Photo credit Sarah Samoraj, IMCOM Public Affairs
By Tim Hipps, FMWRC
ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 1, 2011 — The perception of a weeklong meeting of Army spouses is one of the greatest misnomers about the annual Army Family Action Plan Conference, organizers said, as the event opened its 2011 rendition here, Monday, at the Sheraton National Hotel.
AFAP delegates actually consist of active-duty Soldiers, National Guard and Reserve troops — including officers, enlisted, junior and senior non-commissioned officers — family members, civilian employees and their family members, as well as retirees — both military and civilian.
"That's the misnomer with AFAP. People think it's only a bunch of spouses," explained Christina Vine, the program analyst who manages the Army Family Action Plan Conference issues for Headquarters, Department of the Army. "We have full-bird colonels, we have [privates], we have BOSS (Better Opportunities for Single Soldier) Soldiers, dual-military family members. We have survivors, both spouses and parents, of the fallen.
"Technically, you could be a delegate if you're a GS (Government Service) civilian."
Vine then rattled off a roll call of issues that easily could affect folks, however loosely they are connected to the military. She wished more people understood the mission of the Army Family Action Plan and all the good derived from the year-round process that culminates annually in northern Virginia.
"I have an entire slide that says AFAP affects everybody," Vine said. "People ask me all the time why I do this job, and I tell them I'm passionate about this job for many reasons. Because in this book, every single one of these issues affects me.
"If I look in employment, I'm a [Department of the Army] civilian," she said while thumping her thumb on the AFAP Conference Workbook, dubbed the voice of the Army Family. "When I look in family support, I'm an active-duty Soldier's wife, so the issues about Family Readiness Groups, they affect me. The issues about child and youth services, I have two small children that use the CDC. Those issues affect me. When I look in medical, I use TRICARE, it affects me. When I look at Soldier support, my husband is an active-duty Soldier."
Vine and her 5-year-old twin boys also dealt with dad's deployment last year.
"When you talk about the Soldier issues, they all affect my husband," she added. "Maybe by the grace of God, tomorrow he could be a wounded warrior. I never know. People don't realize that the majority of our issues are issues that are Soldier specific."
Yet, they touch nearly everyone affiliated with the military, one way or another. Although the Army is the only branch of service that has such a program, more than 60 percent of all active AFAP issues impact all services.
"This is Super Bowl Week because these are going to become reality," Vine said. "These are the issues that need Department of the Army resolution. Can you tell that I'm passionate about the program?"
The conferences consists of 95 delegates from around the world, 51 subject-matter experts from the Army staff, 32 workgroup team members and at least 15 conference staffers. Another dozen members of the Army Teen Panel are here to mirror AFAP by dealing with issues of 14-to-19-year-olds from six Army regions, including Reserve, Guard and Accessions Command representatives.
"What I always like to say about AFAP is it's the most democratic process in the Army because you can have a Pfc.'s spouse submit an issue that ends up having to be worked by a three-star general," Vine said with a smile.
Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general of Installation Management Command and assistant chief of staff for Installation Management, helped launch the weeklong conference.
"The Army leadership is committed to fulfilling the Army Family Covenant," Lynch said during opening remarks. "Both the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff of the Army have routinely said we're not going to fail to fulfill the Army Family Covenant, so I don't want you to think reduced resources is going to affect Families, because it's not."
AFAP begins at the installation and local level, where almost 90 percent of AFAP issues are resolved, according to Maj. Gen. Reuben Jones, commander of the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. Handling issues at the local level results in ongoing community improvements. Issues beyond the local level are raised to command-level conferences and then to Army headquarters, where delegates from across the Army determine which will be selected for resolution by Army staff and Department of Defense agencies.
"The issues that make their way to Department of the Army headquarters all begin at a garrison or tenant unit, such as 5th Group or an MI (Military Intelligence) brigade that belongs to Intelligence and Security Command, or maybe an engineering company that belongs to the Corps of Engineers," Vine explained. "They all create these issues."
