Warrior to citizen: coalition hopes to ease transition to a civic life

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Coalition plans to help Minnesota veterans reintegrate into their communities.

It seems that hardly a day goes by without news about the challenges and difficulties faced by our troops fighting in Iraq. But the problems don’t end once a soldier returns home from Iraq. Perhaps the biggest challenge is how do veterans reintegrate into a community after their military service is complete?

A nonpartisan coalition in Minnesota has decided to give veterans something more to look forward to once it’s time to return home. Led by Minnesota Works Together and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the “Warrior to Citizen” campaign hopes to attract veterans returning to Minnesota and their families.

The effort is designed to help returning vets reintegrate into their communities as engaged citizens.

Minnesota Works Together is an initiative to renew civic life in Minnesota. The Warrior to Citizen campaign is its first statewide initiative and is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.

Warrior to Citizen is intended to be a new model for helping returning vets. “We train men and women for months to be warriors, they practice being warriors for many months, and after their last mission we expect them to come back and reintegrate,” said Dennis Donovan, research fellow with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, quoting National Guard chaplain John Morris.

One of the services will be a “virtual VFW.” Donovan said the coalition has found that “these men and women coming back will not go the Veterans of Foreign Wars” because “it doesn’t meet the needs of the current soldiers.” Since the vets know computers and technology, “the ‘virtual VFW’ is being set up by some of our colleagues, and when it’s up and running, soldiers will have a place where they can chat with their colleagues.”

Although calls to the VFW weren’t returned, Donovan did say that Warrior to Citizen is involved in an ongoing effort to enlist the participation of both the VFW and the American Legion.

Another way Warrior to Citizen will use technology is by issuing 5,000 flash drives containing information helpful to returning veterans. Though the U.S. Veterans Administration distributes pamphlets with that information, vets tend to discard them, Donovan said. Businesses are being asked to donate the flash drives.

Other plans of the campaign include:

• Expos that feature job fairs to help returning vets use their expertise in their communities. “Some people have gifts and talents and skills that we don’t often hear of,” Donovan said. “For example, if you’re over working on a water system in Baghdad for two years and you have that expertise and you come back to Hennepin County, our hope is that Hennepin County will have an opening that will tap into your new skills and knowledge.”

• A family financial planning program is in the works.

• “Community dialogues” convened by the mayors of St. Cloud, Rochester and Bloomington this fall. The hope is that these “pilot” meetings, which are intended to address the needs of each participating community, will catch on in other communities across the state.

• State lawmakers have agreed to introduce legislation in the 2008 session that would change the Power of Attorney form to provide greater protection to those who use POA while deployed as well as elderly and other vulnerable adults who have suffered financial abuse.

A partial listing of the growing coalition includes the Minnesota National Guard; Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis; the offices of U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar; Minnesota state Rep. Nora Slawik and state Sens. Dave Senjem and Tarryl Clark, and other individuals and organizations.

Although government, clergy, the military and businesses are represented in the coalition, citizen involvement will be a crucial component of Warrior to Citizen, Donovan said. “This is citizen-led rather than government- or social service led; this is grassroots,” he said. “This particular strategy has come from citizens. All of us can play a role in the reintegration of soldiers. And through community meetings and gatherings, our hope is that working with the soldiers and their families that they will have access to these services. Citizenship is at the heart of it all. We see ways for citizens and community members and family organizations to work together to form a more cohesive net.”

Further information on Warrior to Citizen may be obtained at www.publicwork.org.