As the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of most things, the military mission continued and so has support for each stage of the deployment cycle.
Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) events are a major source of information for military families before, during, and at the end of deployments. The program was established by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 to assist National Guard and reserve members as they transition between their military and civilian role, according to its website. Since COVID-19 restrictions have prevented in-person events, units are getting creative about YRRP activities. Like many programs in 2020, a virtual offering has allowed military families to receive ongoing deployment support.
Peter Toelle, executive director of the YRRP, says the DOD released safety directives focused on wearing masks, limiting travel, and maintaining social distancing. It is up to the individual services to develop its own programs that comply with those directives. Therefore, families of reservists and National Guard members will have different experiences with their unit’s YRRP events.
The biggest change is the virtual platform — called EventPLUS — that supports live and recorded sessions with instructors. According to Toelle, this technology was originally developed in 2014 to host virtual events for units who were deploying quickly. He says he is proud of the collaboration that makes virtual events possible.
“The services have done an amazing job of providing virtual resources to the families.”
Toelle explained what that new support has looked like. “We took our face-to-face curriculum and adapted it to the virtual platform while incorporating tools like Microsoft Teams and various platforms approved by each branch. Everything the instructors did in person has now been adapted to use on teleconference or online. It is interactive, so we can either broadcast an instructor live in a virtual event or do a self-paced program.”
One benefit of the virtual events is that service members and their families can participate from home. The drawback is that a virtual event cannot offer the same interaction and benefits as an in-person gathering.
“The Yellow Ribbon weekends are always a great event where people learn a lot. You don’t get that same experience through a virtual platform. Usually, they would gather the families and do interactive activities, with the kids at youth programs. It’s hard to get the family together for four hours when life is going on behind them at home. We see lower participation for the families,” Toelle said.
YRRP events typically include various community partners who support the military, like United Through Reading who has continued to participate virtually. Previously, its team hosted a booth and table where family members could ask questions and service members could record themselves reading a book. Tonya Wood, the UTR Program Manager for National Guard and Reserves, explains how her organization supports families.
“We provide a ten-minute presentation about our program, how it works, where/how to make recordings, and answer questions. For online classes, we provide digital flyers to the YRSS’s and have them sent out to attendees via email or as part of a resource guide. For events taking place in person, UTR postcards are added to the registration packet each attendee receives,” she said.
Toelle confirms that the DOD plans to return to in-person events once they are deemed safe.
“We anticipate the services returning to an in-person platform, based on responses from service members and families. They all feel it is important to participate face-to-face. I think the virtual platform will continue to be there as a backup, but there will always be a greater emphasis on the in person.”