Group working to make Washington County first 'Yellow Ribbon' county
Everyone wants to know how the soldier is doing. No one asks how the soldier's family is doing.
That is the message that military personnel took to a group gathered at Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo Monday night. The listeners were there to form coalitions and support systems to keep families of soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan from feeling alone, isolated and bereft in a sea of child care, household chores and daily demands.
The meeting was called by a number of Washington County leaders after meeting Lt. Col. Barbra O'Reilly and Col. Kevin Gerdes at a Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting at which the board commended the send-off of the 34th Infantry Division, Army National Guard Division Headquarters in Rosemount, known as the Red Bulls.
When people at the county meeting asked, what can we do, they were directed to the city of Farmington, which has become a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community. Residents there formed themselves into a number of groups to provide services and support to deployed families.
Farmington followed a template to become a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community, following research by the Warrior to Citizen campaign developed at the University of Minnesota. Should Washington County become a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon county, filling the template offered by the organization, it would be one of the first counties to do so.
What it is like
At the opening of the gathering Monday evening, military families explained why the need exists.
O'Reilly described her own deployment to Afghanistan, during which she left two young daughters at home with her husband.
She described the experience as being in a canoe, one that keeps its balance as the family paddles across a serene lake. But when the word comes that the soldier will be deploying, "It upset my canoe," she said.
"You're waiting for the inevitable day when you have to go," she said, and the water gets rougher as the day comes closer. "As I left, I slipped into a world of the execution mode, but my husband and daughters were still in the canoe," O'Reilly said.
What's more, he was not unlike most military families, who are reluctant to ask for help.
"He's at the end of the lake, and there's a portage," she said. It's time to ask for help from friends, neighbors and the rest of the community, but that is a tough task for most military families.
Micki Gerdes, wife of Col. Kevin Gerdes, told her story from the perspective of the family left behind.
Everyone wants to know how the deployed spouse is doing, what they can do for the soldiers fighting "over there."
No one asks what they can do for the family.
"I raised my right hand and took an oath to go wherever this country would send me," Kevin Gerdes said. "Micki and my boys did not. They were drafted."
Micki Gerdes talked of being isolated and lonely, of needing household help that was not coming. Co-workers were either indifferent or against the war, and said so. Her sons didn't want anyone to know that their father was deployed and they were "different." Teachers were both sympathetic and indifferent, she said.
No one is looking for sympathy, Kevin Gerdes said, and no one needs to say "I'm sorry" about a deployment. But support and understanding would be helpful.
With regular army, those deployed will train and prepare at a fort, and their families will be living among one another and support one another. But what is needed is "Fort Minnesota," as there is no single military installation in the state, O'Reilly said.
And that is the point of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, to gather the support for military families into a concerted effort.
After the formal presentation, those attending broke into groups to talk about what segments of the community can do to help. Elected officials from the community listened to Annette Kuyper of Farmington, who discussed the process that her community underwent to become a designated Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community.
Other groups were educators, social service network providers, veterans groups, clergy and others. In the group connected to the clergy, the question came up, "how to find the families?"
Because of privacy issues, there are not lists of the deployed that are released. Community members simply have to ask, pay attention, and refer friends and neighbors. Kuyper added that once residents in her community became aware of the programs, efforts "bubbled up" to locate those who need help.
The purpose of the meeting was to generate interest in the community and that was accomplished, said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, one of the organizers,
The next step is to make sure that everyone left the meeting with a task and contact information on how to get that task completed. The groups should meet every week for the next five weeks, to help find the people within the community who can be of help.
Saltzman emphasized that the movement is not to create new organizations or programs, but simply to mobilize current programs, as well as offering support for the families of the deployed.
The group created an e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org to provide a common point of discussion for the group.