- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

FORT LEWIS, Wash. | The state of Washington’s Army National Guard is promoting programs to help returning Reserve and Guard troops face unfavorable job prospects and avoid marital breakdown.

The Army National Guard in Washington currently has a full Heavy Brigade Combat Team with about 2,400 of its citizens deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The brigade will return to Washington in mid-August. According to a recent report provided by the Washington National Guard, current projections indicate that about 650 members of this brigade will be unemployed after mobilization. Also, 60 percent of Guard members who deployed from 2004-06 earned less wages after their return than prior to deployment. Many Guard members earn less than $2,000 per month.

“It’s a challenge,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Tom Riggs, deployment cycle support transition chief for the Washington Guard. “They are one accident, one pregnancy, one layoff away from poverty.”

Currently, 500,000 people in Washington live in poverty, a number likely to increase once the troops return. “But all hope is not lost,” Sgt. Maj. Riggs said.

He and his team are confronting these challenges. They are promoting seminars and broadcasts by Gov. Christine Gregoire and by sports celebrities who provide information on how the troops can find jobs. They are also accelerating the integration of Guard members once they return. Usually, the troops have five days of briefings, physical exams and paperwork; most of the claims or benefits paperwork is stretched out later over several drill weekends. Yet Sgt. Maj. Riggs has partnered with both the state and federal Department of Veterans Affairs, and the American Legion to commence the demobilization process during the last 30 days in theater. When the troops arrive at Fort McCoy, Wis., prior to returning to Washington state, they finalize any remaining paperwork. The forms then only require review and signature.

By initiating this process earlier, Sgt. Major Riggs and his team will eliminate nine months from the traditional VA claims process that most Guard and Reserve families experience in other states. This will provide Washington troops almost immediate access to employment compensation, vocational rehabilitation and health care.

In addition, Sgt. Maj. Riggs and his team are developing Project 100, a pilot project that brings unions and other organizations together that are willing to offer apprenticeships. More than 300 organizations have indicated a willingness to participate, and the list continues to grow.

Financial stress is the leading reason couples cite for divorce, according to the Institute for Family Studies. Sgt. Maj. Riggs is also reviewing a peer-to-peer relationship strengthening program called Oxygen for Your Relationships. The program provides tips, tools and resources, and it offers couples a pre-deployment and post-deployment action plan and support network to keep relationships healthy. The program is currently in the pilot stage to measure outcomes. If adopted, the program will move the traditional marriage workshops from the classroom into the community, with ongoing Internet and small-group support.

Sgt. Maj. Riggs and his team are hoping these initiatives will help eliminate financial pressures and keep family units intact.

• Michael J.R. Schindler is a Navy veteran and founder of Operation Military Family. He is also the author of “Operation Military Family.”

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