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Red Bulls returning home

About 20 Hastings residents are among 1,000 members of the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division that will be returning home from Iraq in the coming weeks.

The first wave of soldiers came home Sunday night, about 250 men and women, and they were dropped off at locations in Rosemount, Inver Grove Heights and Stillwater. There will be three more waves of returning soldiers before all 1,000 are home.

Many in Hastings are working toward making sure those soldiers' return to civilian life is a positive experience. Hastings resident Dean Markuson has been working alongside the city, the United Way of Hastings, and the local VFW and American Legion posts, and other organizations, to make Hastings an official "Yellow Ribbon City."

"When (soldiers) come back, we want to be as supportive as we can be," Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks said.

Markuson retired as a first sergeant after 20 years in the Army. He served a tour in Vietnam and Korea, and two in Germany. Being a veteran himself, Markuson said he feels somewhat of a kinship with today's returning soldiers, which is why he's working so hard with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program.

"It's a passion of mine to do it," he said.

The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program seeks to provide support to soldiers and their families as they return home from active duty. For the greatest chance of success, organizers seek out the involvement of multiple community groups, such as businesses, religious groups, government and elected officials, schools, public safety and law enforcement agencies, social service groups, veterans groups, youth and volunteer organizations, and the media.

Markuson said he hopes the city can be officially designated a "Yellow Ribbon City" by the end of the year. The first step in making that happen has already been done in Hastings: Hold a meeting and training session with community groups (those mentioned above) to learn about and discuss how they can help returning soldiers.

The next step, developing an action plan, requires a lot of work and is ongoing. The next meeting of the local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group will be held at 7 p.m. March 11, at the Hastings American Legion, 50 Sibley St. The input of citizens is needed, and Markuson said he also encourages other local veterans to get involved.

Farmington, Minn., was the first city to be officially designated as a Yellow Ribbon City, a little more than a year ago. Since then, Hugo, Minn., Stillwater and Woodbury have also been designated.

To recognize the work the Hastings community has already done for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, four flags were recently flown over the base headquarters of the 34th Infantry Division in Basra, Iraq. Those flags were recently delivered to the local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign (which was given to the city), the United Way of Hastings, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, and the VFW post (who passed their flag onto the Hastings United Methodist Church.)

There are thank-you cards at the Hastings American Legion that will be presented to returning soldiers, and the public is encouraged to go sign them.