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Virtual or in-person: Yellow Ribbon events benefit deploying Airmen and their loved ones

Reserve Citizen Airmen and loved ones with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the 459th Air Refueling Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Md. participate in the first fully-virtual Air Force Reserve Command Yellow Ribbon Program event, October 24 to 25, 2020.

Reserve Citizen Airmen and loved ones with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the 459th Air Refueling Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. participate in the first fully-virtual Air Force Reserve Command Yellow Ribbon Program event, October 24 to 25, 2020. The Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program is a series of events designed to provide members and families with essential resources prior to departure (pre-deployment), a level of stability and support while deployed (during deployment), and successful re-integration techniques after the deployment cycle ends (post deployment).

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the success of the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program could be summarized by one key statistic—more than 95 percent of attendees said Yellow Ribbon events benefited their family.

This success was built on in-person events where deployers, their loved ones, leaders and subject-matter experts gathered in a conference-like setting for two days of training, education and networking on people-centric topics related to Reserve deployments.

But when coronavirus shut down most military travel, the Yellow Ribbon team was forced to change their ways.

“We’re charged with connecting Reserve Airmen and their loved ones with resources that help them throughout the deployment cycle,” said Mary Hill, who leads the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program. “We had to adapt to the new conditions and develop new ways to accomplish our mission without the in-person events that we’ve relied upon for years.” 

Hill’s team launched a quarterly magazine that provides deployment-support resources and adjusted its social media efforts to better promote tools and information that help deployers and their loved ones.

The magazine received good reviews, and Yellow Ribbon social media traffic tripled, but when compared to the effectiveness of in-person events, the new initiatives were not enough, Hill said.

Then the team decided to join the ‘virtual revolution’ and host Yellow Ribbon events via videoconference. 

Since September, there have been six virtual Yellow Ribbon events, all of which focused on pre-deployment topics. 

While the survey results from all six events aren’t yet available, the data are favorable—93 percent of participants said the event was beneficial to their family, just two percentage points behind the in-person events.

The Yellow Ribbon team’s next challenge is hosting a virtual event focused on post-deployment topics. Hill said Reserve Airmen have not expressed much interest in attending a virtual Yellow Ribbon event upon their return from deployment.

But it’s not because they don’t think the virtual event would be valuable.

“In this case, we’re a victim of our past success,” Hill said. “We’ve heard many Reservists say that they’d rather wait until the pandemic breaks and they can attend an in-person event.”

Hill said she understands their perspective because the in-person events have built a strong reputation and most people are social by nature. However, she wants to caution Reserve Airmen that delaying their attendance could impact their post-deployment reintegration. 

“No one is trying to convince Airmen that the virtual events are better than the in-person events,” Hill said. “But we are trying to convince them that a Yellow Ribbon event delivers important information and resources that Airmen and their loved ones should have as soon as they can upon returning from deployment.”

Chaplain (Maj.) George Jones, the program’s chaplain consultant, said Airmen may be excited to return home and get back to normal, but they must understand that things are different than when they left and that it important for Airmen and their loved ones to be aware of the differences.

“The experiences Airmen have when deployed can change them—emotionally, psychologically, and in some cases, spiritually,” Jones said. “Upon returning, they may not realize change has occurred, until the first time their method of handling change doesn’t coincide with those around them.”

That’s where a Yellow Ribbon event can help, Jones said.

“A virtual Yellow Ribbon event provides the knowledge of benefits, the knowledge of proven processes along with thought-provoking methods that will help you and your family, friends and coworkers, experience a successful reintegration,” Jones said.

The first virtual post-deployment Yellow Ribbon event is scheduled for Jan. 23-24. Chief Master Sgt. Timothy White, the command chief master sergeant of Air Force Reserve Command, will provide remarks.

Reserve Airmen and their loved ones are encouraged to attend in pay status or in non-pay audit status for the two-day event. Those who audit the event retain their eligibility to attend two future post-deployment events in pay status.

The Yellow Ribbon program began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles.

Many thousands of Reserve Airmen have participated in the program since its inception. Though no survey exists that tracks the number of marriages saved, suicides averted and lives improved, Hill said she’s confident the program has had life-altering effects for a significant proportion of attendees.

“The Chief of the Air Force Reserve, Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, once said, ‘Everything we do in the Air Force Reserve should either contribute to our readiness or help our Airmen,’” Hill said. “I like to think the Yellow Ribbon Program meets both of the general’s objectives—it contributes to our readiness and it helps our Airmen.”

Editor’s Note: More information is available at www.afrc.af.mil/About-Us/Yellow-Ribbon