Family, Army & the Single (Unmarried) Soldier

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The Army is celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the creation of the Army Family Action Plan. The Army Family Action Plan was created in response to quality of life issues Army families were experiencing in the all volunteer Army — with a realization that a Soldier’s family plays a key role in career decision making, Soldier readiness and retention.

It’s always been a bit of a burr under my saddle — and also of other military parents — that military-sponsored support activities for families of soldiers is focused almost without exception on soldiers’ spouses, so I agreed to participate in a Bloggers’ Roundtable discussion earlier today to see what the Army was doing for the other half of the Army, i.e., the almost 50% of soldiers who are single. It’s a favorite saying of mine: Not every soldier has a spouse, but every soldier has a mother. One of the reasons I named my blog: when I complained to a Sgt. in my son’s unit that the deployment (sendoff) ceremony (which I discovered in a newspaper article just days before) hadn’t been communicated very effectively, he said something along the lines that the effort wasn’t warranted because I was JUST “some soldier’s mom” and my attendance wasn’t core to the mission. (I believe I responded with some humor I didn’t really feel — knowing he would make my son’s life hell otherwise, “Gosh, does your mother know she’s that unimportant?) but I digress… (And let’s keep in mind here that the next Vice President of the United States could very well be some other soldier’s mom or dad!) Don’t get me wrong — I do so love the milspouses (being the wife a retired career mil-guy) — but resent how parents are (for the most part) completely ignored by the services (otherwise, how do you explain the proliferation of all the private parent (read: Mom) forums. And, of course, right here where you’re reading.

I listened while Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and the Director of Family Programs for the Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Command and the spouses of a Major General, a Command Sgt Major, a First Sgt. and of an Army Deputy Chief of Staff) each gave a brief personal biography of their experiences with AFAP — principally with Family Readiness Groups (FRGs).

My experience and exposure as an Army mom? Noah put in my name for his unit’s FRG when he deployed in 2005, but I had to make repeated attempts to receive any type of confirmation that they knew I was here. Over the course of the 12 months his unit was deployed, I believe I had exactly 3 emails from the FRG: “Welcome to the FRG”, “Here’s a Change of Address” when the units re-aligned mid-tour, and “Here is the link to track homecoming flights”. After I saw references to a number of meetings for Noah’s FRG on a private forum, I emailed the FRG Leader and asked if she could forward after action notes to the spouses and parents who did not live close to the base and couldn’t attend those meetings. She responded a few WEEKS later that it was an excellent suggestion and she would. Never happened.

And while I was happy to hear that these spouses in the roundtable had wonderfully positive experiences with their FRGs, I can’t say that the opinion is shared by other members on any of the message boards and forums to which I subscribe or read. I know that there must be decent and engaging FRGs out there — and, because they are principally the ONLY source of official information for spouses when their spouses are deployed they enjoy a high level of participation at military installations.

Now in defense of FRGs: FRGs are principally staffed and managed entirely by VOLUNTEERS whose spouses are now deployed — suddenly single parents with jobs, children and households to manage. I think this may improve since one of the most recent improvements involve paid FRG assistants. Additionally, the Army has a FRG “portal” called the vFRG (virtual FRG) that allows soldiers and family members to register for a unit’s FRG (note: you will need the last four of the soldier/sponsor’s social security number to register.)

The first question at today’s roundtable was regarding serving the needs of those with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who lived remotely from military installations. Mrs. Pillsbury noted that they are making efforts to reach out to those and noted the formation of Still Serving Soldiers which is dedicated to assisting soldiers with disabilities 30% or greater (I was unclear whether this was the VA rating or the Army rating and didn’t have a chance to ask for clarification… but did want to ask whether she knew that less than 10% of soldiers received a disability rating that high from the Army?)

In response to whether the military is prepared for the number of wounded still to come, Sec. Geren noted that the Army and the Veterans Administration have made great strides in this area (I concur that they have made progress) but, he said, it is clear that serving the population of those with TBI and/or PTSD will mean reliance on grass roots organizations. He noted the advent of the Army’s Chain Teaching program, Military One Source, the new medical care & records tracking system, Army’s Wounded Warrior (AW2) Program, Army Community-Based Health Care Initiative, and Warrior Transition Units.

