In late 2009 and early 2010, the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Division received alert orders for a deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This deployment would be the largest of Iowa National Guard troops since World War II, with 2,800 Iowans deployed, along with 350 from Nebraska and 100 from other states.
With a population of 3 million, that extreme number of Iowans deployed would mean that one out of every 1,000 Iowans would be away from home. "When we deploy a battalion, we touch anywhere from 270 to 290 communities," Iowa Adjutant Gen. Tim Orr said at the time. This brigade will deploy, and they will cover almost every community in the state of Iowa."
Under the leadership of 2009-2010 Department Commander Marlin Tillman, a long-time Iowa National Guard soldier before his retirement, the Iowa American Legion formed Operation Troop Support. Initially, that effort was intended to be a resource to the Family Readiness and Family Assistance Centers; little did Tillman know that conversations from his military duty would help the soldiers and families today be better prepared for deployment, as well as support their families and welcome the the servicemembers home.
"What led up to Operation Troop Support is a story in itself and is not a new concept," Tillman said. "Looking back over the last few years, I can honestly say how proud I am to see the ongoing support by the Legion family. It was an effort by EVERY community that resulted in branch programs that benefitted our soldiers and families at a critical time in their lives and really made a difference. My motto for the year as state commander was, ‘Carry The Banner,’ and it never flew higher than it does today as a result of "Operation Troop Support."
The American Legion – with more than 600 posts in Iowa – was uniquely positioned to be in almost every one of those communities. Operation Troop Support was designed to be a proactive approach, rather than reactive at a critical juncture."
"Our four pillars include veterans’ benefits and national security," Tillman said. "This task certainly fits the bill."
Operation Troop Support began with contacts being made in National Guard armories across Iowa. Legionnaires in posts near those armories previously had served in the National Guard and already were well acquainted with the units to be deployed and their leadership. A Legion family presence, and potential for assistance, was also made known to the Family Readiness Groups and the Family Assistance Centers. In communities without an armory, soldiers were identified through programs like the Blue Star Banner program, and offers of future assistance was made by the Legion family. Pocket guides that listed American Legion assistance programs, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, were distributed. It was the manner in which The American Legion approached them, without pressures, which reminded them during critical periods of who they could call, if needed.
Within the Legion Family, information on Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA) was distributed among our own membership. That program is used to assist the children of war-time veterans in emergency situations to ensure housing, health and clothing issues are addressed on behalf of the child. Post, unit and squadron leadership also received education on identifying and mobilizing local community resources to assist when needed.
In September 2010, as the soldiers of the 2nd BCT began deployment for final training to Mississippi and California, members of the Legion family were there to say "we are here for your family while you are away," just as they would be a year later to say "thank you and job well done," when the 2nd BCT returned home.
During deployments, family problems that popped up were handled through the National Guard Family Assistance Centers, who worked directly with the local Legion family and through calls to the Legion’s national Family Support Network hotline. The Legion heard from both servicemembers and their families.
"I feel uncomfortable asking for assistance, but I have no other place to turn. I am employed at the Army National Guard, and have been for eight years. My car has recently decided to take a hit . . . first the transmission . . . pulleys and belts went out . . . engine problems. I skipped a mortgage payment to pay for repairs with hopes I would be able to make it up. [The mortgage company] would only apply my payments towards my principal. I have no savings anymore. I bought my childrens’ school clothes at the DAV. I’m a person who gives without hesitation and I now see myself in need and asking for consideration in helping me in any way possible." – an anonymous soldier who received monetary assistance with catching up on her mortgage payments and received help from a local Legion member who knew a "thing or two" about cars and was able to get the needed repairs done with minimal costs to the soldier’s family.
"My husband is currently in the VA hospital for psychiatric treatments after serving eight years on active duty. After paying for all my bills, I only have enough money to fill up the car with gas to make sure I can bring the kids to school before going to work. Shoes and clothes for the kids are not an option, because I just don’t have the money for that." – spouse of a PTSD sufferer who received TFA. The local Auxiliary unit collected school supplies and clothes to get them through.
Those types of problems did not end with the return of the 2nd BCT. The demobilization process did not go well for many of the soldiers that came home with health problems caused by their service in Afghanistan. Fort McCoy, the demobilization site, has no military treatment facility, forcing all of the soldiers needing health care to be referred either to VA or TRICARE.
In many cases, soldiers that needed health care were not able to return to work and remained on either active duty (Title 10) or state (Title 32) orders. That pay level is not equal to the pay received while on deployment (due to the pay incentives for overseas service and hazardous duty). The drop in pay led to even more serious financial problems for some families, contingencies for which the National Guard simply had no resources. The only viable option was the Legion family’s TFA program.
A DoD Task Force is evaluating the care and transition of those servicemembers with health problems due to their service. That task force, of which Iowa’s Past National Commander Dave Rehbein is a member, has met twice with the Iowa National Guard leadership since the problems caused by their demobilization resulted in extra stress on the soldiers.
Twice during those meetings – first with a soldier in 2012, and then from the Family Assistance Coordinator in 2013 – the contribution of The American Legion family was acknowledged and made clear to the task force. A soldier from one of the 2012 meetings made the statement that his family was on the verge of becoming homeless. The American Legion stepped in and gave yet another seemingly hopeless situation some viable options and, subsequently, a bright future.
In 2013, another task force member asked the Family Assistance Coordinator who the "go-to person" was when it became apparent a family was in need of help. That coordinator, with no hesitation, said, "The American Legion."
Specific stories could be told of help that was provided through The American Legion family, but privacy prevents that and names are not important. We can tell you that 32 cases were approved for help from TFA and provided $32,232 to the families in need to ensure their children’s health and safety.
The number of cases handled locally may never be known but will be remembered in the lives of those soldiers and their families.
The need is not over. Iowa still has a number of soldiers in active-duty Title 10 status undergoing health care, some separated from their families and some at home. Others stay on Title 32 orders, not yet able to return to work or even to drill status. The potential for problems remains high. We must continue to be available for them – wherever they are.
There was no shortage of American Legion family volunteers, and not everyone in The American Legion family was called on to help. But because The American Legion family is spread throughout Iowa and our membership has stayed strong, when help was needed, we were close by. Your membership helped make that possible. Regardless of where your post, unit, squadron or chapter, is located, you helped us remain true to our word: "Veterans Still Serving."
We were formed to support our comrades after World War I. When that support was needed again, and continuing today, your membership ensures that help will be there – then, now and in the future. Because of YOU, the Iowa National Guard resource list starts with The American Legion Family. Those military veterans, soldiers and their families, are well aware of how valuable you are.
Kathy Nees is programs director for The American Legion Department of Iowa. David K. Rehbein is past national commander of The American Legion and was named to the DoD’s’s Recovering Warrior Task Force after completing his term as National Commander. More information on the work of the Task Force can be found here.