Coleman, Pawlenty want military to revise 'hands-off' policy

Welcome home
A National Guard member greets friends and family at the armory in Bloomington last week, after returning from Iraq.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

(AP) - Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are urging the Defense Department to change a policy aimed at giving some breathing room to returning National Guard and Reserve troops, saying it prevents some soldiers from getting the kinds of integration services they need.

The policy exempts returning soldiers from being called for mandatory activities for 60 days after they return home from combat, although it does allow the military to organize voluntary activities for the troops.

Coleman and Pawlenty, both Republicans, argue that policy doesn't reach soldiers who are at risk.

"The guys with the problems are often the guys who don't want to come back and have the conversation," Coleman said in a telephone interview Monday. "It's an intervention thing."

"The guys with the problems are often the guys who don't want to come back and have the conversation."

Although most soldiers returning from combat do fine, others face challenges and stresses, Coleman said.

"It's team members and commanders and unit members, they're the ones who can say, 'Hey, I think you need to talk to someone,'" he said. "And that's why the mandatory becomes pretty important."

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Coleman conceded some soldiers might resent having mandatory sessions. But he said the soldiers he spoke with at Fort McCoy, Wis., who had returned from Iraq this month, were supportive of activities.

"This is not to come back and do drills or military operations, but just checking in," he said. "Get together as a group, maybe have the chaplain there. Just see how things are going. It can be light. This is not marching in formation."

Coleman said he brought the issue up in a recent telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Also Monday, Pawlenty wrote to Gates expressing concern that relying on voluntary training sessions in the first 60 days "may cause us to pass over service members who are most in need of contact with their fellow veterans and their leaders -- those members who may have a need or problem but will avoid 'voluntary' assemblies."

Pawlenty, who just took over as chairman of the National Governors Association, said that assembling soldiers and their families for reintegration training gives them the tools needed to help them reunite with families and return to school or work.

"The 60-day exemption policy creates a number of difficulties, including hampering access to required mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder chain teaching programs," he wrote.

A Defense Department spokesman, Maj. Stewart Upton, said that Gates would respond directly to Pawlenty.

"We are working to develop the best process to evaluate and, if necessary, treat every service member involved in an event that may result in PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury)," Upton said.

Col. Kevin Gerdes, director of personnel for the Minnesota National Guard, said of the 60-day policy: "The problem is that it restricts our ability to bring our soldiers in for reintegration. We want to make sure that the transition from combat soldier goes well."

The Minnesota National Guard has been able to bring soldiers back for meetings through its "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program, which reassembles units at 30, 60 and 90 days after their return so the Guard can get a sense of how its members are doing and provide them with assistance.

But the money for that program expires on Sept. 30, Gerdes said.

A bill by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., would create a national Yellow Ribbon reintegration program for National Guard members. All seven other Minnesota House members are co-sponsoring the bill.

In the Senate, Coleman and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have co-sponsored similar legislation.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)