The 81st Brigade of the Washington National Guard returned from Iraq to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. About 3,200 soldiers spent five days of demobilization processing. (Photo by James V. Carroll)

One-stop demobilization benefits Guardsmen

Upon returning from a nine-month deployment to Iraq, 3,000 soldiers of the Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade Heavy Combat Team participated in a streamlined demobilization at Fort McCoy, Wis., helped by Legionnaires from the Department of Washington.

The one-stop event gave unit members a chance to complete VA applications, start job searches, learn about TRICARE health insurance and prepare unemployment claims.

"In the past, when demobilization took place, we had to compete with the family for a soldier's attention," said Tom Riggs of the Washington State Transition Service Center in Tacoma. "What we have here at Fort McCoy is a collection of services and benefits under one roof, and a captive audience."

Michael Rhodes, American Legion service officer for the Department of Washington, said troops get a jump-start on filing VA claims by attending the demobilization. "A soldier can go home knowing that we will help him through the application and claims process," he said. "That's one less thing they have to think about when they get home."

Col. Ron Kapral, 81st Brigade commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Sweeney agree that the pilot demobilization program is worth continuing.

"In past deployments, our soldiers spread out over the entire state after returning home," Kapral said. "They were briefed on benefits and services. But after their release, it was the individual soldier's responsibility to contact various agencies. Some soldiers followed through, some did not.

"The fact that The American Legion and other VSOs are present at Fort McCoy demonstrates their commitment to America's military men and women. Soldiers who may have VA claims can go home knowing that they will be well represented."

A veteran of several deployments, Sweeney said he is impressed with the one-stop concept. "This is a win-win situation," he said. "We, as leaders, fulfill our obligation to provide for the well-being of our soldiers, and soldiers can return to their families knowing that everything has been done to assure a smooth transition back home. By participating in this process, our soldiers have the tools and support to deal with issues that may face them when they get home."