Mrs. Pillsbury noted that service members with PTSD or other problems can receive six face-to-face counseling sessions FREE and without any entry on official military records.

I closed out the question and answer portion of the program asking that the Army address communications with the families of single soldiers because in my experience — and based on communications via email and comments to my blog — it was an unmet need. I noted that it was the parents and other family members of the single soldiers who are NOT getting the information in how to identify the symptoms of TBI and PTSD nor do they have access to or information on the resources available to these soldiers and how to access them on the soldier’s behalf… that these soldiers come home to these families and into these communities and we’re just expected to “deal” with it.

I acknowledged Secretary Geren’s concern for the difficulty involved in facilitating the contact given the number of single soldiers from broken homes (as if divorced, widowed or single parents cared less than spouses… I know that was not his intent by any means — he was most knowledgeable and sincere, but it crossed my mind), but told him that we could make that easier on him because I would bet that at least 1/2 those soldiers DO have parents who wish to be involved (if not informed)… and reminded him that, in any event, every unmarried soldier was required to name a Next of Kin (NOK) — whether that was a parent, a brother or sister, aunt or uncle — and perhaps the contact could start there??

I also asked if someone could tell me what the participation level in the Army’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) was? and the answer was “very good” and that soldiers love the opportunity to help.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to explore this further during the roundtable. However, in advance of the roundtable, I spoke with Noah and a few other soldiers and asked about BOSS. They said, “BOSS?? Never heard of it.” I described what I was referring to and each said, “Oh, MWR?” I said, well, yes… but specifically for unmarried soldiers. Nope. They did say that they occasionally heard about trips but that the good ones were too expensive, they usually heard about them too late or after the fact, but mostly they said they [the activities] were “lame”. I asked how they heard about MWR events and they said mostly word of mouth… but they never saw posters or advertisements except every once in a while.

I did look on the BOSS site and noted at one Army base the lists of upcoming activites were not segregated by “family” and “single”. Of the 10 newest releases, one is for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (Sep.) at the base Brew Pub (”Why would I want to go there, Ma?? Most of us are underage and at least we can get beers in the barracks.”), one for the BOSS Blue Jeans Banquet honoring volunteers (Oct.) and one is a trip to an Aquarium in the closest large city 2 hours away (Sep). (”You’re sh*tng me, right Ma? Sorry Ma. [for the language]. The other listings are for Bingo, re-registration at the base golf course, Treat the Family to Brunch, a Community Campout (even I know that’s the last thing soldiers just back from field training are interested in.) I note in the older news that there is also a concert by a 1970’s band (mmm… one of MY favorite bands) at the baseball field.

Who the heck is suggesting these activities for 18, 19, 20 year old soldiers? (You only need to visit the barracks at some of these installations on Friday or Saturday nights to know what these guy do when there is nothing else to do.) And, yes, I have been… a number of times. It aint pretty… normal, yes… but not pretty. I did cruise around a few of the other MWR calendars at a few other bases — some had Texas Hold ‘Em Tournaments, a Wii Tournament, a rodeo, a talent search… (Texas Hold’em was the only one that got an “eh… ok.”) There is a wide range of style to the various base calendars… none seemed to have a specific site for BOSS activities nor did any calendars list BOSS or events for singles separately. Teenagers and young adults are lazy… if you make young soldiers go LOOKING for stuff, they won’t.

My soldiers tell me these are the things they’d do if organized: Skydiving (1/2 of ‘em are already airborne trained), snowmobiling, quad’ing & offroading (have you seen the videos of these guys driving Humvees and Bradleys in Iraq??), hunting trips (heck, they already know how to shoot!), NASCAR, stock car, motorcycle or motocross racing (as participants or spectators, as appropriate)… basically, anything involving adrenaline. (I know. (sigh). I’m a mom. I have 3 sons. What can I say?)

I know this post may sound terribly critical, but I really did (do) appreciate the opportunity to address these topics with Secretary Geren and others who take the issues seriously because we share the aim to in some way make it better.

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