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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.

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Students have gotten involved, too. After hearing about a local soldier who was recovering from foot surgery, Heidi Trihey, a teacher at Warroad Elementary School, got her pupils to contact him. The students and the wounded soldier, Army Spc. Jeff Srisourath, exchanged several letters. Then the class wanted to find a way to help him recover. Penny by penny, they raised $100 to contribute to Mr. Srisourath's medical expenses. When they presented him with the check, "He was so humbled he didn't want to take it," Ms. Trihey recalls.

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Her classes started corresponding with other soldiers as well. The soldiers wrote back, describing their daily life, and Trihey read the letters over the school intercom during morning announcements. "It brought awareness to the kids and the staff about what was going on around the world," she says.

Jason Hilligoss, a marksman with the Red Bulls, was one who received the notes and packages from the Warroad students – including on his birthday and Valentine's Day. "It definitely makes your job easier," he says. "You know you're going back to a good community."

Support for the soldiers also has come from local pews. Inside the log-framed St. Mary's church, the congregation worked for months to create a quilt of "prayer squares" that featured well wishes for the soldiers. "This is just a small town that really pulls together for things like that," says the Rev. Don Braukmann.

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Though there isn't much bureaucracy in the area to support returning soldiers, the modest services that do exist come with a personal touch. Jeff Parker, a veterans service officer who works out of nearby Roseau, pursues his job with the ardor of a high school football coach. A 28-year Air Force veteran, Mr. Parker doesn't rely on the reintegration materials that the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs sends out. He knows the town and the soldiers. "That's how we approach reintegration up here – family, friends, and church tend to look after the troops after they get home," he says.

Parker's cellphone rings. It's a Guardsman calling to chat. Parker sounds as though he could be talking to a nephew. "You keeping your nose clean? How about your buddies, they doing all right?" he asks. Some veterans are reluctant to reveal their personal problems. So Parker employs his network of eyes and ears – local legion members, teachers, pastors.

Recently, one young vet has been struggling with alcohol. He's put his truck in the ditch twice. One of his buddies told Parker that he might have a problem, so Parker invited the man to his office. He told him that his partying could end up killing him or innocent people. Now, Parker checks in with the young veteran regularly. "It's hard to become invisible up here," he says.

Johnson, the Central Boiler worker, knows that, too. He could feel the support while in Iraq. "If you don't have to worry about everything back home, it makes things that much easier," he says. During his deployment, Sheila Johnson was on her own with their three young children. She remembers getting calls from Johnson's co-workers offering to baby-sit. "I'm sometimes too proud to ask," she says. "But knowing they're a phone call away really helps."

Johnson then talks about his smooth transition home. But his wife interrupts him in mid-sentence. "It wasn't the transition from soldier to civilian that was hard; it was the transition back to husband and father," she says. Three months on, it's still a tough adjustment – but less so, she adds, "knowing the community is supportive."