If Command Sgt. Major Frank Wicks had a choice, he'd be on the tarmac to greet all of the National Guard soldiers returning home from overseas.
And as the top enlisted soldier in the state, he makes a concerted effort to be at every homecoming possible. Wicks was there to greet Guard members disembarking from three of the four airplanes that brought them home from Afghanistan last week, even though it meant traveling hundreds of miles between airports across the state and only getting a few hours sleep between the flights as they touched down in quick succession of each other over the course of 24 hours.
"That's how important they are to me," he said this week. "I feel these welcome-home greetings are so important, I do pretty much anything to go to them."
Wicks makes a point of personally welcoming home each soldier and thanking them for their service. This greeting tradition is sort of the beginning of the end for the soldiers finishing their deployment — and a tangible sign that they're making the transition from military life back into the role of a civilian.
Today, the National Guard coordinates with civilian groups to organize welcoming events for returning soldiers both when they first return to the United States and once they are brought back to the communities where they are stationed. Reuniting soldiers with their families are often celebratory events that sometimes involve local media and always include a hearty dose of gratitude from Guard command.
"It's sort of an ending," said Eric Durr, a spokesman for the Guard. "This sort of signals ‘this is it, I'm done being soldier now and I'm a civilian again.’ "
A key component of the welcoming events is a growing cooperation between the military and so-called family readiness groups. These organizations are sponsored by a specific command and composed of family members, volunteers, soldiers and civilian employees associated with a particular unit.
Family readiness groups work closely with the military to provide a wide breadth of support services to soldiers and their families during deployments. They're also instrumental in helping to coordinate reunions between returning soldiers and their families.
Though there is a long history of military booster organizations, the family readiness groups really took shape in the post-Vietnam War era. Military leaders and boosters alike wanted to change the quiet and unceremonious return of soldiers.
"By having these type of reuniting ceremonies, it never lets us repeat the bad taste left during the Vietnam era," said John Willsey, a retired command sergeant major who now works as a volunteer liaison with the Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Colonie.
Willsey said the fanfare often associated with the return celebrations also serves as a good memory soldiers can keep as they try to work beyond some of the less pleasant ones associated with a wartime deployment. He said a soldier's elation at seeing his or her family for the first time in a year can act as a pleasant memory to outshine some of the darker ones from combat.
"It's a great feeling," he said, recalling his own homecoming from Iraq in 2004. "It makes you feel welcome."
But perhaps the most critical component of a soldier's return is reintegration into civilian life. Since combat operations began nearly a decade ago, the Guard has recognized the difficulty some soldiers have had in readjusting to life after deployment in war zone.
A dramatic surge in suicides and mental health-related issues among returning soldiers prompted the Guard to launch a multi-agency effort at ensuring they wouldn't continue slipping through the cracks. In 2009, state and federal agencies teamed up with the Guard to launch a 90-day reintegration program geared toward helping civilian soldiers readjust to normal life after experiencing the rigors of combat.
The so-called Yellow Ribbon program helps to emphasize one-on-one interactions between returning veterans and counselors so the military will have a better chance of identifying those soldiers in need of help. The program requires returning soldiers to attend paid sessions at the 30-day, 60-day and 90-day mark after their return.
During these sessions, soldiers are placed in a nonmilitary setting with fellow soldiers so they can share experiences from overseas or in returning home. These sessions also provide a forum for soldiers to reconnect with their civilian lives, whether it's through seeking career advice or finding a job.
"Anything that they really need we try to have at these events," Wicks said. "It's to reintegrate and get them anything they need to catch up after the deployment."