AFRC Yellow Ribbon program celebrates 10th anniversary
By Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Biscoe
/ Published December 20, 2018
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Organizers with the Air Force Reserve Command’s flagship deployer support program celebrated its 10th anniversary training event here over the weekend.
“It’s getting better and better, with feedback from reservists and their families,” Chief Master Sgt. Juliet Guerrero said of the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which she helped form as a master sergeant under the direction of then-Col. Mary Hill, who still leads the program a civilian.
Congress approved Yellow Ribbon funding in military Reserve and National Guard branches in 2008 to promote the well-being of part-time GIs and their loved ones by connecting them with resources before and after deployments. Yellow Ribbon, which the Air Force Reserve inaugurated in December 2008, has helped thousands of Air Force reservists and those closest to them as deployments have remained at a steady pace across the world.
Originally presented in a general session format, the program has largely developed into a series of breakout sessions with varying topics designed to assist reserve families face challenges before, during and after deployments.
“I love Yellow Ribbon,” said Guerrero, who recently returned from a deployment in another reserve role she has with an engineering unit in Florida. “It’s my passion. It’s my way of giving back. I take it back to my Airmen.”
Hill, the program manager, leads a team of several dozen fulltime staffers to stage up to 17 training weekends around the country annually. Most reserve wings employ temporary Yellow Ribbon representatives to coordinate their reservists’ participation in the program.
“It’s advanced light years in the past decade,” Hill said. “We have standardized our agendas, increased the resources available to families and improved the children and teen programs exponentially. We teach them, at their level, what it means to have a Dad or Mom deployed. We get them to discuss that in their small groups.”
Participants, including children through late teens, are kept busy through various breakout sessions designed to help families adjust before, during and after deployments. Typically, a Yellow Ribbon event spans a full weekend – from an icebreaking registration period Friday afternoon to a packed program through half of Sunday.
AFRC Command Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly was part of the initial cadre of reservists who pushed the fledgling Yellow Ribbon program along in late 2008 when she was a traditional reservist at March Air Reserve Base in California. She is proud of the results she’s seen since then.
“Families are healthier, and (reservists) know they aren’t alone,” she said. “Yellow Ribbon is building bridges…it’s touching humans.”
Yellow Ribbon statistics also back up the program’s progress and effectiveness. Ninety-four percent of reservists who attended an event in 2017 reported they would stay in the military.
In addition, 2,219 service members and 3,471 family members attended 17 Yellow Ribbon events in 2017 divided into three tracks: pre-deployers, GIs at their first post-deployment event and post-deployers attending a second weekend. Post-deployers have a year from their return to attend Yellow Ribbon.
The program drew more than 10,000 participants in fiscal 2018.
Capt. Keisha Dobney-Boykin provided a personal touch as a friendly emcee at a previous Orlando event. She was the Yellow Ribbon representative for wings in Ohio and New York until recently becoming an executive officer at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana.
“I enjoy being an emcee, and at these events you can pick what your strengths are,” she said. “This program keeps evolving because we have new people with fresh ideas. I’m blending a lot of this with what I do back at the unit.”
As her Yellow Ribbon tenure neared its end, Dobney-Boykin said she was excited about the changes she’s seen and hopes more Airmen will sign up for Yellow Ribbon.
“I’d say to them to go one time, then decide at that point,” she said, reminding people that this program brings families together for fun, day care and engaging breakout sessions.
Hill and Guerrero commended the hard work of breakout speakers, saying they make a difference in the lives of participants, no matter what the topic.
“The speakers we have are top notch,” Hill said.
“They’re amazing,” Guerrero said. “Their hearts are into it. We’ve had people say we saved their marriage, or they said they were going to be bankrupt (until receiving financial advice at Yellow Ribbon). This kind of program could cost people thousands of dollars. This is free.”
Master Sgt. Laura Castenada is an individual mobilization augmentee with 12th Air Force security forces at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. A past deployer, she has worked on security details at Yellow Ribbon events, including in Orlando.
Guerrero urged her to attend Yellow Ribbon training after Castenada completed her fourth deployment in 2016.
Castenada, who said life’s challenges at that time were getting overwhelming, signed up to attend an event in California.
“It pretty much saved my life,” she said. “I first experienced it as a deployer, then ended up helping as a law enforcement officer for other events. I’d do it for free. Yellow Ribbon is near and dear to my heart.”
(Editor's note: Biscoe is assigned to the 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts)