By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 16, 2009 - As the sun went down over the bluffs in Douglas, Wyo., Jan. 9, Army Col. Richard K. Knowlton was practicing his roping skills in the gymnasium of the local Army National Guard armory. Knowlton and his senior enlisted advisor, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kenton Franklin, casually casted lassos over an inert 155-mm artillery shell, honing their skills for an upcoming deployment.
It's expected, he said, of senior leaders deploying from "The Cowboy State" to know how to rope.
But Knowlton, the Wyoming Army National Guard's 115th Fires Brigade commander, was at the armory to prepare more than his roping skills for the deployment. He and a handful of his staff traveled to Douglas to help ready the community for the largest single deployment in the state's history.
Nearly 1,000 Wyoming National Guard soldiers will deploy to Kuwait and Iraq in April, taking more than half of the state's Army National Guard force and a third of its total National Guard assets. Wyoming, the least-populous state in the nation, has fewer total residents than most major metropolitan areas, and the impact will be felt by nearly every community, Knowlton said.
"That's like taking an entire small town out of Wyoming," Knowlton said.
"You have to step beyond what the Army or the National Guard traditionally would do to support ... those soldiers, the families, the employers and the communities, and you really have to reach out and help educate them so that they can help each other and we can help them," he said.
The population of Douglas is just more than 5,000, and the east-central Wyoming town sits on the banks of the North Platte River. To many, it is considered the "home of the jackalope," a mythical creature that is part antelope and part jackrabbit. Passersby can spot one – albeit fabricated of wood, steel and paint -- sitting regally atop a bluff along the interstate.
To help prepare Douglas and the other communities spread across the state, Knowlton undertook a massive information campaign designed to bring together community and business leaders and families and educate them on the upcoming mission and support services available.
"What I'm doing is I'm bringing out all of those support mechanisms that are provided by the military department of Wyoming and DoD that help the soldiers [and families]," he said.
Knowlton and his staff have spent a week in each of the past three months zigzagging across the state, stopping in a different town each day. They brought veterans' advocates, representatives from the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program and Army One Source, chaplains and others along with them.
They met in the mornings with community leader, briefing them on the upcoming mission and the impact expected on the families, communities and employers. They talked with mayors, police chiefs, school administrators and Boy Scout leaders.
After the morning briefings, the staff spread out and canvassed the communities, each meeting with their counterparts there. The chaplain met with local clergy. The brigade's behavioral science specialist met with school and private counselors. Then it was back to a local armory that evening for a family meeting. All meetings were open to the public, and the turnouts ranged from about 20 to nearly 150.
The efforts were needed to prepare the communities and families ahead of the deployment, Knowlton said.
"When I deploy, ... I'm deploying clergy out of those small towns, doctors, nurses, school principals, school teachers, the soccer coach, the Boy Scout leaders -- those types of people in the community," Knowlton said. "So, not only am I taking from the families and the employers, I'm taking from the communities, and they all have to cover down to continue those services. So it's challenging for everybody."
But the meetings also served as a tool for the communities to come together and show their support, and link services that are available on a national, state and local level.
"Most of the questions are 'What can I do to help?' Unfortunately, there's really not a set of instructions or a battle plan for communities," Knowlton said.
The staff gathered contacts in each of the communities that they pooled together later to send to officials back at the state headquarters. Those contacts will prove valuable when problems arise later after the deployment, they said.
"We ... can educate them so they understand that when a child whose father's deployed suddenly becomes a disciplinary problem at school, it may not be because he's a bad kid. It's because he's worried about his dad," the colonel said.
As important, Knowlton said, is that the community becomes involved in the deployment and can be proactive in its support. Smaller towns are often better off during these deployments, he said, because in larger jurisdictions, the community is not built around the social groups that support the families.
"That small town understands 'I'm the front line for these families back home'" he said.
Also, it gives community leaders and families a rare look at the troops' senior leadership.
"Those people want to look the commander in the eye and see that he or she really cares about their soldier and what he can bring to the fight to help ... the family and the community get through this trying time," Knowlton said.
The challenge of reaching out to families and the community is inherent for the National Guard, especially in geographically dispersed states such as Wyoming.
"If you're on active duty, it's relatively easy because all of your family is right there ... and you have some command and control and influence over their lives, and you can put that net out there," Knowlton said. "Here, it's much more challenging."
This is the first time the Wyoming National Guard has launched this type of campaign, and the conversations reached beyond the deployment to include signs to look for in soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"Those were always taboos, and we've never really talked about those things before. And we've never taken our chaplain out and talked about spiritual things," said Army Maj. Sam House, a public affairs officer traveling with the group.
What made this effort possible was the 18-month notification of the upcoming deployment by the Defense Department, House said. Without it, there wouldn't have been enough time to plan and carry out the meetings, he said. Headquarters officials sat down last year to detail the concept and then they started calling community leaders to garner their support for the meetings.
"I think it's already paid off. I believe that every penny that we've spent on ... gasoline getting to these communities is well worth it. We got our message out," House said. "Colonel Knowlton, he's got a big task ahead of him, but he's got the support of the state of Wyoming