August 25, 2011

Conference to provide services to reservists from all military branches

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program offers sessions on staying resilient during long absences.

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The U.S. military fights jointly. Perhaps it is time to get counseling jointly.

A large conference this weekend at a North Texas hotel will provide the Defense Department a test case for the merits of providing employment, marriage and combat-stress counseling to reservists from all branches of the armed forces in one setting rather than segregating by service.

The idea originated with the family readiness leaders from Naval Air Station Fort Worth, the nation's first joint reserve base where units have deployed in and out of war zones for a decade.

"We started to see that a service member is a service member," said Heidi Bearden, family readiness program manager for the Texas National Guard's 136th Airlift Wing. "It doesn't matter what uniform they're wearing. They and their families all deserve the best care and support."

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program is designed to help members of the reserves and National Guard and their families with the challenges of pre- and post-deployment, which are sometimes vastly different from those of the active-duty military. More than 800,000 reservists and National Guard troops have been deployed at some point since 2001.

The program offers sessions on how to stay resilient and positive during long absences, how to deal with pay and healthcare issues, how to improve employment prospects in the civilian sector, how to reintegrate with the family and society after combat, and how to improve marital communication. Sessions are also scheduled for children.

Offering reservists and National Guard troops this type of help is critical, leaders say, because they and their families lack the close-knit support services of an active installation such as Fort Hood or Dyess Air Force Base.

"When a brigade combat team from the 82nd Airborne deploys, the families of those soldiers either live on Fort Bragg or close to Fort Bragg," said Army Maj. Gen. Charles Luckey, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs for reserve matters. "They can avail themselves of all the family support services. And since all the soldiers deploy at the same time, the families are going through the same experiences at the same time.

"In the reserve component, spouses like my wife, Julie, might literally be the only person in that ZIP code who has someone she cares about deployed in harm's way," he said. "It just becomes an exponentially more problematic endeavor."

Free program

Leading causes of stress for the reserve force are the weak economy, high unemployment, underemployment and employers weary of seeing employees deploy.

The Yellow Ribbon program started in 2008 at the urging of Congress. It is free for service members and paid for through the supplemental defense budgets used to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means the program may well have to scale back as funding for the wars declines in the coming years.

Officials in the Defense Department are struggling to statistically measure the effectiveness of the Yellow Ribbon program, relying mostly on surveys and anecdotal feedback. Trying to link attendance at the events to divorce rates, re-enlistment or a reduction in deployment-related stress is tricky.

"We have to be able to make the case that they're worth the energy, money and effort we're putting into it," Luckey said. "But to some extent, it is likely to remain a subjective assessment because of the nature of human interaction."

Glenn Welling Jr., executive director of the program and a command master chief in the Navy Reserve, said his employees are "working aggressively" on measures to gauge success.

"What it comes down to is this is a social science," Welling said. "To change human behavior, that occurs over time. Divorce, for example, has so many causal factors. We do know that if we're able to enhance people's ability to communicate effectively and provide them information on how to manage their financial resources, it can have an impact."

Two-day event

This weekend's two-day event has drawn 1,000 participants from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Texas Air National Guard and Coast Guard, all of whom will stay at the hotel. (The Defense Department requested that the Star-Telegram not name the hotel in advance for security reasons.)

Attendance is not required, though it is "highly encouraged," said Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Kurle with the 301st Fighter Wing at the naval air station.

Bearden said that the program is not "a military event" and that uniforms are not worn.

"I can never stress enough to people, even if you have deployed repeatedly, your kids might be in a different stage in life or your marriage might be in a different stage," she said. "It is not designed for any one type of deployer or deployment."

Luckey, a former traditional reservist before he went full time as a general officer, said he will attend the program in North Texas to see how a joint program works and whether it's worth attempting in other locations. But he also plans to attend to send a signal, he said.

"For these programs to really be effective, senior U.S. military leaders need to be engaged and present," he said.

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

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