — leading the way in the nation for how America can take care of its veterans.”

Some of the groundwork for miracles has been laid and provided cause for celebration. There are more than 180 members of the National Guard in the 55330 zip code alone.

Elk River Mayor John Dietz called it a great day for Elk River.

“This is the right thing to do,” he said. “To my way of thinking, in a small way, this program could help save lives.”

Dietz said military personnel serving overseas must focus completely on their tasks at hand, and Beyond the Yellow Ribbon has the potential to take care of problems on the home front that could be clouding their thinking.

“This program can give our service members peace of mind,” he said. “And this is just the beginning of the program. It will continue to grow as we get further down the road.”

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon grew out of efforts on the part of the state to reach out to soldiers and their families dealing with deployment. Service members and their families attend preparatory academies before a deployment and 30, 60 and 90 days after a deployment.

“It didn’t take us long to realize that wasn’t enough,” Kuyper said. “The fight over the checkbook didn’t happen when they were with other military families at re-integration training. The child having problems in school didn’t happen when they were with other youth at a re-integration event.

“We needed to ask our communities to replicate the kinds of services and synchronization of support that active duty installations for military bases have for our guard and reserve members.”

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is doing just that.

The program reaches all branches of the military and it reaches everyone touched by a service member deployment — before, during and long after their deployment.

Kuyper said one of the reasons the program has become so successful is it has helped communities  organize and synchronize all the resources they already have and the state has been able to provide partners.

“A lot of the things you will be asked to do are already being done,” she said.

And as for the organizations that are already doing a lot, she says the state will be challenging them to do even more if Elk River is to receive the designation of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.

Another critical component is that those pushing the program now know what aids the resiliency of soldiers who have been deployed and now must re-integrate into society. There have been studies. Data bases have been analyzed. And soldiers and their families have been asked point-blank what their needs are.

One of the first factors to affect the resiliency of soldiers is if they have felt their loved ones were being taken care of while they were gone.

“To think that all of you could impact their resiliency in returning to civilian life by taking care of a family member of someone who is deployed,” Kuyper said. “How great is that?”

There are other factors that play a role in determining how resilient soldiers can be.

Visible signs of support go a long a way — yellow ribbons and flags adorning a town and “We Support Our Troops” license plates on squad cars are two of many examples that have been done.

Having a workplace that supported them being an active guard or reserve member is another key. When a soldier doesn’t have to worry about losing his or her job while he or she is away means a lot. And when soldiers return to work with new skills from their deployment and they are considered for advancement, that helps even more.

The needs of returning soldiers are many, and include financial matters.

“We don’t come and ask for communities to come up with a bunch of money,” Kuyper said.  “We ask for ways to develop financial literacy and to teach financial planning. And maybe these things already exist.”

It might be as simple as marketing community education classes to military families.

Same thing with the faith community. Maybe the courses for couples and individuals wanting to grow in their faith could be marketed to service persons and their families.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon communities are also asked to assist with providing accessible health care.

That means making sure all the local health clinics take the insurance coverage soldiers have. It also means gathering mental health professionals who would be willing to help or serve as a resource.

Employment, not surprisingly, is one of the biggest needs soldiers have. It might be Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce that get tapped to help in these areas.

Family support during a deployment can mean having someone lined up to shovel every time it snows.

“It’s not just being a phone number, but every time it snows there’s a volunteer in that driveway shoveling,” Kuyper said. “It’s not always enough to say: ‘Just let me know’ or ‘I’m only a phone call away.’ ”

Once all these things and other things are in place, amazing things can happen. Kuyper offered several compelling examples. In one instance,  an elderly vet was moving back home to Albert Lea from the VA Hospital in Minneapolis. His wife had a fall and broke her arm, so she wasn’t able to get him settled. A daughter couldn’t get off from her job for a week in LaCrosse, Wis. to get him settled, either.

“I made one phone call to the Albert Lea Beyond the Yellow Ribbon network,” Kuyper said. “A local nurse checked in every day for a week. Local churches were activated and brought meals each day for a week.

His daughter called Kuyper, crying. “I can’t believe (this network) activated so quickly,” she told Kuyper.

Another example was a young man who had returned in December of 2010 and by January of 2011 was falling apart. He had problems with a girlfriend and had taken up residence in his parents’ basement.

A sheriff’s deputy in a southwest metro county had pulled the man over one Saturday night for DUI. During the course of his subsequent arrest and being jailed, the officer asked it would be OK if he phoned the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization.

By the time the young man returned to his college that week, there was a counselor lined up to speak with him. The man ended up being hospitalized.

But the traffic stop and phone call to BTYR served as a turning point. Over the course of the past year this young man has uncovered his interest in law enforcement and is being mentored by the same deputy who pulled him over.

“All because of that one call,” Kuyper said.

Veterans service organizations will also be tapped.

“We know they’re already doing amazing things,” Kuyper said. “But the bar is raised for them. We need them to do everything in partnership.”

Eventually Elk River will go before a review board to seek its status as a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community. Once approved, that’s when the governor will come to town and there will be a huge community-wide celebration.

Kuyper offered a caution, however.

“When you get that yellow ribbon sign, we don’t want any military service member or family to drive by and not know what that means,” she said. “We want them to know what it means and feel it as they move about the city.”

And once that is accomplished, the challenge will be to sustain it.

“I’m happy to be involved in such a worthwhile project,” Dietz said. “Elk River residents should be proud that our community will soon be designated as a Yellow Ribbon city.”