By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — Col. Alphonso Sanders of the Ohio Army National Guard stepped off an airplane earlier this year and just about kissed the earth he walked on. He was entirely too glad to be back on American soil.
He'd spent the last 12 months living in Afghanistan during his deployment, the first of his more-than-20-year military career. He'd never been away from his wife, Katie, or his two teenage children for any length of time.
"This was my first deployment," Sanders said. "I'd been in the military for so long. Because we had a close knit family for so long, and to then finally have to go ... it set up an emotional trauma in itself."
Enter the United States Army's Yellow Ribbon program, a congressionally mandated training session covering all aspects of a soldier's deployment. From before the soldier leaves their home life to the months after they return, Yellow Ribbon is working to ensure as smooth of a transition as possible.
Started in 2008, the regional program came to the Conference Center Niagara Falls this weekend to provide families like the Sanders' an opportunity to learn about adjusting to life back home. There are classes on resume writing and driver safety, seminars dedicated to accessing all available Veterans Administration benefits and workshops on dealing with brain injuries and all aspects of psychological health.
Set up in six phases, it's designed to train the soldiers and their family members in the art of being wholly healthy, according to Staff Sgt. Jeff Campbell, one of the volunteer organizers of the regional event.
"This program is training them in the physical aspects, the emotional aspects and the mental aspects of both being deployed and returning home," Campbell said. "They shouldn't have to worry about what's going on back home when they're deployed."
This weekend's program focuses solely on the soldiers returning home, the final three phases of the program. Organizers like Campbell, Master Sgt. Abigaile Taylor and Staff Sgt. Richard Gentile, who serves as the program's outreach coordinator, said reaching those who come home is as important as working with the families before departure, simply because those coming home can sometimes suffer from tragic situations.
A February report from the Department of Veteran's Affairs analyzed data from 1999 to 2010 and recognized the total amounts of suicides among active duty service people and veterans had increased across the timeframe of the study. The program's No. 1 concern, Taylor said, is combating the soldier or veteran's desire to kill him or her self.
"We provide a questionnaire for the returning soldier," she said. "We have to look at suicide rates, to make sure the soldiers are whole again and are able to go back home. Because they may end up redeployed, where they'll have to get ready again. They're in a downphase for now, but in another year, they may be going back."
Even the most well-adjusted soldier returning home is required to proceed through the different phases with their families, but they're able to use the information they receive however they want.
Taylor said some items may not be pertinent to their situation, but a friend who served with them may need to know some of the things offered in the sessions. So she said she encourages everyone to pay attention to everything, just in case.
Sanders said he did just that and will be taking some of the material offered in the group with him to offer to his fellow reservists in his unit back home.
"Some things I'm going to take back home with me to my unit," he said. "There's always talk about these things. There's a lot of talk, like 'Well, I'm supposed to do this. This is what I do in this situation.' But it's different when you have to actually do it. This program is a demonstration."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.