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Letter to The Honorable Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense

Klobuchar, Mikulski Push for Accountability at DOD for National Guard and Reserve Reintegration

With members of the National Guard representing nearly half of the soldiers scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the next six months, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) today led a bipartisan coalition of their colleagues to urge Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary Robert Gates to take personal responsibility for the nationwide implementation of reintegration initiatives for National Guard members and Reservists returning from combat. While President Bush continues to request billions of federal dollars for the war, his administration has yet to establish reintegration programs in every state for National Guard and Reserve personnel to assist their transition from combat to civilian life.

Neither the President's fiscal year 2009 budget, nor the fiscal year 2008 emergency supplemental request, provided funding for the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which was authorized as part of the fiscal year 2008 Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 4986). However, congressional Democrats fought to include $65.4 million to fully fund the program in the emergency supplemental signed into law in late June. This funding will support the 15 existing programs across the country, and provides a down payment to create programs in the remaining 35 states. This complicated process will need clarity and accountability from Secretary Gates to ensure National Guard members and Reservists returning from combat have the resources they deserve.

"This is about putting our nation's heroes first," said Senator Klobuchar. "Guard and Reserve members put their lives on hold to serve and then are asked to accept fewer benefits than their active duty counterparts. We are all proud of the men and women who serve in our nation's armed forces and risk their lives every day. We must make sure that we give all of our troops the resources they need both in the field and at home when they return. Our National Guard and Reserve continue to serve us all proudly both at home and abroad - these brave men and women are always there when we need them most and we must honor their sacrifice."

"The Guard is treated like a step-child when they fight abroad, and when they return. It is unacceptable that returning members of the Guard and Reserve don't receive the same care as returning active duty Soldiers, even though we are asking them to make the same sacrifices," said Senator Mikulski. "We know that the stress of combat and long deployments away from home can wreak havoc on our troops' well-being and family life in the months after their return. The brave men and women in our Guard and Reserve have been fighting side-by-side with our active duty troops in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we may live in freedom - they deserve the same support from the government when they return to their civilian lives."

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which establishes paid reintegration events at 30, 60 and 90-day intervals upon return, also provides counseling and support services for members and their families. The program is especially crucial because, unlike active duty soldiers who live and work with their military units and have ready access to counseling and care, Guardsmen and Reservists are with their units only during their short post-deployment processing window. After this point, it becomes increasingly challenging for them to access the services they need.

Senators signing the letter include: Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Secretary Gates,

We are writing to ask that you take a personal leadership role in the Department of Defense's (DOD) effort to fully implement Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Programs nationwide. We are very concerned that though we are entering our seventh year of the war on terror, only 15 states have programs to help Guard and Reserve Soldiers returning from overseas tours of duty reintegrate into civilian life. While there is strong interest in many other states to fully establish reintegration programs, many have not been able to due to lack of guidance or assurances that adequate funds will be provided.

We believe that DOD's efforts to implement the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program nationwide must take a common sense approach that reflects the citizen soldier nature of the Guard and Reserve. In order to maximize the programs' effectiveness, Yellow Ribbon coordinators work closely with state and local offices and volunteer organizations to connect them with service members. Requiring these non-DOD partners to liaison with multiple DOD reintegration programs in a single state may significantly inhibit the ability of local commanders and officials to develop a flexible framework for their respective programs. As DOD begins implementation of the national Yellow Ribbon program under the guidance outlined in the July 22 directive, we urge you to ensure that each state or territory be allowed to build and sustain a single Reintegration Program according to its own unique needs and circumstances.

Furthermore, State Guard Bureau reintegration offices planning for the homecoming of Guardsmen and Reservists must have timely commitments that sufficient funding will be provided to meet their needs. We are concerned that DOD's July 22 guidance on implementing the Yellow Ribbon Program does not clearly lay out a mechanism by which funding will be made available to the State Guard Bureaus that actually conduct and pay costs of reintegration events. As a result, implementation of Yellow Ribbon beyond the existing 15 states may not proceed rapidly enough to meet current and future needs.

We ask that you exert your personal leadership to accomplish the following as soon as possible to ensure that quality of existing Yellow Ribbon programs and the implementation of new programs in additional states are not hampered by uncertainty over funding. First, we ask that you ensure full fiscal year 2009 funding is provided to each state Guard Bureau so they can be assured of the full resources needed to operate existing Yellow Ribbon Programs or establish new programs. Second, we urge you to request full funding for Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Programs in the fiscal year 2009 Supplemental and program future years funding for Yellow Ribbon in the fiscal year 2010 DOD request.

As you are aware, almost half the soldiers scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the next six months are members of National Guard. As we prepare to send them overseas, we also have a responsibility to begin preparing now to assist them in making the transition from military to civilian life upon their return. Thank you for your service and dedication to the welfare of our men and women in uniform. We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to working with you on this in the future.

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