Photos and story by Spc. Anthony Hooker
HOUSTON - More than 250 U.S. Army reservists and family members participated in the 335th Signal Command’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program Event, Jan. 11-13, in Houston.
The event brought together family members of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait by the 319th and 324th Expeditionary Signal Battalions. Yellow Ribbon, a Congress-mandated program, invited more than 20 agencies to provide forums that gave attendees a chance to enroll in online schools, learn how to resolve family conflicts, approach the sensitive subjects of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, and participate in alternative practices of self-improvement to include acupuncture and Zumba exercise classes.
The Yellow Ribbon event was the third in a six-part series, intended to help the units honor each attendee by providing pertinent presentations and resources that help stem the potential stressors associated with a deployment. Maj. Montrese Love, the commander of the 324th ESB, said family members were encouraged to gather all of the information they could at an event.
“You never know when you or your soldier will need something,” Love said. “Having the written materials as reference will be invaluable.”
Amber Waldrip and her mother-in-law Denise Rabb were first-time attendees, participating on behalf of Sgt. Coleman Waldrip, a communications network analyst currently serving in Afghanistan. Mrs. Waldrip, a resident of Lawrenceville, Ga., said this was her husband’s second deployment; Waldrip, 22, said the first tour (2009-10) was easy to manage but that the stressors of this deployment compelled her to attend the event.
"We knew about the challenge of separation and stayed in contact with one another," said Waldrip, who also has a three-year old son, Wyatt. "But on this deployment, my husband has had some challenges."
"He is working at a site not under his unit’s command," Waldrip said. "The new working relationship has resulted in some friction between my husband and other site employees. My husband follows his commands, but the frustration he carries [pause] I receive when we talk ... it’s tough because I know how he’s feeling so I don’t want to further upset him."
Another hurdle was connecting with unit members who could address specific questions Waldrip had. To meet the needs of the Army, Waldrip’s husband was moved to a unit that did not have enough healthy soldiers to qualify for deployment. Waldrip knew the leadership of her husband’s Atlanta-based company, but not the Greenville, S.C., unit he was transferred to. Seeking to solve this problem, she made contact with another wife whose husband was transferred from Atlanta for deployment and attended a July 324th ESB family day activity. Although she met a few members, Waldrip felt she did not get a connection strong enough to begin resolving her struggles.
Love acknowledged that one of the most difficult challenges was identifying the unknown.
“Because soldiers came from different companies within the battalion, families had to interact with new company-level leadership and new FRG leadership,” she said.
Feeling helpless is an emotion the Yellow Ribbon works to reduce as troops continue to serve in combat zones. Brent Arnspiger, a suicide prevention coordinator with the Houston Veterans Administration and featured speaker, said in his five years of participating in Yellow Ribbon seminars, the most important thing a person could do is get resources for loved ones when they come home.
“Many soldiers come home with emotions that have spilled over from their time in a combat zone,” said Arnspiger. “A lot of soldiers expect to reenter the home as they left it, but refamiliarization between the family and the returning soldier can be difficult.”
Arnspiger also discussed the potential for suicide, an event the military has been struggling to prevent in recent years. The Pentagon reported 349 suicides among active-duty military in 2012; this total exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year.
“Soldiers and family members opening up can be one of the hardest things to accomplish,” Arnspiger added, saying it may often be easier for a soldier to be more honest with a stranger than people who are in established relationships.
Arnspiger said avoiding an issue is a bad decision.
“If you as a family member suspect your loved one may need some medical or psychological attention,” said Arnspiger, “don’t leave it up to chance because that person may not seek the help they need.”
To make those opportunities more accessible to Reserve and National Guard forces, Arnspiger said community clinics are being contacted to provide services to veterans who are not close to VA clinics or military hospitals.
Augusta, Ga., resident Mary Brisco and her son Chris have attended three Yellow Ribbon events in support of Spc. Chrystal Brisco, who deployed to Afghanistan last February with the 324th ESB. Chrystal, a Hephzibah, Ga., resident and Chris’ fraternal twin, recently completed her tour of duty and came home, Jan. 15.
Mary, an Army veteran, said she was thrilled to know her daughter was part of a unit that had a program that was openly concerned with the social welfare of its soldier’s home life.
“Coming to places like [Houston] to [participate in Yellow Ribbon events] is just an awesome opportunity,” said Mary, a medical retiree. “It has been good to meet and communicate with the unit’s military leaders as well as communicate with folks who are experiencing some of the same emotions and circumstances you are.”
Mary said she made use of the unit’s Family Readiness Group, a voluntary collection of family members who share a line of contacts commonly known as a "phone tree."
Mary said her peer advocate, Marquita Dillard, would call the family monthly just to see how things were going and ensure the Briscos were getting the latest information on the unit through the unit’s monthly newsletter or direct contact from a FRG member.
Dillard, whose husband Demarcus also deployed to Afghanistan with the 324th ESB, often spoke to various family members with soldiers deployed, but Mary said the calls between the two occasionally went into deeper discussion than sharing events and thoughts.
"With Marquita, I was able to have a direct relationship even though she lives in Charlotte," said Mary. "It felt good to communicate with someone who knew exactly what you were going through emotionally . . . when I talked to her, I didn’t feel crazy or shut down for asking about things or events."
“I felt that way about the people running the Yellow Ribbon as well,” Mary added. “Prior to attending the events I did not know of groups like the FRG since the military is a personal affair for the soldier.”
Love said the FRG volunteers made great efforts to reach out to all the families.
“Through the use of newsletters, phone trees and Yellow Ribbon events, the 324th ESB families are stronger and more empowered than ever.”