Nearly two-dozen Army Reserve Soldiers and their families met with congressional staff members during a roundtable discussion at the Westin Tysons Corner Hotel here June 10.
The event was hosted by the U.S. Senate and House Military Family Caucuses to coincide with the Yellow Ribbon event being hosted here by the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Support Command.
"What a perfect opportunity for Soldiers and families to tell their concerns to congressional staff members who can bring those concerns to the actual congressmen and senators," said Brig. Gen. Jose Burgos, deputy commanding general of the 99th RSC. "Some of these Soldiers recently redeployed, so their latest concerns can be raised at the congressional level to see if we can improve or add to the benefits they are entitled to once they are mobilized or deployed."
The U.S. Senate and House Military Family Caucuses consist of senators and congressmen/women who want to work together for issues and policies that impact military families.
"The roundtable with the House and Senate Military Family Caucuses gives Soldiers and their families the opportunity to speak directly to staff members of congressional leaders," said Col. Richard Erenbaum, congressional legislative liaison for the 99th RSC. "It allows the staff members to hear first-hand from Soldiers who have recently deployed."
Hosting the roundtable during the Yellow Ribbon event ensured that deploying and redeployed Soldiers and their families had the opportunity to voice their concerns to more than a dozen congressional staff members in attendance.
"When an individual enlists to become a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine, you also enlist the family," said Michael Calcagni, congressional staff member for U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who serves as co-chair for the Congressional Military Family Caucus. "The families sacrifice just as much as the Soldiers -- they're left behind, whether it's a mom or dad back home, to man the household.
"Over the past 15 years of war, we've gotten better at taking care of Soldiers and families, but it's one of those things where there is always room for improvement," he continued. "There are still service members going overseas, and it's important for us to keep that conversation going and to keep engaging with those family members and service members in order to understand what their struggles are before, during and after the deployment.
"That's why we do these events -- to get a better understanding of the struggles those families and service members are facing, and to determine what we can do as legislators to implement tools that can ease the burden," Calcagni added.
Calcagni and his fellow staff members listened to and spoke with Soldiers and family members during the roundtable, focusing on key topics such as challenges employment inequities and family challenges.
"On my first deployment, I had friends and family sending me care packages and also keeping life moving for me back home in Arizona," said Capt. Aaron Marquez of the Army Reserve's 301st Military Intelligence Battalion. "On this deployment, we prepared for a few months to get things financially ready and emotionally prepared."
"Anytime a family is going to be separated, it's going to be really quite the challenge," added Ivette Marquez, Aaron's wife of three years. "I'm hopeful that the reason (the congressional staff members) are here is to hear from the people who are closest to the issues and craft their policies around the people who have experienced these things."
The Marquez family was one of thousands that has participated in the Yellow Ribbon program since its inception in 2008 as a congressionally mandated program designed to prepare Soldiers and families prior to deployment, sustain families during deployment, and reintegrate Soldiers with their families, communities and employers upon return from deployment.
The program's continued success depends largely on continued congressional support.
"It's important to keep the Yellow Ribbon program going. It benefits the Soldiers, it benefits the families, it actually brings the community partners closer to the Army Reserve, and it think it's a win-win situation for everybody," Burgos said. "Hopefully, the program continues to be funded and more people participate and get the benefits that are provided here by the different agencies."
"I've attended a number of Yellow Ribbon events, so I understand what this is all about," said Calcagni, who is a Rhode Island Army National Guard captain on special assignment with Rep. Bishop's office. "It's a one-stop shop, whether before or after a deployment -- and in fact for the family members during a deployment -- to understand the tools and resources that are available to help prepare for or recover from a deployment."
"The idea of the Yellow Ribbon program is really important, and I think it's important that members of Congress fund it to the levels at which it should be funded," said Capt. Marquez. "Whether you're going on a deployment or your family s in the middle of a deployment or you come home from a deployment, it's really a top-notch reintegration program to prepare that family with the many resources that are available."
The congressional roundtable event was also supported by Army Reserve Legislative Affairs and Family Programs.
"Families are the backbone of the Army Reserve," said Howard Henderson, Army Reserve Family Programs director. "Family Programs is designed to respond, connect, refer and provide the Army Reserve Soldiers, Families, Civilians and Veterans with national and local community resources. Here at U.S. Army Reserve's Family Programs, we believe that Family Readiness + Soldier Readiness = Mission Readiness."