A Smoother Path Home for Veterans

Minneapolis Star Tribune

December 21, 2007 – When Larry Shellito returned from Vietnam back to Moorhead, Minn., the only people to greet him were members of his immediate family. Friends weren’t sure how to react. Some ignored the fact that he had just been through the most traumatic experience of his life. Others were “cool, distant, almost disrespectful” about his service.

“You quickly learned not to talk about it or tell them where you’ve been,” he said.

Shellito, now the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, wants to make sure Iraq war veterans have a very different experience. He realized something needed to be done when he saw one of the earliest-deployed soldiers returning from Iraq, seemingly desensitized and ambivalent about the destruction he’d witnessed.

“I said, ‘OK. He’s got that look,'” Shellito said. “And that’s what it was, it was a look.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s happening all over. It’s happening again. The Vietnam era had that look.'”

While he was encouraged as a Vietnam veteran to repress and stay silent, Shellito wants his troops to talk out what the war has done to them and get them the help they need.

The result has been Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a groundbreaking program to reintegrate deployed Minnesota National Guard members into civilian life.

Two years after its creation, the program has become so successful that Congress voted last week to take it nationwide.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon rewrote the rules that shielded returning vets from any mandatory activity for their first few months back home.

The program reassembles military units at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals for intensive seminars on marriage, parenting, employment, benefits and even help coping with possible substance abuse and anger management.

In early 2005, Shellito hired John Morris as a chaplain, and together they brainstormed over what help returning soldiers would need. Morris had just returned from fighting in Fallujah, and knew from personal experience how tough the re-entry to civilian life could be. “When you deploy, either your family sinks or it swims,” said Morris, the father of three girls. “Most families swim, which means they literally learn to live without you. If they’ve learned to live without you, in reality it means they don’t need you. How do you find your way to a new role and new responsibility with no training?”

Morris and Shellito developed a series of workshops that could head off problems before they disrupted lives.

Sgt. Jeremy Wilson, 26, is one of 2,600 soldiers from the “Red Bull” 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, which served nearly two years in Iraq. He has been through all three of the reintegration programs since returning in July, and said hearing Morris speak was one of the most helpful parts of the program.

“(He) spoke to us and our families about the things he had gone through that others of us were seeing, basically readjustment things,” he said. “He let us know it doesn’t feel normal but it is the normal part of reintegration.”

The program also reaches out to soldiers’ family members and community leaders to involve them in the process, Shellito said.

“We went out to communities and did awareness programs with key businesses,” he said. “We had meetings with clergy, law enforcement, civics groups … It really energized the communities.”

Shellito said his ability to organize and manage a large-scale project such as this was nurtured by the years he spent at Alexandria Technical College, first as an instructor and then as its president for nine years before Gov. Tim Pawlenty named him adjutant general in 2003.

Kevin Kopischke, his successor as college president, said that for as long as he’s known him, Shellito’s passion has been with the Guard.

“He was just committed totally to making sure he could do everything he could possibly do to help with this transition so people could live a normal life,” Kopischke said.

That dedication merged with his enthusiasm for education this year when he discovered that half of the soldiers in the Red Bull unit were being denied expanded veterans education benefits because of a fluke in their paperwork. Long hours with Minnesota’s congressional delegation and the Department of Defense ultimately rectified the situation, said U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican.

“He has been forward-leaning, forward-thinking and very innovative to step up and solve these problems,” said Kline, who authored the House version of the bill to nationalize the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program.

From all accounts, the program is working. Shellito said he has received “Christmas cards like crazy” from soldiers’ parents and spouses to express their appreciation for the program.

“On my way home the other night, in uniform, I stopped in Rainbow Food and I had four different people at four different times stop me to say thank you,” Shellito said. “You never, never, never got that in the Vietnam era.”

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