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Chaplain helps troops readjust to home life

Capt. Colin Fleming is back home in Minneapolis with his wife, Ann, and daughter, Morgan, after a two-year deployment to Iraq. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

By John  Gordon*
Feb. 28, 2008 | MINNEAPOLIS (UMNS)

Fleming poses with villagers in Al Batha, Iraq, during his tour of duty. A UMNS photo courtesy of Colin Fleming.

After two years away from his family for training and a tour of duty in Iraq, Capt. Colin Fleming of the Minnesota Army National Guard was in no mood for a homecoming party.

"Being in a crowd is something that’s taken me awhile to work on," Fleming says. "People will talk to me every once in a while and say, ‘Hey, where have you been?’ It’s kind of complex – not avoiding you, it’s just going to be awhile."

But Fleming knew about many of the adjustments he would face on his return, thanks to the Minnesota Guard’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. The project, led by a United Methodist chaplain, helps returning citizen soldiers reintegrate with their families and communities.

Lt. Col. John Morris, a full-time state support chaplain for the Minnesota Army National Guard, was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He knows the challenges confronting soldiers as they return home.

"This is like having your house burn down when you send somebody to war," he says. "This is a long-term engagement for people who are dealing literally with a form of trauma."

Ann Fleming has noticed changes in her husband since his return from Iraq.

"He’s a different person than he was two years ago," she says. "And our daughter is different, and I’m different. And it’s normal for us to go through that."

As a result of his duty in Iraq, Colin Fleming doesn’t like loud noises. Going from the sound of artillery fire to listening to his daughter, Morgan, practice the saxophone took some adjustment.

So did adapting to family schedules after his wife spent the two years of his deployment as a single parent, raising 10-year-old Morgan.

"After being in charge of our (military) group across the board, I had very definite expectations about what the schedule should be, what our activities should be," Fleming says. "And both Morgan and Ann have, for the last two years, been running their own show."

Morgan, a fifth-grader, joined a local hockey team during her father’s deployment.

"It was weird when he came back because there were three of us walking around the house," she says. Her dad’s absence was tough at times. "It was pretty hard," she says, "and there were some times when I really missed him."

‘Significant work’ needed

Morris developed Beyond the Yellow Ribbon in January 2005. The program includes classes on marriage, parenting, coping with depression and adjusting to changes that occur in family dynamics while soldiers are deployed. The courses are offered in the first 90 days after soldiers return home.

"No relationship gets better by being gone a year to two," Morris says. "All relationships that are being put back together again need some significant work, and the skill set needed to do that work is sometimes lacking. Yet we expect guard and reserve soldiers to figure that out on their own."

The Rev. John Morris, a United Methodist chaplain with the Minnesota Army National Guard, leads the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon transition program.
A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

If it takes a village to raise a child, Morris says it takes an entire community to bring back soldiers. He meets with local government officials, law enforcement officers, pastors and veterans’ groups to offer advice.

"It takes the local church, school, local law-enforcement agent, social service providers, employers," he says.

Avoiding past mistakes

Finding a job is a major challenge for many returning National Guard troops and reservists, Morris says. He notes that nearly four out of five soldiers also want to continue their education.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon has become a national model for reintegrating National Guard and reserve troops on their return. Morris is hoping it will help society avoid mistakes of the past.

"In Vietnam, we shamed, shunned and spat upon our soldiers," he says.

"So what we tell community leaders is we’re not asking for support of the foreign policy, that’s not our issue. We’re asking for support of your fellow citizen, who we all want to have come home and become a very productive citizen."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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