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Connie McDonald, Fort Sill First Lady, shares her experience as a military spouse and the lessons she's learned over the years.

This is the beginning of a four-part series on families as the strength of the American Soldier.
Born in northern Indiana but "Sooner by adoption," Connie McDonald is an old friend of Fort Sill after four previous postings here. In her new position, however, it's a little different than just the normal Army spouse.

As the wife of Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, her title as First Lady comes with some perks, including living at the historic Sherman House, but also a lot of responsibilities.

She is the adviser for the family readiness groups and involved in family readiness programs on post. Military life hasn't always been that simple or easy to navigate, but life experiences have helped prepare her for a life on the move.

After her parents moved away from their family as part of the industrialized south, Connie learned early on the importance of making a new location home, staying connected to extended family and volunteering.

"I am the daughter of an über volunteer. My mother was a Girl Scout leader, the president of the women's club in downtown Chattanooga, [Tenn.] a Gray Lady for the Red Cross; and so I was taught to be a volunteer. I was also taught if the community is not what you think it should be, you are the answer."

As the daughter to a World War II Navy veteran and sister to a Vietnam War Army draftee, Connie never expected to be an Army spouse. But, two years after marrying then-ROTC cadet McDonald, while both attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she found herself on the way to Fort Sill for Officer Basic Course, now Basic Officer Leader Course.

Their biggest supporters during their younger Army years were her parents, who would go out to watch McDonald's airborne jumps. Their support is still felt today even after their deaths.

"There are times that we will look at each other and say, 'I wish mom and dad were here.' They were that supportive. They saw all the young stuff, all the hard stuff. I would love for them to see this," said Connie.

After 34 years of marriage and watching the Army change from pre-9/11 to post-9/11 wars, being an Army spouse took on new challenges as units began a higher deployment tempo. Having the family support structures in place helped prepare her for the years ahead.

"On September 10, my house was filled with spouses that night. We were doing a back-to-school supper. The next morning I was grateful I just had the group of 26 spouses in the house the night before and they now knew each other, even if it had only been the night before."

The support that Connie found the night before the attacks was the foundation for the family readiness programs and support that would come in the months and years afterward.

Those programs, such as the Family Readiness Group, Army Family Team Building, and Growing Spouses Army Strong, are available at Fort Sill for anyone looking to learn more about family readiness and the Army community. As the First Lady, Connie is involved in all of these programs not only as an instructor, but also as an adviser and mentor.

Army Family Team Building is a multi-leveled program that introduces the basics of the Army like ranks and organizations to programs and groups that spouses will use over the years including unit family readiness groups.

"For Level 1 [of AFTB], I do the opening and then I go back to do the closing, hand out certificates and then make myself available for questions. Level II I teach traditions, customs and courtesies, then I'll stick around for questions, and then Level III I do mentoring and coaching."

GSAS is the commanding general's program through the air defense artillery and field artillery's schooling units, the 30th Air Defense Artillery and the 428th Field Artillery brigades respectively.

"For Growing Spouses Army Strong I'm their adviser and talk about some squared away instructors," said Connie.

The program is for captains' spouses whose husband or wife will take or are currently taking command at the battery level. The training is like AFTB, however it's geared more toward the roles those spouses will be participating in during their spouses' command. Connie said they are in the beginning stages of creating a program for spouses of senior enlisted Soldiers.

Now, more than ever, these programs are vital to the Army's changing missions and the growing realization Soldiers are only as strong as their families.

"Building confidence and permission to trust your gut, those things will help a Soldier not worry," said Connie. "Any time Soldiers can walk out that door and know darn well they are going to miss their families but not be worried about their families, that's Army Strong."

"It gives you self-confidence, tells you that you can do this, and tells you if you find something that you can't do, which you will do during a deployment, you're not the only one doing it and there's a place to go."

What she loves most about being an Army spouse is being a partner in her husband's career.

"On a daily basis, I get to see my spouse, my life partner, rededicate himself to this unbelievable profession … To know that he made the right choice about what his life was going to be and to see that reaffirmed every day. I would wish that for every spouse," she said.

Fort Sill was their first installation, and it was here they fell in love with what it means to be in the Army. Connie wants to make sure Connie wants to make sure Soldiers who come through Fort Sill have the same positive experiences her family had while posted here.

"I hope something I've done on this post creates memories and/or opportunities for young "Marks and Connies" who are here now starting their Army journeys, just like we did in 1980. They don't have to know it's us, that it was something the McDonalds did. I hope they leave here tearful and so excited about their Army journeys. I'll have no idea if I achieved that goal or not. Nothing's going to tell me that I did, but that's my hope."

For more information on the family and spouse readiness programs mentioned in this article, visit the following links and be on the look out for the next three installments of this series. Growing Spouses Army Strong: https://www.facebook.com/growingspousesarmystrong, Army Family Team Building: www.sillmwr.com/soldier-family-programs-2/army-family-team-building/, Family Readiness Group training: www.sillmwr.com/soldier-family-programs-2/mobilization-deployment-program/.

Page last updated Fri September 14th, 2012 at 12:19