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.

The town near the Canadian border erected a memorial for veterans in 2004.
sean miller
Northern balm: Retired Air Force Col. Jeff Parker keeps close watch over returning soldiers as a veterans service officer for the Warroad, Minn., area.

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.

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.

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.

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.

• • •

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."

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