When I was growing up they were called "weekend warriors." And one weekend a month I would see the National Guard tanks and trucks travel up and down the Alabama highway. The troops waved and I waved back.
When the Bravo Company of the Minnesota National Guard touched down at the Volk Field at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, I got tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. This group of a 150 or so, that included students, teachers, local cops, and even a chiropractor, were coming home after 22 months of active duty. That's a long way from being a weekend warrior.
Waiting on the tarmac for them was one of their own, Sgt. John Kriesel. He stood determinedly on two artificial legs; his own were blown off in December when an IED hit his armored humvee outside Fallujah. Kriesel lost two buddies that day, 20-year-old Corey Rystad and 22-year-old Bryan McDonough, but he didn't lose his spirit. He came all the way from Walter Reed to greet his buddies and as each one walked by, they stopped to grip him. In so many ways he represents the heart and soul of each -and all- of the 2,600 Minnesota guardsmen who left so long ago, back in fall of 2005.
They expected to put in six months training at Mississippi's Camp Shelby, then do 12 months in Iraq, but they had no way of knowing the troop surge would keep them in Iraq an extra four months -- for a total of 16 months. And they had no way of knowing Bravo Company would be assigned to fight side by side with the Marines on the desperate, dangerous streets of Fallujah.
After 12 months of actively seeking out insurgents and helping make peace there, the marine in charge, Sgt. Major WN O'Connell Jr, was quoted as saying Bravo Company was the "best bunch he'd ever seen." A quick check of this guy's bio tells you he's the real deal. But then praise for members of the 1st Brigade Combat team is nothing new. It served with distinction in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. The Minnesota National Guard's public affairs officer, Lt. Colonel Kevin Olson adds this tour "added to the rich history of the Minnesota National Guard's lineage."
But after all the heroism and hoopla, now comes the really hard part---coming back to the sometimes mundane lives we lead here, to jobs that may not seem as exciting as before, and to families that have been soldiering on without them.
To help out, the Minnesota Guard has instituted an innovate program called Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. It recognizes that, while ribbons, banners, and parades are great, they are just window-dressing. The real welcome home happens behind closed doors. It requires that soldiers who were trained for combat learn to prepare to negotiate the inevitable battles back home. The Minnesota Guard holds onto to these soldiers for a full week after they landed so they can decompress. That same adrenalin that kept them alive over there can really muck things up here at home.
Twenty two months ago 37-year-old high school social studies teacher Eric Myrold left behind his wife and two little girls, aged five and two. Time didn't stand still in his Grand Forks, South Dakota home. Daughter Brianna learned to read and got new front teeth. Madison went from baby talk to speaking her own mind. For nearly two years, Marge did double duty, running the household, managing the money, and helping make sure "daddy" means something more than a face in a photograph. Even before the emotional family reunion, Eric and Marge got counseling. Eric has been living in a black-and-white world--giving orders, getting them and having the military make all his decisions. (During his last leave, he says, he bogged down during a simple run to the grocery store for chocolate chips. He came home with all four brands; he couldn't make up his mind.) For her part, Marge got more independent, she says. She isn't ready to take orders from him or anyone else.
A lot of soldiers are coming home to new dynamics, which is why they are being taught to act like guests in their own homes for the next month or so and not to make any decisions. Couples are told to "date" again, not to rush into anything. But even with counseling sessions before and after, Colonel Kevin Gerdes -- who helps run Beyond the Yellow Ribbon -- says he knows from tough personal experience just how hard it can be to "let go" of the warrior mentality. "We spent six months at Camp Shelby, Mississippi getting these soldiers ready to go mentally, emotionally, technically ready to become a warrior to create that warrior mentality and that warrior mentality served them well in Iraq, but now that they're home we can't just flip a switch."
Like a number of Bravo Company soldiers, Eric Myrold's six-year "hitch" with the Guard is up soon. With his family's blessing he re-enlisted—as did 80% of his eligible buddies.