USA — Families Voice Issues, Concerns to Army’s Top Leaders

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010 — 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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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