REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.-More than 25 years ago, the U.S. Army began to change from one of mostly short-term, unmarried Soldiers with a low re-enlistment rate to an all-volunteer force of career-minded professionals with families.

General John Wickham, the Army Chief of Staff at that time, embraced this profound change and recognized the impact an all-volunteer force would have on how the Army viewed and treated Family members. According to the Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Command, "...Wickham and his staff knew a healthy family environment would allow Soldiers to focus fully on their mission."

On Aug. 15, 1983, Wickham and (then) Secretary of the Army John Marsh, signed the white paper, "The Army Family," paving the way for the Army Family Action Plan, or AFAP, and the accompanying increased funding and oversight of vital programs such as child development centers, family counseling, suicide prevention, increased Soldiers' Group Life Insurance, and more recently, the Wounded Warrior Program.

Since that time, delegates attending AFAP conferences Army-wide have huddled over and deliberated on more than 600 issues.

Karen Butler is the AFAP coordinator for the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (USASMDC/ARSTRAT) here. "As a direct result of the AFAP over the past 25 years, 173 programs or services have been improved and/or funded, and 154 DoD or Army policies have changed; as well as 107 legislative, or legal, changes," Butler said.

Suggestions for these changes germinate at every echelon-from the foot Soldier's foxhole to the Army family's living room.

"The Army is the only branch of the military that solicits suggestions from the field from the lowest level," Butler said. "But, the other branches benefit from the changes made through the AFAP because many of those changes are legislative, or at the DoD level."

Butler has been the AFAP coordinator for this command for three years but said she has been involved in the program for more than 20 years as a spouse, volunteer and Army employee.

The AFAP process is a cyclic, year-round wheel in motion. "Our garrison or unit AFAP conferences across the command are usually October through January," Butler said. From there, identified issues go to the mid-level or command headquarters conference.

"Our next [command] conference is in June, here in Huntsville, where all issues forwarded from our subordinate elements will be addressed."

There's still time to submit issues and suggestions for changes to the June conference, she added. "If you could change or improve something about the Army, what would it be and how would you do it' Submit that idea to your local AFAP representative and we'll present it during the June conference."

Typically, issues fall into categories of benefits and entitlements; facilities and housing; employment, force support, and family support; and medical and dental. More than 90 percent are resolved at the local level, with more than 60 percent of active issues impacting all branches of the military, according to the Army Family and MWR Command.

Butler said she expects between 30 - 36 delegates command-wide at the June conference, as well as observers (who have no input but are influential in the community); and subject-matter-experts such as Tricare, Army OneSource, and the Association of the United States Army (groups that do not offer opinions on issues but are on site to answer questions specific to their organizations.)

"At the command's conference, delegates work all issues," Butler said. "They don't pick and choose. They determine a disposition for each issue, some of which can be resolved at this level or go back to the garrison or submitting unit level for resolution."

What is "Slide Three"'

" 'Slide Three' is an extra effort we make where delegates at our conference have an opportunity to brief the commanding general on issues that don't impact the entire Army, but still deserve to be addressed at his level," Butler said. (Example: Kwajalein community wants a commissary; Commanding General Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell is communicating with the appropriate agencies about the feasibility.)

"Leaders might not be aware of a concern or problem. This is an opportunity for them to learn about issues at the grass roots and either resolve it or at least influence change," Butler added.

The next spoke in the AFAP wheel is the annual Army-wide conference in January. USASMDC/ARSTRAT was represented in January 2009 by three of 117 delegates; one family member and two enlisted Soldiers.

"Experiencing how hard delegates work the issues at the Army level to come up with a compromise made me realize again how important it is to always strive to improve the Army for Soldiers and their families," said Sgt. Martin Santistevan, a single Soldier assigned to the 1st Space Brigade in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"People are passionate about these issues," he added.

Santistevan is a human resource specialist, a six-year veteran in the Army, and an Army 'brat.' "I've always known it's not about me. It's about other Soldiers and what can be done to help them."

Issues remaining on the active list through the January conference are reviewed and researched by Army Staff, who forwards 25 issues to the next (January or June) AFAP General Officer Steering Committee (GOSC).

"The GOSC is powerful," Butler said, explaining that Army leaders there have immediate influence and can change policy in minutes. "An example is Fort Greely [Alaska], with no Family Readiness Support Assistance, requested authorization to create that position and hire against it. Army staffers had said it can't be done. During the January GOSC, (then) Army Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said, 'done,' and it was done!"

Once the GOSC determines disposition of the issues:

Aca,!Ac feedback is provided to garrisons and units
Aca,!Ac Army Staff reviews and researches a new set of issues, preparing to present them at the next GOSC six months later
Aca,!Ac garrisons and units continue with local AFAP conferences to identify new issues
Aca,!Ac the wheel stays in motion

The command was represented at the January GOSC by the commanding general, the command sergeant major, one Army officer and one DA civilian, and Butler.

In an after-action report to his staff, Campbell said recommendations forwarded to Army leadership in January were:

Aca,!Ac to establish non-chargeable bereavement leave for Soldiers
Aca,!Ac mandate a professional-quality official or semi-official head-and-shoulder photo for all Soldiers
Aca,!Ac require garrisons to provide secure, accessible storage space for Soldiers (official clothing and equipment) in a location separate from living space
Aca,!Ac expedite staffing of medical care providers in the Army medical treatment facilities, and implement new strategies for recruiting and retaining them
Aca,!Ac provide standardized respite care to all caregivers of Wounded Warriors.

"The AFAP GOSC reviewed 23 active issues and determined that seven were complete; two were unattainable; two issues submitted from overseas were accepted into the AFAP; and 14 issues are still active," Campbell said.

"This program is a vital link between our Soldiers and improving the quality of life in our Army. I encourage each of you to query your Soldiers, DA Civilians and their Families for issues and recommended solutions for improvements to our Army."