By 1st Lt. Elizabeth LewisAugust 5, 2013
JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. - Stories that come from deployments often speak of the camaraderie and a sense of teamwork that is formed amongst soldiers while pushing through the hard times to accomplish a mission. Very rarely, however, is it even whispered of the camaraderie formed by the spouses who are also pushing through some very difficult times while they wait for their loved ones to return from down range.
When the subject of a family readiness group is raised in conversation, many people will picture a quintessential scene from the Vietnam-era based movie, "We Were Soldiers," where wives are gathered around a table in a small living room discussing how to improve, or better yet-survive, their lives as temporary single parents or attempting to raise children on their own while their husbands are fighting in a distant land. Through tears and laughter and sharing of wisdom, these women form their own style of camaraderie, the spouses' support system.
If you walk into the monthly meetings of the new and soon-to-be mothers of the 864th Engineer Battalion's Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group, you won't see women styled after Jackie Kennedy sitting around a small living room with The Beatles and Bob Dylan soundtracks playing in the background. You will, however, a support system that is remarkably similar to the one depicted in "We Were Soldiers;" women sharing their hardships with one another, having a shoulder to lean on during the rough times, and having a friend to laugh with over silly things that happened.
The Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group is designed to be a support system for expecting and new mothers of the 864th Engineer Battalion where, at monthly meetings, professionals from various organizations on post come to provide classes on pregnancy, birth/infancy, newborn/infant care, toddlers, parenting skills, and dealing with the stresses of not only being a mother, but being a mother while the father is deployed in Afghanistan.
However, it's not all classes. The group also provides the mothers with an opportunity to interact with other new mothers in the unit, share stories and simply...relax.
"I love getting together with the other moms in the group," explained Amanda Wagg, supporter and member of the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group whose husband is currently deployed with the battalion. "It is so nice to be able to meet and talk about babies for an afternoon. Also, I don't know many people in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area, so this support group has introduced me to new friends that I may not have otherwise met."
The concept of the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group started when it was officially announced that within four months, the battalion would be deploying for a nine month tour. Realizing that a nine month deployment does not provide an opportunity for Soldiers to schedule a rest and relaxation opportunity around the expected birth period of their child, the women who would eventually become the leaders for the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group came together and determined that the 864th Engineer Battalion needed a support group for the expecting and new mothers, many of whom were or were going to be first time mothers.
In other words, many of the Pacemaker spouses wanted to ensure that new and expecting mothers were provided an opportunity to be a part of a group whose main mission was to receive multiple forms of support while being separated during the nine month deployment.
"The Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group builds family teams, or at least builds new friendships," stated Wagg. "We are all in this together, and having the support of other moms is helpful. I am not a new mom, but my first daughter is almost six, so it's like starting all over again with my newborn child. Knowing that I am not the only one going through this deployment alone with children and knowing that I have the support of so many women from this support group is great. It is an open environment where there is no need to be embarrassed about how we look-no makeup, hair is not perfect, spit up on our shirts and baby bellies-because we're all in the same situation."
Once the idea was formed, this determined and compassionate group of women went to work on organizing the first meeting, an agenda that would "set the pace" for all the subsequent meetings.
At the first meeting, held one month after the main body of the 864th Engineer Battalion deployed, the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group arranged for professionals from Army Community Services, the Family Advocacy New Parent Support Program and Madigan Healthcare Services to come and present classes to the new groups of mothers.
"In the arena of parenting," stated Army Community Service Family Advocacy program specialist Priscilla Nastasia, "We have provided an emotional coaching class, an overview of New Parent Support services, and a hands-on introduction to infant massage provided by our home visitors. We have also provided prenatal nutrition information, with links to resources like the WIC office on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and www.choosemyplate.gov, where they can actually plan their diet during pregnancy and beyond."
In subsequent meetings, the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group also recruited help from the Madigan Healthcare Services OB/GYN Department, FOCUS (Families Overcoming Under Stress), the 555th Engineer Brigade MFLC (Military Family Life Consultant), and many other support agencies also located on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. This not only served as a convenient forum to bring these remarkable services to the spouses, but also exposed them to the multitude of family support programs available to them on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
One focus area for the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group is to support the new and expecting mothers by providing instruction on how to improve their resiliency and how to create good habits for building strong, family teams.
"The training provided builds personal skills in each individual," explained Nastasia, "and models reliance on others in the community. This support group is an amazing experience for new and expecting mothers. As I watch them share food, chat away, laugh, and share their ups and downs, I am reminded that one of the core strategies of resilient people is the willingness to seek support when needed."
"Within the suite of comprehensive soldier fitness resiliency Modules," continues Nastasia, "we have completed 'Hunt the Good Stuff' and energy management modules. Since our human brains are hardwired to remember negative experiences, 'Hunt the Good Stuff' is a strategy that builds optimism and helps us overcome our negative bias."
"Hunt the Good Stuff" is a skill taught through Army resiliency programs where a person records three positive events that happened each day and reflects upon those events. The end state is to increase resiliency and lower the tendency to slip into depressive thinking by reinforcing one's thoughts to focus on looking for optimistic or positive elements within a situation.
The numerous support agencies based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord aren't the only organizations working with the 864th Engineer Battalion to serve soldiers and their families.
Quilts from the Hearts donated crocheted, hand-made blankets and baby hats for the newborn babies while the Puyallup Post 2227 VFW Women's Auxiliary, the From Our Heart Organization, and SAAF (Support America's Armed Forces) donated items for baby bundles-baskets for new mothers that contain everything needed to carry on during the first few months of being a new mother. Moreover, the SAAF has worked with Top Food Stores in Puyallup, Tacoma and Olympia in addition to multiple patrons and volunteers to put together boxes containing basic food items for the new mothers.
"SAAF began supporting the 864th Engineer Battalion during their first deployment [Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003-2004]," stated Vicky Mohler, the lead coordinator between SAAF and the 864th Engineer Battalion. "And has continued providing support throughout the years, mostly in either funding or care packages for the deployed, Pacemaker troops. I came up with the 'Baby Bundles' idea when I was told by the senior adviser for the 864th Engineer Battalion Family Readiness Group that they had 50 expecting mothers. At each of our SAAF collections, we began collecting diapers, baby wipes, formula, bottles, baby food, cereals and toiletries in addition to monetary donations. We keep 6 boy and 6 girl baskets on hand."
"The unexpected support and overwhelming sense of volunteerism that has flooded in from this very supportive military community has been very humbling," stated Amy Henderson, the 864th Engineer Battalion Family Readiness Group adviser. "We cannot possibly thank all the post agencies, local organizations, and our selfless volunteers enough for all the enduring, positive impact that they have had on our families."
Word of the overall support program and extensive training opportunities provided for new and expecting mothers of the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group is spreading.
"As far as I am aware," stated Nastasia, "the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group is the first of its kind. However, I know that two other units heard about it and asked family advocacy to help them start their own! That's a win for our Army."
Overall, the reaction to the Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group has been positive.
"The Pacemaker Pregnancy Support Group has been nothing short of amazing," stated Nastasia. "At a time when our Army is being asked to do so much, there is a real need for grassroots assistance for families, and frankly, this is how it is done. We know that our service members live a lifetime of stress in the first six years of their service to our country. That is real, and our families are living that experience too. This support group has a definite feeling of family, and I have been witness to the amazing warmth and friendship that is shared in this setting, along with the linkages to real services and support."
"I love this group and look forward to the monthly meetings," explained Wagg. "This is really an amazing group of women that come together to support each other. I think it has helped by making this deployment a bit more bearable."