MNSCU: Helping veterans: ‘It’s the right thing to do’

MINNESOTA STATE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

Former college president, now Minnesota National Guard chief, Larry Shellito takes the lead in ensuring troops get education benefits

Larry Shellito has spent most of his life balancing two careers — as an educator and as a soldier — and he has been steady and successful in both professions. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been willing to go out on a limb.

When Shellito resigned as president of Alexandria Technical College in 2003 after Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to head the Minnesota National Guard, his record was impressive: 31 years at the college, where he had risen from a student teacher to spending his last nine years as the college’s president, and three decades with the Guard, rising to the two-star rank of major general.

“I came in running, and it’s been 110 miles per hour ever since,” said Shellito when describing his last five years in uniform. In 2007 alone, the Minnesota Guard deployed more than 2,350 troops to 14 countries and welcomed the return of 2,600 soldiers who had spent the longest time in Iraq — 22 months — of any military unit since the war began.

Returning home and becoming whole again is a challenge — one that Shellito knows from personal experience. In speeches he has given to returning troops, he often makes this statement: “Education saved my life.”

An explanation of what that means is a little less dramatic, Shellito admits. In 1968, he was getting ready to graduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead in his hometown and was interviewing for a management job with a hotel chain in Rochester. Shellito has vivid memories of that interview. “Everything seemed to be going well until I was asked, ‘What’s your status with the draft board?’

“So I went down to the draft board, and they said, ‘You’ll be graduating in June, so that means you’ll get your (induction) notice in April or May.’ Everything I had planned got turned upside down.” Shellito decided to join the Army to qualify for officer’s candidate school. Not surprisingly, the last year of his enlistment was spent as an infantry officer in Vietnam. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was the abrupt shock of returning home.

“I flew from Saigon to Travis Air Force Base outside of Oakland, got off the plane and went into a room with a bunch of others,” Shellito remembered. “An officer walked in and said, ‘Those of you who are healthy and don’t have any claims against the government, here’s your DD214 (discharge papers). Have a good day.’ “

Shellito returned home to Moorhead in a daze that he couldn’t explain, even to himself. He spent some time trying to reconnect with old school friends, but most of them had moved on and others “didn’t get” the way his world had changed because of the Vietnam experiences. But then, at the urging of a friend — and because there wasn’t much else to do — Shellito enrolled in a class at his alma mater.

“I don’t remember much that I gained from that class,” Shellito said. “But in retrospect, being required to do something was the most important thing I needed at that time. It forced me to get up every day, to be accountable, to interact in a social environment, to meet new friends and have new experiences.”

He went on to earn a master’s degree in business education from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota.

Flash forward three decades to Shellito’s firrst year as adjutant general of the Minnesota Guard. When he took command, the policy for returning Guard troops was to leave them alone for at least 90 days — a three-month vacation from military activities.

“The policy was well-intentioned, but (Adjutant General Shellito) knew from his own experience that it was flawed,” said John Morris, the deputy state chaplain for the Minnesota Army National Guard. “We started seeing from returning soldiers that the first 90 days is a crucial period. A lesser human being would have said, ‘Well, that’s policy,’ and, besides, there wasn’t any money to implement any programs,” Morris added. “But the adjutant intervened, because he wanted to do what was right for the soldiers, no matter what. To me, that’s moral courage.”

The policy that Shellito launched has since been named “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” and has become a national model. Aimed at reintegration, it begins on the day troops arrive in the Midwest and involves everything from family counseling to information on obtaining hunting licenses.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is a major participant. Last summer and fall, system representatives participated in dozens of reintegration sessions at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, the first stateside stop for returning troops from Minnesota, and at system campuses around the state. In addition, System Director of Student Affairs Steve Frantz says veteran centers at system campuses have grown from one or two veteran centers two years ago to 44 centers as of this spring.

“The idea of veteran representatives on campuses is not new,” Frantz said. “But bringing them back was Larry’s vision. He has a great sense of concern and compassion for the people he works with, and he’s a very strong leader who knows how to motivate people. I remember, early on, when he called my office and left a voicemail saying, ‘Steve, we’re going to need help from your counselors at MnSCU.’ “

Indeed, Shellito succeeded in marshalling resources, including bipartisan support from Minnesota’s state and congressional leaders. Last summer, he quickly enlisted their aid again when it was learned that outmoded regulations in the educational G.I. Bill program threatened the level of benefits going to Guard members returning from their 22-month deployment in Iraq.

Some said Shellito displayed outrage at the prospect that his troops — nearly 80 percent of whom had expressed interest in going to school — might lose full educational benefits. He laughs at that depiction.

“Sometimes I have to act mad more than I actually get mad,” Shellito said. “But if there’s one thing that Vietnam taught me, it’s the value of life and the difference of what’s important and what’s not important. I’ve said all along that Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is not a military issue. It’s a social issue, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Chaplain Morris said Shellito possesses rare qualities that come from his dual careers as an educator and a military leader.

“He’s compassionate about the welfare of young people and their families, and that tempers the power he has as a general,” Morris said. “His heart is in making sure that these soldiers who have given so much and their families are cared for. We’re lucky to have him in Minnesota.”

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