Family support professionals and volunteers have expanded programs to help military families cope with longer, more frequent separations due to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But weaknesses in coordination, communication and command oversight still deny too many families access to the information and help they need, says a new study by the National Military Family Association.
Just as the operational military must transform missions and force structure for a protracted war on terrorism so must family support change for a new era, says the report, “Serving the Home Front: An Analysis of Military Family Support from September 11, 2001, through March 31, 2004.”
Stabilizing military home life requires more command involvement, better marketing and outreach to families living off base, standardized staff training, and stronger partnerships with communities including local agencies, schools and even media, the report says.
NMFA, the “voice of military families,” wrote the report based on responses from more than 2,500 military spouses to an online survey. NMFA also conducted spouse focus groups and asked family support providers to complete questionnaires. A NMFA team then analyzed the results, shaped recommendations and wrote the 36-page report.
Joyce Wessel Raezer, NMFA director of government relations, said family support programs weren’t ready for the number and length of deployments and mobilizations ordered since the 9/11 attacks.
“There were a lot of programs that people thought would work. What wasn’t anticipated was the extra burden of communicating what’s available, helping families sort out realistic expectations.”
Managing expectations are the challenge, she said, “every time a deployment is extended or communication with a servicemember breaks down. Nobody was prepared to take that on, to say, ‘We’ve got to do some educating here to help our families more realistically understand what to expect.’ ”
Family support before 9/11 assumed predictable, limited deployments, not tours of a year or more for hundreds of thousands of troops, many of them mobilized National Guard members and reservists.
“A church would say ‘Let’s get a support group for families of deployed servicemembers.’ That’s a nice idea,” said Raezer. “But how do you sustain those volunteer efforts over the long term?”
The report emphasizes the positive, describing successful initiatives and encouraging broad reforms. It doesn’t press for new, costly programs. It seeks better coordination, more aggressive and thoughtful communication, consistency in family support training.
Susan Evers, project coordinator, has a husband and two sons in the Army. One son completed a tour in Iraq. The other could be sent. Evers said she hopes the report is read “by everyone, from headquarter staffs and service leaders down to unit commanders and volunteers, so that at every level they learn how to improve on what they do for families.”
Some of what’s being done is extraordinary and imaginative, NMFA officials found. Its own study was funded by Sears, Roebuck and Co., with part of a $2 million donation to NMFA. Most of that money is underwriting Operation Purple, special summer camps for military children in the United States to help deal with the stress of parents deployed. The full NMFA report and details of Operation Purple can be found at www.nmfa.org.
But NMFA also found disappointing levels of support. Frustration is higher among families living off base and, in some cases, hundreds of miles from military communities and base support programs. NMFA took special note of problems for families in understanding Tricare, accessing preventive mental health services and finding childcare.
Lisa Clay, whose husband Don is a Marine Corps platoon sergeant running daily patrols in Iraq, helped research and write the report. Military spouses overall, she said, “aren’t disgruntled” but they expect more thoughtful, coordinated help. Clay recalled, for example, that a hospital commander arranged a briefing for families on changes to Tricare. But it occurred at 11 a.m. on a weekday when many spouses are working.
Clay also noted that deploying troops are encouraged to provide spouses with powers of attorney. Yet some base finance offices don’t even recognize those powers, turn away spouses seeking copies of, or changes to, member leave and earnings statements, she said.
With family support programs so dependent on command involvement, one of NMFA’s many recommendations is that attention to family needs be made a rated item on unit or base commanders’ fitness reports.