Report from 2009 Military Family Forum II 

Army Families: Thriving in the Midst of Challenge

“We know that the strength of our Army comes from the strength of our families,” said Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones on Oct. 6, at the second of the Association of the United States Army’s three military family forums.

As the Army Family Covenant kicks off its third year of existence, Jones said that the Army is striving to help its soldiers and families develop resilience – positive adaptation to repeated adversity or trauma.

Also at the Oct. 6 event, Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army’s suicide prevention task force, reported on what she called an unfortunate trend -- the steady increase in the rate of Army suicides. In 2008, 140 active duty soldiers committed suicide out of a total active duty population of 700,000. Before 2005, the rate of suicide in the Army was lower than suicide rate in the general population; however, today, the Army suicide rate exceeds the civilian rate.

The Army has identified a long list of factors that increase the risk of suicide, including: infidelity, alcohol abuse, high-risk driving, multiple drug offenses, use of opiates, sleep deprivation, erratic behavior, compressed dwell times between deployments, undiagnosed PTSD.

The Army is examining its counseling, drug testing and medical treatment programs to see if they are effective at mitigating those risks and addressing the needs of today’s soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum directs the Army’s new effort to ensure that its soldiers are strong mentally, as well as physically. The effort is called comprehensive soldier fitness.

“It is essential to intervene in a crisis,” Cornum said about the Army’s suicide prevention programs, “but it’s better to prevent catastrophic thinking that results in a crisis.”

Most soldiers get through their deployments, she said, but they could overcome mental health difficulties more easily if they had been trained beforehand. Cornum said that training is most needed by the Army’s recent influx of very young soldiers who face the complex array of stressors inherent to warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young soldiers, who enter the Army with varying degrees of mental preparedness, are often asked to accomplish offensive, defensive, stability and civilian support tasks within a very short period of time.

Comprehensive soldier fitness will be provided for the entire force, beginning this month and will be available in early 2010 for families and civilian employees of the military. The comprehensive effort has four components: an online self-assessment tool, online self-development tools guided by the assessment, resilience training and master resilience training.

The Army is making a long-term commitment to improving soldiers’ mental health with its new comprehensive soldier fitness, Cornum said.

Resilience training will help soldiers develop better coping skills – steering them to find ways out of catastrophic, but temporary, crises. The ultimate desired outcome of the training is that most soldiers will find stability, or even growth, after confronting adversity or trauma.

The next three presenters focused on the benefits available from the Veterans Administration (VA), which are explained in greater detail on its Web site:>>www.va.gov

Mike Carr, management and program analyst from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), explained its five groups of programs:

  • compensation and pension,
  • education, loan guaranty,
  • insurance,
  • vocational rehabilitation and
  • employment.

Some of these benefits and services are available for active duty soldiers after they have served for 90 days or 180 days prior to separation and pre-discharge, not only veterans.

Jennifer Perez, acting chief consultant of the office of patient care services, outlined the nationwide VA network of hospitals, vet centers and outpatient clinics, as well as the special programs for OEF and OIF vets, caregivers and families and the liaison program aimed at coordinating healthcare between the military and the VA.

Alfonso R. Batres, chief officer of the readjustment counseling service, described the confidential counseling services available for veterans and their families at vet centers and provided contact info:

>>www.vetcenter.va.gov or 866-644-5371

Preventing caregiver burnout was the subject discussed by Wayne Boswell and Shawn Moon of Franklin Covey. Providing Outreach While Enhancing Readiness (POWER) is a new program for chaplains, teachers, medical providers and others who support soldiers and experience compassion fatigue.

The presentation by Secretary of the Army John McHugh of the Quality of Life Awards concluded the second military family forum.

To see presentations from Military Family Fourm I, held on 6 October 2009, click here

By Susan M. Sipprelle
for AUSA