Minnesota will face many big issues this year: Constitutional amendments on divisive social issues. An election that will determine control of the state Legislature. A U.S. Senate race that may determine that body's balance of power. And whether to build a new Vikings stadium, just to name a few.

But perhaps no issue will say more about us as Minnesotans than how we welcome back our returning military members -- especially in the workplace.

Some will come home as part of troop reductions necessitated by expected Pentagon budget cuts. And just weeks from now, 2,700 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division, known as the Red Bulls, will return home from Kuwait.

More than 25,000 Minnesota National Guard soldiers and airmen have been deployed since 9/11. The current deployment in Kuwait is the biggest call-up of Minnesota soldiers since World War II. Many have been deployed multiple times.

Over a decade some have put their civilian lives on hold, often for years. Beyond missing loved ones, and even the birth of loved ones, many gave up career-building opportunities. Still others have delayed their educations, which can have a lifelong impact on career prospects and earnings.

A survey of deployed Red Bulls by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development determined that at least 19 percent will return home jobless. That's well above Minnesota's 5.7 percent unemployment rate.

To help Red Bulls get a jump on their postdeployment employment and educational opportunities, the Guard assembled what it calls a Minnesota Interagency Military Employment Working Group to travel to Kuwait this month. A less official designation would be citizens working together to support the troops.

The nine-member team, encouraged at the executive level by Gov. Mark Dayton, comprised representatives from state agencies, the Minnesota State College and University system, the Minnesota business community, and the Minnesota National Guard itself.

(Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist John Rash accompanied the group, and has written a commentary on the trip.)

The group's hard work, late hours and spirit of sacrifice was a welcome-home sign for the citizen-soldiers it traveled halfway around the world to help.

Minnesota was the only state to send such a delegation to support its troops, and the group's cohesive, constructive efforts are a reminder of how this state can still be a model for the nation.

Soon everyone will have a chance to help. Those deployed come from more than 500 Minnesota communities. These small towns, suburbs and central cities should welcome their citizen-soldiers -- their neighbors -- home by helping them with employment.

That means welcoming vets back to previous jobs, where they can use their military skills to advance their companies and themselves. It also means hiring vets for jobs that have opened up along with the recovering economy. And it means that customers of deployed military members should remain loyal and reestablish business relationships.

These individual employment decisions can add up to a significant boost for our military men and women and can give them the kind of welcome home they deserve.


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