By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
Military families and the people who support them had the opportunity yesterday to voice their issues and concerns about everything from mental health care to child care directly to the people able to initiate change.
The Army's top leaders, including Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., invited military families to speak up about their most pressing challenges and spotlighted the programs that may offer some relief during a standing-room-only family forum, the first of four to be held during the 2010 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition here.
The importance of hearing these concerns and addressing them can't be overstated, McHugh said yesterday in his opening remarks.
"In order to be effective, we have to make sure we are taking care of those things that the soldier truly cares about," he said. "I've been to Iraq 15 times, [and] I've been to Afghanistan ... four [times]. One of the first things every soldier brings up is how much they care about, how concerned they are for the welfare of those loved ones they left behind.
"The last thing we want soldiers to be worried about ... is whether or not their families are being taken care of," he added.
McHugh said he was there to listen and learn, and so he kept his remarks short so he'd have time to take questions from the audience.
The secretary responded at length to a question about the Army's efforts to prevent suicide among family members, acknowledging suicide is a "huge problem" for the Army.
Servicemembers and their families are stressed after nearly a decade at war, he said, noting studies have identified a close correlation between rapid, persistent deployments and a lack of sufficient time at home to decompress. Experts say it takes at least two years at home, three ideally, to recover from a yearlong deployment, he added.
"We've been falling short," McHugh said, noting that some career fields have been hit harder than others with a ratio of one year deployed to every year back.
The Army, however, is making progress on that front, the secretary said, with soldiers now home for 15 to 18 months for every year they're deployed. And next year, he added, soldiers can expect to have two years at home for every year they're deployed.
To boost access to care, leaders are working to bring mental health services closer to the soldier even when the soldier is deployed, McHugh said. And, he said, they're working to improve access to mental health services for families as well. He cited the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, which features online mental health assessments and training modules, as a tool that can help both soldiers and families build resilience.
Building resilience will be key for servicemembers and their families in the years ahead, said Casey, referring not only to suicide prevention but to the everyday challenges military families face.
"The reality is, this is likely to go on for a while longer," the general said. "We have to strengthen ourselves."
Casey recalled his younger years as a self-proclaimed Army brat. As Casey and his family moved around the world, he recalled, his mother would tell him, "Make the best of it," no matter what the complaint or concern.
But decades later, it became clear to Casey that the Army couldn't keep asking families to "make the best of it," he said. Instead, the Army doubled the amount of money for military family programs to $1.7 billion, an amount Casey said he's committed to sustaining.
Now, with money in hand, military families have an abundance of programs at their fingertips, Casey said. But programs must be calibrated and customized to ensure they're delivering the right kind of support, he said, and redundant programs must be eliminated so money can be allocated to the ones that work.
While it's comforting to know the programs are there, the Army can't possibly provide all of the support families need, said Casey's wife, Sheila, who accompanied her husband to the forum. Families also must look to what she described as a "community of caring," which includes community members and leaders, corporations and private organizations.
"Our support network is much larger than just us," she said.
The general's wife said she gained new insight into the challenges and difficulties military families face this past year when her younger son deployed with a National Guard unit to Afghanistan.
"His deployment gave me a totally new perspective and education," she said. "It was terrifying that I was no longer in the position to do my most important job as a parent -– protect my child."
Sheila Casey said she found comfort for herself and her son's family by tapping into the Army community, but she also acknowledged that much work remains to be done.
"We've come a long way in understanding and supporting needs of families, but we're not there yet," she said.
The Army needs the input of family members to shape and evolve programs to provide the greatest support, she said.
"Please know you have a voice," she said. "Use it. You will be heard."
As if on cue, a female audience member voiced a concern about the checks and balances for existing programs, calling for an external audit to combat the inconsistency of programs from one installation to another, a comment that was met with resounding applause. The audience members also said spouses are underemployed due to an intrinsic discrimination in hiring practices. Employers don't want to hire military spouses, she explained, knowing they'll be moving on in a few years.
The general's response was decisive. Casey said he would have the Inspector General look into civilian hiring practices across the Army so he could gain insight into the issue.
"The only way we can fix things is to keep shining a light on the issues," he said.
The Caseys also fielded questions about the effectiveness of family readiness support assistants, who offer administrative assistance and logistical support to the family readiness group leader and rear detachment commander.
The general acknowledged the FRSA program is fairly new and he said there's room for improvement. He encouraged people to submit suggestions so the program can evolve. His wife added that in many cases it's not the position, but the person who fills it.
The Caseys were followed by a panel of Army leaders that included Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve; Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. Army Installation Management Command; Maj. Gen. Raymond W. Carpenter, acting director of the Army National Guard; and Maj. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, commander of the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. The officers each took time to highlight family programs that come under their areas of expertise.
Stultz said the Army Reserve's "virtual installation" program is proving to be a big success. Through the program, three Army Strong Community Centers have been established in remote communities to provide information and resources to reserve-component families. The center in Rochester, N.Y., he said, already has served more than 5,000 families and soldiers with more than 17,000 different types of needs.
The centers not only are helping reserve-component members, but active duty as well, Stultz noted. Fifteen percent of the Rochester center's military customers are active duty, he said, as well as 30 percent of the family members who come there to seek help.
Based on current success, people can expect to see more centers spring up in the months and years ahead, Stultz said.
Family support must extend beyond branch and component to be truly effective, the general said.
"We're all one family," Stultz said. "We're all sacrificing, [and] we're all making a commitment."
Jones stressed the need for support of special-needs family members through the military's Exceptional Family Member Program. The program, he said, is about providing comprehensive, coordinated support to military families. Yet, some families, he added, have trouble navigating the school system as they move from post to post. The Army is working on this issue, he said, and already has hired 44 systems navigators to work with families.
Many of the questions following the panel focused on special-needs children. One parent called for a buddy system for these children so they don't feel left out of youth activities they're unable to access.
The Army is looking at standardizing programs that can help, Jones said. One post may have a helpful program, he said, but that ceases to be useful once the family moves.
"We will get this problem and situations under control," Jones vowed. "I promise you that."