Family Readiness Groups, Support Offices, Initiatives
|Family Readiness Groups, Support Offices, Initiatives
“Family readiness” has become a buzz phrase at almost every Reserve and National Guard unit in the United States. With the increasing tempo of service men and women being called to active duty in support of various missions around the world, it is difficult to recall a time in the history of the Reserve and National Guard when family readiness basked in the glow of a more intense spotlight than it does now.
Such is the premise for the family readiness groups (FRGs) that have sprung to life and/or revived themselves at many Reserve and Guard units in the United States. Sponsored by unit commanders and run almost exclusively by volunteers, FRGs help service members and their families prepare for all contingencies before, during, and after a deployment. Legal assistance, connections to financial advisors, chaplains, insurance company representatives, and the like, are among their repertoire of referral resources. Family support offices on Reserve military installations provide comparable services through a small paid staff. Then, once separated, unit-level FRGs and Reserve installation family support offices help to keep families connected through telephone trees, newsletters, e-mails, websites, coping programs, and support groups. Once the soldier returns from active duty, reunion preparation programs are the focus.
WHY FAMILY READINESS FOR RESERVISTS AND GUARDSMEN?
“Family readiness equals mission readiness,” said Deana Jacobs, Director of Family Support at Homestead Air Reserve Station in Florida.
Jacobs noted that what works in terms of family readiness for active duty soldiers isn’t necessarily a cookie-cutter fit for reservists and guardsmen who must not only leave their families, but also must say a temporary goodbye to a full-time civilian job when called up.
“Being proactive is the key to mission readiness. We guide families through powers of attorney and identification cards, and encourage discussion of family finances, guardian plans, and special needs,” said Jacobs.
BEFORE DEPLOYMENT: PREPARATION IS KEY
Pre-deployment preparedness programs represent an area of heavy focus for all FRGs and family support offices. Oftentimes such activities are held in the tried-and-true classroom style, and sometimes through walk-in appointments during drill weekends with attorneys, financial advisors, chaplains, and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) ombudsmen, for example. Additionally, written preparedness materials are available via FRGs, family support offices, and on the web.
“Because we are so small and geographically dispersed, talking individually with each reservist is the best way for us to ensure family readiness,” said Petty Officer Kimberly Smith of the Coast Guard Reserve’s 5th Coast Guard District, where 170 reservists from throughout the area’s five-state region recently were mobilized to assist with port security in and around Wilmington, N.C. In lieu of larger, volunteer-operated family readiness activities, Coast Guard Reserve unit commanders generally coordinate one-on-one visits for the reservist and his or her family with attorneys, chaplains, and other needed readiness resources on a person-by-person basis.
During deployment, FRGs and support offices perform numerous functions. In the case of the Wyoming Army and Air National Guard, FRGs, “send packages to troops, write newsletters to family members, share support activities, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, holidays and sometimes school activities,” said
CW2 Shellie Franklin, Interim Family Coordinator with the Wyoming Army and Air National Guard in Cheyenne, Wyo. “They have a telephone tree to pass important information to family members and then exchange phone numbers to stay in touch with each other,”
Additionally, an area of strong focus for all FRGs and family support offices is the frequent communication between spouses, with children, with other service members’ families, and with the unit’s rear detachment. Numerous FRGs and family support offices have set successful track records for facilitating such communication during deployments.
For example, when its soldiers were deployed to Kosovo, the FRG of Battery E (Target Acquisition), 161st Field Artillery of the Kansas Army National Guard located in Larned and Great Bend, Kan., helped to facilitate communication between deployed soldiers and families through e-mail. Additionally, both family members and guardsmen participated in video teleconferencing events twice a month, and a website was set up for soldiers and family members, where photos were posted daily.
During their recent deployment to Oman, 300 soldiers from the 108th Air Refueling Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard could not place commercial telephone phone calls to their families at home, and were limited to a certain number of morale calls home via a military telephone network. FRG volunteers at home manned military telephone network phone lines eight hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the entire six-month period of the unit’s deployment.
