The Army offers numerous programs designed to help soldiers meet the challenges of parenting, from the New Parent Support Program to nationally acclaimed childcare, after-school computer labs, and teen activities that foster civic responsibility and positive peer influence.
Parenting a child with special medical or educational needs presents a different set of challenges. According to current figures, there are just over 50,000 exceptional family members enrolled in the Army Community Service Exceptional Family Member Program. Of those, 36,157 are special needs children.
"The Army cares about soldiers who have special needs family members. That's why the EFMP program was set up; it's the Army's helping hand," said Shirley Brown, EFMP program manager at the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, the headquarters Department of the Army agency responsible for morale, welfare, and recreation programs that include family support services such as EFMP.
"The program works with other military and civilian agencies to provide a comprehensive, coordinated, multi-agency approach toward community support, housing, medical, educational and personnel services to families with special needs," explained Brown.
An exceptional family member is defined as a child or adult family member with any physical, emotional, developmental, or intellectual disorder that requires special treatment, therapy, education, training, or counseling. Special needs range from learning disabilities such as dyslexia, to medical conditions such as epilepsy, Down's Syndrome, blindness, or other severe physical limitations.
Enrolling in EFMP became mandatory for soldiers in 1986, but not everyone signed on. The perception was, and often still is, that a soldier's career is hindered if the military knows he has a special needs family member.
"We need to meet that perception head on," said Dolores Johnson, chief of Army Community Service at CFSC. "The truth is, enrollment in EFMP does not automatically affect career progression, and enrollment information is not available to selection boards. But, we need to let soldiers know that they have to make changes and do some planning in order to meet the needs of their EFMP member and operate successfully in the military."
Two Army families who made those changes, did the planning, and operated successfully in their careers are I Corps and Fort Lewis commander LTG James T. Hill and Mrs. Toni Hill and SMA Jack Tilley and Mrs. Gloria Tilley.
At five years old, profoundly retarded Megan Hill was one of the first children enrolled in EFMP. Toni Hill had the opportunity to read the draft regulation in 1983. "I'll be honest with you; I harbored great fears," she admitted.
"We enrolled because we felt we had to set the right example. But we had the same fears," said Hill. "Our understanding from the very beginning was that this program would help facilitate the assignment challenge, rather than taking it over," he said.
Speaking frankly about EFMP in an interview, the Hills stressed two points: first, EFMP is not a panacea - the answer - for every problem; and second, continual parental involvement and responsibility are critical.
"If there's anything we've learned in 22 years with Megan, it's that there isn't a program that's going to do it for you," said Toni.
In addition to the resources of EFM she cited a nonprofit organization called STOMP (Special Training for Military Parents), a grant-funded program under the Department of Education and one of two focused Parent Training Information services in the nation mandated by Congress, as her lifeline.
"The organization doesn't do the work for you; what [STOMP] did is train me to be Megan's best advocate. And that is a message I would convey: you have to be your child's best advocate," she said.
The Tilleys didn't enroll their son Brian in the EFMP until later in his career. "I initially got in the program when I was a master sergeant, because thought it would slow down promotions," said Tilley. Once he was enrolled, he said, "It did help. As long as you stay involved with your chain of command and your doctors, I think you can work through most of your issues."
The installation link in that chain is the EFMP manager at the local ACS. There are also EFMP managers at headquarters Department of the Army's Personnel and Medical Commands.
At U.S. Army Medical Command, EFMP manager CPT Graeme Bicknell's job is to work hand-in-hand with the soldier in identifying the needs of the exceptional family member, ensuring the family member meets EFMP enrollment criteria, making travel recommendations to the assignment officials, and informing parents about the medical resources available at overseas locations.
"Whether that means we identify special medical needs or, in cooperation with the school system identify special educational needs, our purpose is to tell the soldier and family what EFMP enrollment means to them and identify the families for personnel officials so they can make an appropriate assignment," said Bicknell.
His counterpart at PERSCOM is Ona Cates, EFMP manager who works in the Special Actions Branch headed by LTC John Baldini.
"Whenever a soldier comes down on assignment, and we know the soldier has a family member enrolled in EFMP, that assignment manager coordinates with this office," explained Baldini.
Cates initiates a screening process with the gaining agency to ensure the family's needs can be met. The screening is based on the input the soldier provides when registering the family member. The enrollment information needs to be updated regularly and that is the soldier's responsibility.
"A lot of managing this particular issue is being responsible for your own actions," said Hill. "If I've enrolled my child in EFMP, I call my personnel people and say `before you decide you're going to help me, you need to ask me if that's really help. I'll decide whether or not we can live with whatever solution you've come up with.'"
"The EFMP is intended to give soldiers the opportunity to have missions important to the Army meld with the family needs as well," said Toni. "But the decision whether or not to take an overseas assignment rests with the soldier and his family. Every family has different priorities and different coping skills."
Baldini addressed the issue of assignments important to a soldier's career. "There are certain times in a soldier's career when he [or she] will need that key assignment such as drill sergeant, first sergeant, or recruiter. The EFMP program is there to assist, not to hinder the soldier's professional development or career enhancement."
Enrollment in EFMP is not limited to active duty. U.S. Army Reserve soldiers in the USAR Active Guard Reserve and other USAR soldiers on active duty for more than 30 days must enroll as do Army National Guard personnel serving under the authority of Title 10, United States Code.
"You've got to enroll," stressed Hill. "You cut yourself out of a lot of services if you don't. You are doing nobody - especially the child - a favor if you pretend the child doesn't exist."
"Another piece of that is, without the enrollment data, we have no way to go to Congress for EFMP funding," said Toni. "You have to give the institution an opportunity to meet its own commitment."
While Department of the Army civilians do not enroll in EFMP, they must identify children or adult family members with special medical and educational needs each time they apply for and are assigned to a location outside the U.S. where family member travel is authorized at government expense.
Officials recognize the program has its limitations. "We have some installations that have excellent programs," said Brown. "We have situations where the ACS staff is dual and triple-hatted and the regulation isn't fully implemented. We know our services are inconsistent across the board, but we're working to make them consistent."
"I think the [EFMP] regulation is very well written, and, if implemented completely at an installation, regardless of size, serves families very well. In some locations where it has not been fully implemented, those programs need help," commented Toni. "The difficulty has been because EFMP affects only a small number of Army families, it's been a relatively easy budget cutting target. However, I think there is a firm commitment by the Army to do well by the exceptional family members."
"It's not a perfect program, but for the most part, if you deal with the doctors or the medical facility and you're straight forward, people are willing to work through your issues and they'll do the best they can," said Tilley. "I think the biggest thing about making the EFMP program better is education. We need to educate people so they know what's available in their communities."
In the Department of Defense Office of Educational Opportunity, program analyst Rebecca Posante spearheaded the January launch of a DoD Web site to provide access to information and resources: mfrc.calib.com/snn.
Posante said the site helps service members and their families research assignments and hook up with care coordinators and service providers. There's a chat network, links, and a subscriber service that alerts members to new information.
Networking is just one of the benefits of enrolling in EFMP. The very fact the program exists gives military families with exceptional family members an advantage over their civilian counterparts."
"There is a community bonding. Clearly, if you were a civilian with a transitory lifestyle, you would really have a hard time connecting," said Hill. "At least in the military, you know to go to one place and get started: ACS. If you have your child registered, the Army will direct you to [EFMP]. You walk into a unit, and the unit will direct you to ACS and EFMP because they know you have this need."
Toni Hill agreed. "Where EFMP functions well and is resourced well, it's the kind of benefit that serves families. The Army has been very good to us. The EFMP program has been very good, and you can be successful as a family and professionally."