Yellow Ribbon Event Helps Reservists, Families
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Nov. 1, 2010 Less than two months after returning home from a year-long deployment to Iraq, Army Reserve Cpl. Jorge Velazquez hadn’t expected his homecoming to be so daunting.
Army Reserve Cpl. Jorge Velazquez, recently returned home to Puerto Rico after a deployment to Iraq, and his wife, Jennifer Aruela, said they hope the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program will help them resolve Velazquez’ No. 1 post-deployment challenge: finding a civilian job. The couple joined other 1st Mission Support Command families during an Oct. 30-31 Yellow Ribbon event in San Juan, Puerto Rico. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Duty in Iraq had been tough for the young soldier, a supply sergeant who found himself working the emotionally charged mortuary affairs mission with responsibility for five different collection points.
But now that he’s home with his family, Velazquez has a whole new set of challenges before him. He’s learning to be a father to the 1-year-old born just after he deployed while struggling to pay the bills as he desperately job-hunts in a labor market showing no signs of turning around any time soon.
“At Balad [Air Base in Iraq], I didn’t have to worry about these things,” said Valazquez, who serves with the 1st Mission Support Command’s 210th Regional Support Group. “I pretty much just focused on the mission.”
After returning home to Puerto Rico, Velazquez found himself burying his nose in his video games to escape his frustrations. “It was my way of relieving stress, because I was looking for a job, and the phone wasn’t ringing,” he said.
Fortunately for Velazquez, the Defense Department’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program had helped to prepare his wife, Jennifer Aruela, to expect these challenges. She’d been to the support group sessions while he was gone and talked with a psychologist to better understand what he might experience after returning home.
During the Oct. 29-31 weekend, the couple joined about 160 other Army Reserve families from throughout the 1st MSC for a Yellow Ribbon event designed to help ease their post-deployment transition.
The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, established by Congress in 2008, aims to help Reserve and National Guard members reintegrate with their families, communities and civilian employers. It features a series of events throughout the deployment cycle, beginning with predeployment sessions that prepare the soldiers and their families for what’s ahead, explained Army Brig. Gen. Fernando Fernandez, the 1st MSC commanding general. Additional events include a family session during the deployment and three post-demobilization events: at 30, 60, then 90 days after redeployment.
Fernandez said the program makes the entire deployment process smoother by building family resilience and arming families with information and points of contact so they know where to turn if they need help.
Ultimately, family readiness affects military readiness, he noted.
“Preparing the families gives soldiers peace of mind so when they deploy, they know their families are being taken care of, and they can concentrate on the mission,” the general said.
Fernandez, a 28-year soldier who remembers returning with his soldiers from an Operation Desert Storm deployment with no thought given to any adjustment period after combat, said he also sees huge value in the Yellow Ribbon program’s post-deployment events.
“This is an opportunity for the soldiers to reintegrate with their families,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to assess, after they come back, how are they dealing with it? How is that soldier integrating after being gone for a year?”
Like Velazquez, many of the Army Reservists from the 166th and 210th Regional Support Groups’ headquarters and headquarters detachments and the Rear Operations Center Detachment who gathered for their 30-day event still were adjusting to the new realities of being home.
It wasn’t always what they had romanticized about while they were gone. Some had to work to reinsert themselves into families that had become self-sufficient in their absence. Others found themselves needing to build trust in young children who simply couldn’t understand why they’d been abandoned. Still others had to adjust to new disciplinary approaches introduced in their households while they were deployed.
Army Master Sgt. Rodney Pearson, a drill sergeant from Fountain Inn, S.C., who cross-leveled into the 210th RSC for the deployment, remembered the day his 12-year-old son, angry that Pearson wouldn’t let him have his way, lashed out, “I wish you would never have come home!”
“It stabbed me to the heart,” Pearson said, smiling sheepishly as if embarrassed he’d let the adolescent outburst get to him.
Two months after returning home, Pearson said, it felt great to reunite with his battle buddies for the Yellow Ribbon program and to have the Army treat him and his family to a “mini-vacation” in Puerto Rico.
“From Day One, the [Puerto Rican reservists] pretty much adopted me as their brother in arms,” he said. “I think it’s been really valuable to do a Yellow Ribbon event with the unit you deployed with, because they’re the ones who know you, who have become your brothers. For me, this is like a family reunion.”
As the soldiers and families reconnected during the weekend Yellow Ribbon event, they attended a broad array of sessions aimed at helping them overcome post-deployment challenges. The topics, tailored to the units’ needs, ran the gamut from relationship-building and suicide and drug and alcohol abuse prevention to post-deployment benefits and services provided by the military or state.
Outside the conference rooms, attendees wandered among booths where they could chat with experts about different support programs and services or, to Valazquez’s delight, submit job applications with employers hiring new workers.
“This is really beneficial,” Pearson said of the array of offerings. “It gives us the resources we might not know about if there are issues, and the tools to be a stronger family.”
“It’s great to be able to take a break and come to a nice place with the family and get exposed to the programs that are out there for us,” echoed Army Staff Sgt. Miguel Adame, a 166th RSG soldier who attended the session with his wife, Otilia, and three children. “There’s a lot of value in a program like this.”
Some of the most valuable lessons came during the less formal information-sharing sessions.
Barbara Rodriguez said she thought she was ready for just about anything when her husband, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Ariel Feliciano, the 1st MSC’s first sergeant, left for his second deployment to Iraq. She’d already been tested by fire – literally – when the couple’s home burned to the ground during his 18-month deployment in 2003.
“I thought the second deployment would be easier, because I’d already been through all that, but it wasn’t so. I realized that every deployment is different and has its own challenges,” Rodriguez said. “If I hadn’t attended the Yellow Ribbon events, I wouldn’t have understood the value of the family readiness group, and I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of all the resources here to help families.”
Now an active family readiness group volunteer, Rodriguez has become a huge fan of the Yellow Ribbon program. It builds Army Reserve families’ self-confidence, she said, as well as a sense of security and recognition that “somebody cares.”
“For spouses and families, it’s building [resilience],” she said. “They are getting the tools they need to be stronger and more independent.”
For Rodriguez and Feliciano, their second deployment, with support and information provided through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, had an unexpected payoff for their 35-year marriage.
“Our marriage got stronger and we became closer,” said Rodriguez. “We care more now about the little things: the family activities, sharing thoughts, communicating. It’s actually turned out to be a positive for us.”