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Wing reps keep Yellow Ribbon in the pink

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti
Master Sgt. Clay Jennings continually looks for a chance to tell someone at his Air Force Reserve unit in Texas about the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which presents information aimed at pre- and post-deployers and their loved ones at weekend training sessions around the country.

“I’m always promoting it,” said Jennings, the Yellow Ribbon representative for the 301st Fighter Wing at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. “Even if they don’t qualify to attend, I’ll ask them about their friends or co-workers who might. I tell them to advocate for others.”

Yellow Ribbon began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles. Each Guard or Reserve branch runs its own Yellow Ribbon initiative. The Air Force Reserve program annually trains 7,000 Airmen and those closest to them in education benefits, health care, retirement information and more via 15 or so events each year.

Aside from their weekday positions supporting the program and monthly drill weekends at their usual military jobs, wing representatives also work at roughly half of the Yellow Ribbon training events each year. Roles rotate at them. At one someone may serve as a room monitor; at the next the same person could work on a registration team or be an emcee.

“Some (participants) thought that all we did was attend the events with them,” said Maj. Roxana Hambleton, an Air Force Reserve personnel officer and former Yellow Ribbon representative with the 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Reserve Base near Miami. “They didn’t realize we worked all month to make the weekends happen.”

Mary Hill, a retired Reserve colonel, is the Yellow Ribbon program manager at Air Force Reserve headquarters at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. She described wing representatives as the “backbone” of the program.

“They work so hard keeping everything in order at their units and then come together in various roles to make our events a success,” she said. “They cheerfully do what needs to be done to support our deployers and their loved ones.”

Hambleton agreed with Hill’s assessment of the importance of wing representatives to Yellow Ribbon.

“They are the lifeblood of it,” she said. “Some (reps) are so dynamic and on point in getting their people to the events that it’s life changing for them. There’s a lot of energy in them.”

Hambleton was a Yellow Ribbon representative for 2 ½ years, leaving the position in June to prepare for a 2017 deployment that will cause her to miss the college graduations of her two children. She accepts time away from family as part of military duty.

“Some people have missed the births of their children,” she said.
Hambleton, a certified professional organizer and freelance textbook proofreader as a civilian, worked at dozens of Yellow Ribbon events in her former role.

“I saw so many training (sessions) I feel very versed in resiliency,” she said.

Hill and a fulltime staff of a dozen direct the program from Reserve headquarters at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The 36 unit representatives around the nation are divided into two teams, each led by an event manager responsible for running half of the program’s training weekends, which typically draw from 350 to 1,000 participants.

The current event managers, Capt. Addrian Grant and 1st Lt. Jose Martinez, are traditional reservists on extended active-duty orders. Grant is normally a mental health nurse with the 94th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta, while Martinez is with the 94th Aerial Port Squadron at Robins AFB and was formerly the Yellow Ribbon representative for the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

Eight years into the program’s existence, Yellow Ribbon representatives still sometimes struggle to convince people to attend its training weekends, which are not mandatory for reservists even though they are for members of some military branches.

Senior Master Sgt. Ellie Torres, a new Yellow Ribbon representative at the 940th Air Refueling Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California, recently met a veteran of three deployments who told her he’d never heard of the program. Others she’s talked to about it have declined to participate because it saves them from submitting for reimbursement of travel expenses via the online Defense Travel System, which some find cumbersome, she said.

“They turn it down (because) they hate to do travel vouchers,” Torres said. “I’ll help them with (the process). I think everyone is interested in learning more about their benefits. My big goal is to make it smoother so it’s not the actual process stopping them from attending. They think it’s a hassle.”

If someone says they aren’t interested in attending a Yellow Ribbon weekend, Jennings doesn’t leave it at that.

“(I) try to be in their shoes. I make people get specific. Is it their work or school schedule stopping them from going?” he said. “Some people don’t want to jeopardize their civilian jobs by asking to go away for the military just before or after they’re gone on a deployment.”

In those cases, Jennings might issue deployment letters reservists can present to their bosses so they understand that Yellow Ribbon isn’t separate from the deployment but an actual part of the process.

Jennings will return to his traditional Reserve job as a vehicle fleet manager with the 301st Logistics Readiness Squadron in the spring after nearly three years as his wing’s Yellow Ribbon liaison. His time with the program is among the most rewarding of his career, he said, because he’s seen it work firsthand. He’s heard participants admit that attending helped preserve their marriage. One of the most vivid memories he has is seeing a teenager, the oldest child in her family, break into sobs in a group setting over the stress of a parent deploying again.

“Her younger siblings were there and just shocked to see her like that because she’d always been so strong for them. Her parents didn’t notice any signs of her being under pressure before the event,” he said.
Jennings was there as part of a team working with youths. They found the teen’s mother and had them in a closed-door meeting with a trained Military & Family Life Counselor within an hour.

“We saw something with a crack in it and wanted it to be solid,” he said. “We were able to help her. To see something like that, it’s worth anything.”

Eleven Yellow Ribbon training dates and locations have been confirmed for 2017 with several others to be added. The Air Force Reserve doesn’t share sites or dates publicly out of concern for the security of participants.

Deploying reservists may obtain the information by contacting their wing Yellow Ribbon representatives.

Reservists and their loved ones may attend training weekend before the deployment and two in the year after they return. The second post-deployment event features the Couples Enrichment Program, training specifically aimed at those in longtime relationships.

(Proietti, an individual mobilization augmentee with 3rd Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, is on extended active-duty orders as manager of Public Affairs for Yellow Ribbon)