The FRG of the 772nd MP Company of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, whose soldiers are currently deployed to Afghanistan, started a full-fledged website (http://772frg.bravepages.com) featuring a calendar of events, message board, archived FRG meeting minutes, classified ads section, guest book, news articles mentioning the 772nd, and an on-line chat room. The site also features an archive of letters from the soldiers of the 772nd, and a “Photo Album” filled with regularly posted photographs of the deployed soldiers while on duty overseas that have been e-mailed to the site’s webmaster.
“Many wives and mothers of our troops are daily visitors to the website. Even when there is nothing new to see, just being there seems to give them the feeling of being, for that time, a little bit closer to their loved ones,” says webmaster Jane Thomas, fianceé of one of the unit’s soldiers. “It’s their link to each other while waiting for phone calls, letters, and e-mails. They can go to the website and look at photos, even if their loved ones aren’t in the photos, they still get to see others that they know their loved ones are serving with over there.”
Similar to pre-deployment briefings, most FRGs and support offices offer “Reunion Training” to help coach spouses and service members on renegotiating the household, establishing realistic expectations about the reunion, recognizing symptoms of stress, and understanding the common reactions of children to the return of a parent. Oftentimes, chaplains serve as the primary action agent in the field, while FRG leaders facilitate programs at home.
“Reunion training is the most important thing,” said Jacobs. Prior to a unit’s demobilization, her office sends packages of booklets, videos, CDs, and links to websites to unit commanders and to the
families of returning soldiers.
For Marine Corps reservists, reunion classes are “very thorough, frank, and effective,” explained Wynn Hildreth, marketing director for Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) at Camp Lejeune, N.C., whose office works in conjunction with numerous FRGs to offer courses that “place great emphasis on preparing both” the service member and the family for the service member’s return.
PEACE OF MIND
FRGs and family support offices encourage readiness even if deployment is only a mere possibility.
“A well-prepared and cared for family allows the Marine to deploy with a greater peace of mind than he/she would otherwise have,” said Hildreth, “Knowing that the Marine Corps truly takes care of its own helps that deployed Marine to perform his/her job better.”
That sentiment rings true for all Reserve and National Guard branches’ family readiness objectives. “We try to make a difference in the lives of these families,” Jacobs said. “We want to create a support network that allows a reservist to go do the job and not have to worry about what’s happening at home. We’re here to step in when we’re needed.”
WHEN SOMEONE ASKS, “HOW CAN I HELP?”
Spouses, siblings, parents, friends and even teenage and adult children of service members can volunteer their time and talents to FRGs. In every branch of the military, unit-level Guard and Reserve FRGs are almost 100% volunteer-operated. Volunteers are always needed to lead FRGs and perform duties such as coordinating phone trees, organizing group events, publishing newsletters, and developing websites. Family readiness handbooks help to guide all participants.
Additionally, spouses of Army, Navy, and Coast Guard reservists may be eligible for opportunities to volunteer as ombudsmen, working closely with commanding officers. Essentially, the ombudsman serves as an information and referral specialist who
helps deployed soldiers’ family members gain the assistance they need to succeed as part of the extended military family. When reservists are called to active duty, ombudsmen become important resources, serving as the link between deployed forces and the families back home.
In any case, in every military branch, the activity a volunteer chooses to do depends upon the unit’s needs, the volunteers’ available time, and the volunteer’s talents and interests. Volunteers are expected to adhere to high standards, must be
compassionate and caring, and oftentimes must commit to strict confidentiality requirements. “Volunteering has been the most rewarding and important thing I’ve ever done, and worth all the hours of work tenfold,” said Thomas. “By hearing that (my work) has helped one person feel better and find some support when it was really needed is exactly what it’s all about, and just what a family support group is working to achieve.”
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