Program Aims to Support Single Guard, Reserve Troops
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
HOUSTON, Oct. 25, 2010 Army Sgt. 1st Class Karen Perry was thrilled to return to Texas to reunite with her boyfriend after she served a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Karen Perry, left, catches up with her battle buddy, Army Sgt. Annika Chambers, during a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program post-deployment event in Houston, Oct. 17, 2010. The program aims to equip Guard and Reserve members with the skills they need to successfully transition back to their families, communities and jobs. DOD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Yet, upon her return stateside her boyfriend provided some bad news. He’d met someone else while she was overseas and he was leaving her that day, she recalled.
Perry then found herself -- after a year of camaraderie and support with her fellow soldiers in Iraq – alone.
“That was very hard because I don’t have family here in Texas,” she said, tears welling up at the painful memory. “I knew there were 800 numbers I could call to talk to someone, but it’s hard to talk to a stranger; you really want to be with a friend.”
But the battle buddies she’d grown so close to in Iraq –- all Texas Army National Guardsmen -- had returned to their homes, and to their civilian lives. Distanced from her military friends and unsure of where to turn, Perry spent the next two weeks feeling isolated and alone.
Today, Perry is all smiles as she sits next to her friend, Army Sgt. Annika Chambers, in the lobby of a massive convention center here, surrounded by nearly 2,000 fellow soldiers and family members of the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“She helped me through,” she said quietly gesturing to Chambers.
“And you took good care of me in Iraq,” Chambers responded with a smile.
The soldiers were attending a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program post-deployment event, which aims to equip Guard and Reserve members with the skills they need to successfully transition back to their families, communities and jobs. It also helps them build a foundation of support that will ensure servicemembers like Perry never feel abandoned or alone.
Perry said she has learned a lot about herself over the past few months. Most of all she regrets isolating herself.
“If you just sit by yourself and think about it, it makes it so much worse,” she said. “It’s best to surround yourself with people who can support you.”
The Yellow Ribbon program aims to provide that support to Guard and Reserve members throughout the deployment cycle with a series of events: one at the alert phase, one during the deployment and three post-deployment at 30, 60 and 90 days after their return. The events focus on topics such as communication, financial management, health and education benefits, and stress and anger management.
Communication is a key theme at Yellow Ribbon events, where single soldiers are taught how to find or build support systems to prevent isolation upon their return. After a deployment, thrust back into the civilian world, some servicemembers may find it difficult to connect with old friends and co-workers after forging such deep relationships downrange.
“They may feel they don’t fit in with friends anymore” and then lose interest in re-establishing ties, said Army Lt. Col. Cynthia Rasmussen, psychological director for the Army Reserve’s 88th Regional Support Command and a Yellow Ribbon presenter. “If you’re a young woman who comes home and friends aren’t there, what do you do for support?”
At Yellow Ribbon events, experts try to help servicemembers figure out why they’re feeling like an “alien” and how they can learn to overcome that, Rasmussen said.
Strong communication skills are essential in sustaining successful relationships, Rasmussen noted. If servicemembers can articulate how they feel when asked an uncomfortable question or when feeling like the “odd man out,” she said, they’ll be better able to combat loneliness or isolation.
In a session titled, “Coming Home,” Rasmussen teaches servicemembers how to find a common language. Military members, she said, speak a common language and exhibit bonding behaviors from boot camp on that contribute to mission accomplishment –- especially in war zones. But servicemembers’ vernacular, she said, doesn’t always translate well in the civilian world.
Rasmussen helps servicemembers learn how to speak a common language devoid of military jargon, so they can effectively communicate with civilian friends, family and co-workers.
While a tough transition, the alternative can be much worse.
“If you and the other person aren’t speaking the same language, aren’t getting along, both can quickly get defensive and back up into corners,” Rasmussen said. “And it can happen in just a few minutes.” People then may be left with job losses, conflict or failed relationships, she said.
Army Spc. Ethan Sparkman discovered how quickly communication can break down shortly after he deployed to Iraq with the 72nd IBCT last year. His wife, he recalled, wanted him to call often and speak for hours, and he preferred quick calls in between days filled with constant tasks. Their arguments over missed calls and resentments over a perceived lack of support resulted in a seemingly irreparable breach in their relationship, Sparkman said.
“While I was overseas I told her I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Sparkman said. “She felt her life was harder than everyone else’s, but while I was overseas [I had] realized everyone’s life is hard but in different ways.”
Sparkman said he turned to his friends for support while overseas, but upon his return in August, like Perry, he found himself alone. The friendship with high school buddies he was so close to before, he said, paled in comparison to the friendships he relied on so heavily in Iraq.
“It’s one of the hardest things about [the] Guard and Reserve, not being on a base where you have a certain group of people around you,” Sparkman said. “We don’t get to see each other that often now after being used to seeing them every day. That’s hard.”
Sparkman said he’s grateful for Yellow Ribbon events since they give him a chance to catch up with his friends after several months of Facebook messages and “tweets.” They also offer him a chance to look back on his relationship and learn from what went wrong.
Yellow Ribbon events offer the perfect opportunity to form lasting relationships and support, Rasmussen noted, but the onus is on commanders and front-line supervisors to reach out to their troops long after the homecoming ceremony comes to an end.
“People should reach out to their battle buddies, and stay in contact with e-mail and phone calls,” she said. “There are some great commanders and first sergeants out there calling their soldiers once a week. Units shouldn’t cut off communication right away.”
The underlying message that weaves its way throughout all of the Yellow Ribbon events is one of support and hope, Rasmussen said.
“I do see soldiers struggling,” she said. “But all they need is a little bit of hope and help and support. When you’re feeling alone, it’s easier to lose hope.”
For more on the Yellow Ribbon program or to locate an event, visit http://www.yellowribbon.mil.