Minnesota recently experienced an unprecedented event; the near simultaneous return of 2,600 combat veterans to the state. The proud, tired and bloodied 1st Brigade of the 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, (1-34BCT), returned home after their twenty two month combat deployment in Iraq.
The Minnesota towns from whence these proud soldiers came, in fine fashion, hailed the returning warriors with wonderful ‘Welcome Home’ ceremonies. The veterans cherished the sentiment at the events, then shouldered their duffle bags and went ‘home’.
Unfortunately, ‘going home’ is neither simple nor easy. Six months of combat training at Camp Shelby, followed by sixteen months of combat operations, the longest Army Guard tour of duty in Iraq, combined to forge these men and women into warriors. Within three hundred hours of their last combat mission they were demobilized and on the streets of Minnesota.
The home they will return to has changed. Families have either become ‘survivors’ or ‘broken.’ The majority will have learned to literally survive without their soldier. Roles will have changed, children will have grown and family dynamics altered. For a minority, marriages have ended and families have shattered beneath the stress of almost two years of separation.
Our proud combat veterans now face the daunting challenges of freedom. Gone will be the austere, disciplined life of a forward operating base, with the focus of missions and the camaraderie of the military unit. Ahead is the complex, multi-tasking, fast paced world of work, family, civic responsibilities and for many, school.
The vast majority of these combat veterans will face these challenges and handle them well. In fact, as past generations of combat veterans have shown, this generation of combat veterans will soon begin to emerge as leaders in every productive sector of society. The combination of discipline, wisdom gleaned from sacrifice and the love of life that only those who have had it threatened will combine to vault this generation ahead of its peers. Future governors, senators, doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy, social workers and scientists undoubtedly are returning within the ranks of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
A few, unfortunately, will stumble badly. These troubled souls will wrestle with the effects of war on themselves and their families. They will need the best Minnesota has to offer.
The majority however, will need our support as well. They will need employers willing to be patient as they wrestle to regain the skills that have atrophied. They will need educators in our colleges and technical schools willing to help them through the complexities of admission, registration and return to rigorous study. They will need parent educators willing to offer classes to help them learn to parent the children they love but barely know. They will need wise counselors to help them negotiate new roles in marriage and families. They will need savvy medical providers who understand traumatic brain injuries, Middle Eastern parasites and skin diseases. They will need clergy who can listen without condemnation and help them sort out the hardness of soul that war can produce.
Above all they will need a community that walks with them and their family long after the yellow ribbons fades away. A community that, though deeply conflicted by our nation’s war in Iraq, honors the sacrifice made by these unique citizen-soldiers. A community that challenges this, our newest, ‘greatest generation’, to continued selfless service by inviting these combat veterans to serve in leadership capacities in business, education, government, houses of worship and non-profit organizations. A community dedicated to bringing these soldiers all the way home, leaving none behind, and helping each to become the productive, healthy citizen we need each of them to be.
Chaplain John Morris wrote this editorial as part of the “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” program he leads. The editorial has run in 50 of Minnesota’s newspapers. You can find more material on the “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” website.
Chaplain Morris is endorsed as an Army National Guard chaplain in the Minnesota Conference.