They're a long way from home, but more than 1,200 Minnesota soldiers already are thinking about what they'll do when they return.
With that in mind, representatives of local universities and colleges and the Minnesota Workforce Center, spoke via teleconference to 40 central Minnesota members of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division in Basra, Iraq on Thursday.
The teleconference, the first of its kind in the state, connected the soldiers in Basra with several educational institutions, and employment and healthcare agencies. Their goal: to help service members adjust as soon as possible to civilian life when they return in February.
Many likely will return to school, said according to Joan Vincent, a public affairs officer with the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.
"We know that there are many programs out there that can help them pay tuition, make accommodations for the ways they need to go to school and the hours they go to school -- that sort of thing," Vincent said. "We also know that they have trouble finding employment when they come back."
Those aren't the only concerns for returning vets. Nationwide, fewer than half of returning service members enroll in health care provided by the Veterans Administration, Vincent said. Officials hope events like Thursday's teleconference will inform veterans who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are eligible for free health care for five years.
"We aren't sure why less than half," Vincent said, adding that it could be some soldiers think VA healthcare is not for them. "Or maybe they don't feel sick right now."
It's important for veterans to enroll as soon as they return, she said, because they may later develop problems that stem from their service. That could include back problems, musco-skeletal problems, gastrointestinal problems, or mental problems.
"We want them to know that we are here for them, and that we really are the experts in treating the common afflictions of veterans," Vincent said.
The military also wants soldiers to know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, said Ed Suarez, a member of the Army National Guard and deployment cycle support leader for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program. The program aims to change how service members reintegrate back into their communities.
Events like the one in St. Could also allow the community to reach out to service members and help them feel comfortable asking for help.
"More importantly, it's sort of to break the stigma that we're seeing where service members are reluctant to get help," Suarez said. "And that really is a leadership problem that the leaders need to understand and help encourage service members to go get the help. It's going to be a slow process to get there, but I think it's the right direction to go."
Suarez said soldiers need to be reassured that their military careers will not suffer if they seek treatment for mental health and physical injuries.
The teleconference was part of a larger statewide initiative to support returning veterans and their families by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.