WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 26, 2010) - Proving that they're the toughest members of the Army, spouses and Family Readiness Group Leaders hammered the secretary of the Army, the chief of staff and other top leaders with questions, concerns and compliments Monday.

"In order to be effective, we have to make sure that we are taking care of those things that the Soldier truly cares about," Secretary of the Army John McHugh told the two standing-room only crowds at the first Family Forum of the Association of the United States Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition.

"One of the first things every Soldier brings up, is how much they care about, how concerned they are with the welfare of those loved ones they left behind, their spouses, their Family members," McHugh said. "We view this as a moral responsibility. As part of the Army Family, we in leadership owe you the kinds of programs and initiatives that take care of your Soldiers, but also take care of you.... But...I know that for all of our good efforts, sometimes we come short."

It fell to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who spoke following his wife Sheila and the secretary -- who he referred to as his "two bosses" -- to find out exactly what is and isn't working from the hundreds of Family members at the forum by conducting the third annual vote on the Army Family Covenant, giving both sides a rare opportunity for total frankness.

"I'm not going to stand up here and tell you all the great things we've done under the Army Family Covenant. I need to understand how it's impacting on you all," he said, adding that the current spending level of $1.7 billion on Family programs will be sustained over the next five-year spending plan, but that Family members can help identify redundancies in those programs, so that the money can be used even more effectively, "in programs we really need."

The goal he announced a few years ago of standardizing Family programs across installations received mixed reviews (mostly good-natured nays) from the audience, but was an improvement over last year's vote, while Army OneSource and Family Readiness Support Assistance were wildly cheered and applauded.

Access to quality health care was both booed and cheered, and seemed to vary by installation, as did respite care for exceptional Family members, housing and education. One mother explained that the quality of high schools near installations was especially bad, an issue the general said the Army was working on closely with state and local government officials. He pointed out that millions have been spent on child care, but the mothers present mostly booed that as well.

"OK, I can hardly wait for the last one. Expanding education employment opportunities for Family members' Actually, that was a pleasant surprise," he said after receiving a mixed reaction, referring to the drumming he expected to get for changes to Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, commonly known as MyCAA, a program that provides job training funding for spouses. To stay solvent, it recently had to drastically limit eligibility.

During the question and answer period following his remarks, another spouse had a concern about whether instead of receiving preference, spouses were actually being discriminated against in the Department of the Army civilian hiring process, and the chief immediately responded by saying an inspector general investigation may be in order.

"We will keep working on this... We think we've made progress, but you never stop, and your feedback is very important... The only way that we can fix things, is to keep shining a spotlight on them, and you're our individual spotlights out there... We will maintain our commitment to Army Families," he vowed.

That commitment has been reaffirmed in the past year, both he and Mrs. Casey pointed out, explaining that they experienced a deployment from a new perspective -- as parents, when their son Ryan deployed to Afghanistan.

"I'll tell you that his deployment gave me a totally new perspective and new education, not only as a mother, but as the mother-in-law of a military spouse and a grandmother to two wonderful military children," said Mrs. Casey, who, as a veteran military spouse, has watched her husband deploy many times. "It was terrifying that I was no longer in a position to do the most important job of a parent -- protect my child. And at the same time, his deployment put our Family right in the center of the complex challenges that we all face, so we found comfort tapping into the Army community, for his children, for his spouse and for our entire Family.

"And it also reinforced something that I've always known to be true: finding balance, and making room for you in your own life is essential for everyone, and especially essential for military spouses. In this way, we can be there for our spouses and our Families."

Page last updated Tue October 26th, 2010 at 11:24