The story behind the federal program that uniquely serves to keep our nation’s National Guard and Reserve ready and resilient started as a personal one. On Jan. 29, 2018, the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program celebrates ten years of making their mission personal, and unparalleled.
It could be said the seeds of the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) were planted in the reintegration experiences of a Vietnam veteran—little community support, grave misunderstandings of trauma-induced behaviors, and scant resources for helping Service members recapture lives left behind.
Officially launched by the Department of Defense in 2008, YRRP had its beginnings in Minnesota as “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.” The Minnesota program was in large part the result of one man’s mission to change the patterns he encountered and improve how Service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experienced reintegration.
Larry Shellito, a Vietnam vet and retired Maj. Gen., came to this decision while serving as Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard between 2003 and 2010.
In the years after 9/11 as troops from the Minnesota Guard, the famed “Red Bulls” cycled through deployment, reintegration, and for many, redeployment and reintegration, few were asking for help, but signs that help was needed were hard to ignore. Early on, Shellito noticed a rise in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and an alarming incidence of suicide: the first three deaths reported while he was in command of the Minnesota Guard were suicides.
“We had waves of deployments and disruptions. Coming back, Service members were changed. We found the Pandora’s box was opened, and all these ghosts were coming out. But steadily we found ways to address them.”
Look Them in the Eye
Shellito enlisted the support of his Guard chaplain, and they launched a hunt for funds to support the health and well-being needs of returning troops. They hit on the idea of selling “Support our Troops” license plates. As the coffers grew from the successful sales, they used the proceeds to fund training programs for vets, focusing especially on education, finances, and unemployment issues. They negotiated an ongoing contract with Lutheran Social Services in Minnesota, which provided counseling services for vets across the state. And they connected with The Patriot Guard program, an assembly of motorcyclists who accompany the motorcade at veteran’s funerals as a show of respect and support.
Beyond the practical services these initiatives provided for Service members, Shellito said their efforts were also about raising awareness of veterans’ issues in the wider community—from service providers to educational institutions to the general public. And sometimes, with the veterans themselves; it was not uncommon, he recalled, for troops to think they didn’t need any help. However, spouses and family members tended to be more open and willing to accept help. After all, the families needed support too.
“The key strength of the program was people getting together to do good deeds,” he added. “It gave us a sense of purpose and community that transcended other things; it was family taking care of family.”
Plus, he said, the events gave leadership an opportunity to reconnect with their troops to see up close how they were faring—a chance to “look them in the eye,” he said.
Gradually, all of these independent efforts morphed into a program that could be supported and sustained, and they named it “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.”
When he shipped off to Vietnam as a draftee, Shellito was a freshly minted second lieutenant. Although young and inexperienced—many of the troops were on their second and third tours—he was nonetheless a certified jungle expert and parachutist, and he quickly found himself assigned as the leader of a five-man team. For much of the time, he and his team lived with the South Vietnamese and South Koreans, and had very little contact with other Americans or direct supervision of their operations. They got immersed in their allies’ cultures, which Shellito recalls as a phenomenal experience.
That all ended in 1970 when he suddenly received orders to return home. Within 10 days, he was stateside. One night, he went out bar hopping with some friends. When he mentioned he had just gotten back from Vietnam, one woman remarked, “Oh, you’re one of those guys sucking up our tax dollars.” “That was a reality check,” he said. “I learned very quickly not to talk about my service, unless I was in a safe environment.”
That experience, and others like it, led Shellito to think about how things could be different, how the public could better understand the sacrifices Service members make.
But those ideas would have to wait. Instead, he went to school on the GI Bill and received a degree in Education in 1972. He started student teaching in Alexandria, Minnesota and later became President of Alexandria Technical and Community College. Still, money was tight in the early days, especially after he and his wife added two daughters to the family. At the advice of a friend, he joined the National Guard partly to augment his income.
From the 70s through the 90s, he worked his way through the ranks, graduating from the Army War College and receiving a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Minnesota. Among many awards and honors, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star.
Then came September 11, 2001. This was a game-changer for Shellito, a division commander at the time. “In my mind, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon really started here,” he said. “Scenarios were playing out with the young troops that replicated what I went through in Vietnam—the shock and disruptions to personal and family lives with notices of deployment, and the same scene post-deployment.”
It reminded Shellito of when he was drafted into the Vietnam War some 30 years before. He had just finished college and was about to take his first real job. “Ten days after graduating from college, I was at Fort Dix, New Jersey,” Shellito said. “I lost my job, my girlfriend, everything.”
The Work Continues
When Shellito became Adjutant General of the Minnesota Guard in 2003, the door swung open for him to take action on what had been a long-simmering desire to improve support for Service members, helping them to better prepare for deployment and providing tools for reintegration back into civilian life after a deployment.
Between 2003 and 2007, the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program took off in Minnesota under Shellito’s leadership. As it grew beyond its means, however, Shellito cast about for a way to preserve the program and found strong allies in former Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton, former Minnesota Rep. John Kline, and Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, former Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Kline sponsored a national bill in Congress and in January 2008 the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program took effect.
It’s from this date that YRRP measures its ascendance, and in January 2018, it will celebrate a milestone: 10 years supporting Guard and Reserve members. Since its launch, Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program has supported over 1.5 million Service members and their families.
After retiring from the military in 2010, Shellito now serves as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. From this vantage point, he further recognizes the pressing issues the YRRP program continues to address and will for some time—among them, homelessness, healthcare and housing for aging vets, employment, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD.
“The fact that we had the largest and longest deployed unit in the Iraq war made our work uniquely challenging,” said Shellito. “The need was there, and we filled it in the state of Minnesota. I honestly believe the Yellow Ribbon program saved lives.”
In large part, that’s thanks to a comprehensive reintegration approach encapsulated by the goal and mantra of Shellito’s program: “Bring them all the way home.”
For more information on the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, go to www.yellowribbon.mil.