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NEWS | Feb. 2, 2010

Teleconference links returning Guardsmen with benefits experts

By Army Sgt. Benjamin R. Kibbey Multinational Division South

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq, - The benefits a grateful nation makes available to those who serve in its military are numerous, but connecting servicemembers to the resources in their local areas - especially when they serve in the reserve components can be a challenge.

In conjunction with the community of St. Cloud, Minn., the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division hosted a city hall teleconference here in December showcasing the individuals and organizations the soldiers of central Minnesota will deal with when they return home.

The conference was a proof of concept, said Army Capt. John Donovan, the division's visitor bureau and event coordinator. The hope is that this event not only will help St. Cloud soldiers, but also open the way for similar coordination between local communities and their deployed servicemembers in the future, Donovan said.

"The purpose of this event it to take macro information and put it at a micro level - to take information that would be disseminated statewide, to all the soldiers in Minnesota, and provide it to their specific ZIP codes," he explained.

"The hope today is that people could actually take out their soldier notebook and be writing down telephone numbers that start with their area code," he said, "and walk away with the telephone number, the name and a face of the person that they'll interface with when they get back home."

Army Sgt. Nicholas Buskey, who is from the St. Cloud area and serves with the 34th Military Police Company, was one of about 40 Minnesota soldiers who attended after hearing about the teleconference through his chain of command. "I just want to see what resources are out there - kind of open my mind, broaden what I know," he said.

Buskey, who has taken advantage of Department of Veterans Affairs medical benefits in the past, said he had been to other briefings during his previous deployment, but never had seen anything this localized.

Army Maj. Jeff Howe, the division's transportation officer, asked local VA representatives about the Transition Assistance Program, a resource he had used in the past.

Widely perceived as just a tool for those seeking employment, TAP also helps soldiers looking to move up with or on from a civilian employer, putting their military skills into use in a civilian environment, Howe said. "It was actually open to spouses too," he said, adding that his wife went through TAP. "It was a great program."

Given his own experiences, Howe said, he believes the teleconference was an excellent concept and well-executed. A program like this helps to cover the areas that briefings soldiers receive 30, 60 and 90 days after deployment can't cover adequately, he said.

"You've got the 30-60-90," he said, but there's a gap in there of 30 days. And now, if somebody needs help, they can put a face on, 'This is where I need to go.'

Some soldiers need assistance before their deployment is over, and Donovan is familiar with the help someone local can provide in those circumstances. With the advent of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, he had the opportunity to do something he had been looking at for 10 years: transfer his education benefits to his daughter. Yet, when these benefits became available, he was here, thousands of miles from home.

"Because the program is so new, they're building the ship while they're flying it," he said. "So, they were inundated with some 250,000 applications of soldiers who want to use it for themselves, and for soldiers, like me, who want to transfer it to their dependents."

Though stop-gap measures are in place for soldiers, Donovan's daughter, like many dependents, has nearly completed a semester without receiving any payments. Though the issue has yet to be fully resolved, Donovan was able to take the problem to his local county Veterans Service officer, and to deal directly with someone for an issue that might otherwise be solved in a faceless manner.

Now, Donovan said, he wants to be certain that other soldiers, when faced with questions and issues, know exactly where to find that individual attention the local community is so eager to provide.

The teleconference was coordinated in cooperation with the "Warrior to Citizen Campaign," a local St. Cloud group, and included St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud Technical and Community College, the Minnesota School of Business and Rasmussen College, as well as the St. Cloud Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, the Minnesota Workforce Center and the Stearns County Veterans Services.