Back from the battlefieldby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
As many as 3,000 National Guard troops are scheduled to return to Minnesota next March from Iraq and Afghanistan. Once the homecoming celebrations are over, the soldiers will have to adjust to normal life after spending more than a year in a combat zone. The Minnesota National Guard is preparing them and their families for that transition. But the guard is also telling employers that they play a major role in helping soldiers reintegrate into society.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Maj. John Morris, a chaplain with the Minnesota National Guard, stands at the front of a long auditorium at the St. Cloud VA. Morris tells the audience of 200 family members and co-workers of deployed guard soldiers, that Minnesota faces a tsunami.
He says in March of next year a tidal wave of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will hit the state.
"For the first time in Minnesota history, we are going to put 3,000 combat-hardened veterans on the ground here almost simultaneously... we've never returned so many veterans so quickly to this state," Morris says.
Thousands of returning guard troops will make for a lot of joyous welcome home celebrations. But then Morris says, things will get tough once again for these soldiers. They're coming from a place where every day they're dodging bullets and watching out for roadside bombs. Morris says after a year-long adrenaline rush they'll be bored and have a hard time sleeping. They're changed people, returning to changed families.
Returning to work will be a challenge too. Just ask Maj. Jeff Howe.
"Going back to work isn't an easy task," he says. "You start to wonder if this is what you should be doing anymore. 'What should I do? I don't fit here very well anymore. Where do I go?'"
Last year, Howe returned from a year in Iraq. He was commander for 250 soldiers in a support battalion. Including his pre-deployment preparation, Howe spent a total of three years away his job. When he came back to his work as a fire marshall in the city of Waite Park, he found a lot had changed. He had a different boss, the computer system had changed, and there were new fire regulations in place. Howe had always considered himself the go-to guy at work, but that had changed too. "You can't be the go-to guy, you don't even know what book to look in anymore," Howe says.
He predicts getting 3,000 soldiers back into the swing of things is going to be a challenge for employers in Minnesota.
Two workers from the Sauk Rapids-based company Komo Machine are serving in Iraq. Company vice president Jeff Erickson says they're preparing their employees to welcome back co-workers who've fought in a war. "They're thinking, 'Hey my buddy's coming back. We're all happy. It's going to be same as it was a year ago.' That's not necessarily going to be the case, so how do our employees respond to that and not create work problems," Erickson says.
Erickson says his company will do its best to help workers back by easing them into their workload and offering the extra time off they might need.
Bill Smoley is with the St. Cloud Law firm of Rinke-Noonan. One of the firm's partners, John Kolb, is serving in Iraq, and is scheduled to come back next March. Smoley says the law firm's employees will do what they can to help Kolb get back into the legal game.
"I think the responsibility is on us to help John fit in... it wouldn't be fair to expect that instantaneously he's going to be the John that left," Smoley says.
That transition from warrior to worker sometimes needs to be a slow one, according to Maj. Jeff Howe.
"Give us some time to readjust, but also challenge us. Get us interested back in our work. Because we're capable probably of a lot more than when we left," Howe suggests.
Howe says employers that don't challenge returning soldiers with meaningful work, run the risk of losing a good employee.
- Morning Edition, 10/13/2006, 7:54 a.m.