Army hires help for support groups
With military families under pressure from repeat deployments, the Army is launching another manpower surge -- on the home front.
It's hiring more than 1,000 civilian workers to help run the networks that support families of deployed active-duty soldiers, along with those of the Army Reserve and National Guard.
Family Readiness Groups have been operated entirely by family volunteers. Now, though, with many families living through a third or even fourth deployment, they need help.
"There has been some concern that some of the volunteers are pretty much stressed to the max, and this was a way the Army could step in and help," said Sally Bean, the Family Readiness Support Assistant for the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.
The new hires also will be able to do tasks for which there isn't enough labor now, Bean said, such as updating the groups' Web pages with information about events, programs and news from the unit overseas.
At the 18th Airborne Corps, Bragg's main unit, a pilot program of 16 paid assistants will increase to 66, Bean said. Some smaller units on base, such as Special Forces, run their own programs. The first of the new Family Readiness Support Assistants are expected to start next week.
Family Readiness Groups serve two functions: giving the spouses of soldiers serving in the same unit a way to connect, and providing a conduit for information about military life.
The groups are a lifeline when a spouse is new to the military, which has a language and a logic all its own, and during combat deployments when nerves are taut.
"I really relied on the information they could provide me," Bren Harris said of the group she joined after she and her husband were married five years ago.
At her husband's previous post at Fort Polk, La., Harris was a designated caller for the readiness group, relaying information to others in the group, which gave her instant camaraderie with the other women. Since then, Harris has learned her way around the military, and at Fort Bragg, she joined an informal mothers' group made up mostly of military wives. For a while, she hasn't needed the group as much.
But her husband was just told his unit will be deployed, likely by Christmas. On Thursday, Harris dropped in on the readiness group's meeting for the first time.
"Now that he's taking his trip," she said, "I'm probably more inclined to show my face."
The Army began to place a greater emphasis on family readiness groups after four Fort Bragg soldiers were alleged to have killed their wives in 2002. Three of the soldiers later killed themselves.
A study of the deaths found the couples had some history of marital problems, but none had sought help from any of the counseling or abuse-prevention services offered on post. The Army learned that soldiers and their families often didn't know what programs were available or how to get to them, or were reluctant to use them because they feared hurting the soldier's career.
Family readiness groups were seen as a way to help overcome both problems. Spouses may be more comfortable talking about their problems in the casual setting of a readiness group meeting, where everyone knows what it's like to become a single parent overnight when a soldier-spouse deploys, or to be suddenly alone in a strange town, 500 miles from family. The Army trained volunteer group leaders on how families can get such services as emergency child care, counseling and stress-management classes and loan programs to help cover unexpected expenses.
In the past, some groups have fallen apart when attendance dropped, or when the volunteer leader got too busy or moved because a spouse left the Army or was assigned to another post. Family members have complained that some readiness groups faltered because their leaders were "busy bodies," more interested in spreading gossip than useful information.
The idea to hire group coordinators came after a senior Army commander toured bases in 2004, asking families what the Army could do to ease the pressure of deployments. Later that year small groups such as the 16 at Bragg were set up at several bases as a test. Then in July, Army Secretary Pete Geren ordered the hiring of additional workers, his first official act. He authorized 703 workers for the active-duty Army, 181 for the reserves and 127 for the National Guard, according to a news release.
Geren also directed that $100 million be immediately applied to family readiness. The Army has allocated $7 million this fiscal year for the support assistants.
Jay Price and Martha Quillin, Staff Writers