Retired Gen. Wickham recalls Army Family Action Plan
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George William Casey Jr. signs the Army Family Covenant in Korea to signify the Army's commitment to supporting SoldiersAca,!a,,c families.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 26, 2009) - Ahead of this week's Army Family Action Plan Conference, a former Army chief of staff who initiated the plan a quarter century ago said the Army is doing a good job of taking care of families, but added that leaders can't take their eyes off the ball.

Retired Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. said he and former Secretary of the Army John Marsh signed the white paper "The Army Family" on Aug. 15, 1983, because they wanted to increase funding and oversight of programs like child development centers, family counseling and suicide prevention.

"My experience as commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.," affected my outlook, he said. "We had a large division, almost 23,000 military, and my wife and I began to realize that there were some serious deficiencies in the way the Army cared for not only the bachelor Soldiers, but also the families. We didn't have enough child development centers, didn't have enough volunteers and not enough paid staff. The programs that dealt with family matters, of counseling, were deficient."

And the existing child development centers were painfully inadequate, he added. While commanding U.S. forces in Korea and later travelling through Germany, Wickham said he and his wife were shocked at the state of the centers, some of which were housed in old German barracks.

Next, he and Marsh established a two-star command to institutionalize the changes for families and keep the funding rolling, although Wickham said the leadership over the past 25 years didn't always follow through. He's particularly concerned with how families and Soldiers are reacting now to the stress of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and repeated deployments.

"Families are suffering ... this is the first war in the Army's history that we have paid for in the future. We're paying for it on credit ... as a result of that, we are suffering on our installations."

"The Army today is half the size it was when I was chief of staff," Wickham said, "and that leads to this constant deployment and constant rotations and that has a deleterious affect on retention of Soldiers as well as happiness of families and family programs. We're going to have to rebuild and I think the current leadership recognizes that."

Wichkam said he's glad there is a renewed focus on Army families under Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey. The Army Family Covenant is a contract with families, and Wickham says leaders around the Army should pay attention to it.

"I'm happy to see that progress being made," he said. "The Army enlists Soldiers, but it re-enlists families. If you do not take care of the family, you're not going to encourage the Soldier to stay in, so we've got to deal concretely and institutionally and financially and programmatically with family matters.

"They have to have continuing support from the leadership of the Army at the civilian level as well as the uniform level and it has to extend out into the field at the various commands. If you do not have the senior leaders supporting family programs, they're going to whither."

He found out how much it meant to Soldiers at one official breakfast when he found himself sitting next to a young specialist. With tears in her eyes, she thanked the general for his leadership and told him that family programs made it possible for her and her husband to stay in the Army.

Wickham believes the most important programs to have sprung from the action plan are excellent child development centers, which he believes are as good as, if not better, their civilian equivalents; counseling programs for suicide prevention, substance abuse and relationships; and a cultural shift that makes taking care of families a priority responsibility of leaders.

"The leadership is much more aware of the need of taking care of families because that's what this is about," he said. "It took us a long time to empower women with the vote. It took a long time to give our minorities equality in this country and so it's taken us a long time to really recognize that families deserve continuing support. And I am delighted to see that the Army today is recognizing that in spades and is really going out of its way to resurrect a lot of these family programs and ensure that, with this covenant, they have continuity."

Page last updated Fri January 23rd, 2009 at 15:14