The issues are vetted at the local level and those issues that cannot be resolved at that garrison are forwarded to their mid-level commands, such as Forces Command, Training and Doctrine Command, the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Europe and Eighth Army, to name a few.
Those 17 entities have their own conferences, where the issues are prioritized again. In addition to the mid-level commands, two special-interest groups have their own symposiums: the Army Wounded Warrior Program and the Survivor Outreach Services.
"At those conferences, their issues all deal with things affecting them," Vine said. "All 17 send their issues that cannot be resolved at their level up to headquarters DA and they come to me. We had 103 issues submitted. We tasked them out to the Army staff — such as Army G1, Army Civilian Personnel and the Surgeon General's Office — and they tell me which issues they are a proponent for."
According to Jones, AFAP alerts local Army leaders to areas of concern so they can resolve issues at home.
"In some cases we had great news stories, and it turned out there already was a fix in place that the commands just weren't aware of. That's how we went down from 103 to 88," Vine said. "We didn't even need AFAP because there was a resolution."
The remaining 88 issues will be considered this week by eight work groups, which are divided into subject areas: Education & Awareness, Employment, Family Support I & II, Medical Issues I & II, and Soldier Support I & II.
"It's one week here at headquarters DA, but it's always going on," Vine added. "It's a year-round process. If you go right now to www.armyonesource.com, you can submit an issue that can go to that garrison 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Vine has been working the AFAP Conference for seven years, but says she never really knows which issues will make the final cut. She does, however, have a couple of favorites this year.
One will be handled by the Soldier Support II work group: tax-free active-duty Soldier retention bonuses.
"Right now, if you re-enlist in the Army and you are not deployed, you have to pay taxes on those, and some of those re-enlistment bonuses are like 10 grand," Vine explained. "If you are deployed, then that's all tax-free, so think about the tax savings that you're getting on that. So there are some Soldiers who know that they're due to re-enlist who are happy to deploy, because that means they are going to get that chunk of change. So that's one that I think will be an interesting conversation."
Another issue is how the Army uses social security numbers as the only way to identify troops, which doesn't help protect Soldiers battle identity theft. Single-parent accession deals with the fact that single mothers are allowed to enlist in the Army only if they give away parental rights to their children.
"Most people, when I bring that up, say: 'What?'" Vine said. "The Army will only enlist you if you have no dependents or if you're married or married with dependents. They won't allow you as a single parent to enlist. And the reason why is readiness: What are you going to do with your kid? It makes sense from their standpoint, but a lot of people are then making, in this economy, choices that are irrevocable."
And the list goes on — 88 issues that will be reduced to 16 that will be submitted for resolution on Feb. 4.
"The mission for this week is to elevate for senior leader consideration 16 issues that will radically improve the quality of life of the Army family, whether it's a civilian, a Soldier, a retiree or a family member," Vine said. "It's all about improving quality of life."
Recent AFAP successes include legislation authorizing surviving children to remain in the TRICARE Dental Plan until age 21 (or 23 if enrolled full-time as a student); online tutoring for military connected students; subsidized off-post child care for geographically dispersed active-component and deployed reserve-component Soldiers; and more than 400 new Unit Ministry Team positions (chaplains and chaplain assistants) in the Active Army, Guard and Army Reserve.
More than 660 issues have been identified during the past 27 years, leading to 133 legislative changes, 172 Army or Department of Defense policy changes, and 192 improved programs and services, according to Jones.
Lynch also shared statistics gathered from a 2010 survey of Army families that revealed 67 percent of spouses would be satisfied if their Soldier made the Army a career — up from 62.8 percent in 2004-05. More than half of the spouses (59 percent) are satisfied with the kind of life they can have in the Army — up from 54 percent. More than half (58.8 percent) said they coped well during their Soldier's absence — up from 52 percent in the prior survey.