How one town aids returning soldiers
Churches, schools, and families in Warroad, Minn., go to unusual lengths to help smooth the transition from military to civilian life.
On a crisp Minnesota morning, Art Brandli drove 30 minutes from his home in this northern town to a boiler manufacturer outside of Greenbush. Mr. Brandli, a Department of Defense volunteer, didn't have much time to spare: His daughter was due to give birth to his first grandchild that day, and he wanted to be there for the delivery. But first he was determined to honor Dennis and Terri Brazier, the owners of Central Boiler, for their treatment of a worker who had served in Iraq with the Minnesota Army National Guard.Skip to next paragraph
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During his absence, the company had given the soldier, Monty Johnson, his annual bonus, preserved his seniority on the assembly line, and even entered his name in company drawings. His co-workers sent him care packages – everything from toothpaste to hunting magazines. The Braziers also stayed in touch with Johnson's wife, Sheila, inviting her to company parties and offering her money, if needed.
Now, at a brief meeting in the company's break room, Brandli lauded the unflagging support of the Braziers, who in turn called Guardsmen Johnson the real "hero" – to a standing ovation from the assembled employees.
The firm's handling of Johnson's deployment – and Brandli's fire-engine run to recognize it at the risk of missing his grandchild's birth – show the unusual lengths one small Midwestern town is going to to help returning veterans readjust to civilian life.
Four years into a war that is testing a nation's resolve, veterans are coming home to welcomes that their Vietnam counterparts could only dream about. Yet many still face formidable problems – the psychological wounds of war, wrenching readjustments in the home, indifference or even pink slips at work.
While professional counseling can be invaluable, experts say the embrace of a town also helps veterans cope with the transition to civilian life. If, in fact, it does take a village to help rally a returning vet, then this small town near the Canadian border, imbued with a sense of Scandinavian paternalism, offers a poignant example of the power of tribalism.
"Warroad has always been a community loyal to its veterans," says Neil Richards, who manages the town's Legion post.
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Warroad is a town of 1,700 people tucked against the southwestern shore of Lake of the Woods. As befits a community with cryogenic winters, life here revolves around ice fishing, the local diner, the American Legion outpost, and, most important, the hockey arena.
Camaraderie and a sense of community is embedded in the culture. Many know what casseroles their friends will bring to potluck dinners and who has been recently promoted at the local window manufacturing plant. Which is why when the Minnesota National Guard began asking communities about a year ago to prepare for the return of combat veterans, people in Warroad knew instinctively what to do.
For one thing, this was no ordinary homecoming. The returning soldiers, members of the so-called Red Bulls brigade, had served in Iraq for 22 months – the longest deployment for a Minnesota military unit since World War II.
For another, residents here had already been supporting their men and women overseas. Take Marvin Windows and Doors, one of the pillars of the local economy. Dan DeMolee, an Army Reservist, remembers receiving a flood of care packages from his co-workers at Marvin when he was in Iraq. "They were sending over supplies, DVDs, toiletries – it was overwhelming," he says. When Mr. DeMolee returned home to Warroad on leave, he was invited to speak at the company's annual meeting – a rare honor – after which he presented the Marvin family with a flag that had flown over a US base in Iraq.