By Maj. Michelle Lunato, Public Affairs Officer, 98th Training Division (IET)
Soldiers and civilians of the family readiness group from 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) were awarded the 2017 Department of Defense Reserve Family Readiness Award at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. March 23, 2018.
The award, which was established in 2000, recognizes the National Guard and Reserve units, one from each of the seven reserve components, with the very best military family support program.
Being acknowledged as the unit with the best family program across the U.S. Army Reserve is fabulous, said Georgette Morgan, the 98th Training Division family readiness support assistant who submitted 1st Brigade for the national award. "When I started here back in 2013, there was no FRG [family readiness group] anything. So in the last year, 1st Brigade has really stepped up and gotten their FRG program together."
They didn't just put any program together though, they created a multifaceted program committed to the Soldiers and families, said Brig. Gen. Miles Davis, commanding general, 98th Training Division (IET). "It's truly a program that lives what we are trying to do with family readiness. They are connected with the Soldiers. They connected with the families. They understand the needs of the families and Soldiers, and they have the community tied into the whole organization. It's truly an outstanding example of what we want family readiness to be."
Getting the family readiness program from zero to multifaceted was no easy task, said Suzanne Matusiewicz, family readiness group leader for 1st Brigade. "We went from having no FRG to having a fully functional and vibrant FRG in a year. In order to make things like that happen, you have to network, involve yourself in the community and talk to people who've had experience."
Matusiewicz, a combat veteran herself, volunteers because she remembers what it was like to deploy as a single Soldier and her unit's FRG was her only support system. "I had very little support, but the support I did have, came from the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars]. It came from the USO [United Service Organizations]. It came from schools writing letters."
It was the little things that these FRG volunteers and sponsors did for her that made her stay focused on her mission and kept her spirits up. "In 1995, we didn't have cell phones. We didn't have computers. We were out in the middle of nowhere, and just to get that package-that little gift...[deep sigh]. I still have that card to this day."
Now, years later, Matusiewicz is a key player in 1st Brigade's DoD-recognized program. She spends a number of hours each networking and researching various ideas or benefits to help the brigade's Soldiers. She's also been known to travel from her home in Chicago to FRG events in Georgia just because she wants "to give back and help the people who are now serving." However, she refuses to take any large portion of the accolades, saying she was just part of a great team. "We have a very strong command team that's very pro-family, and we don't define family as your traditional husband, wife and children," said the FRG leader who has no family in the brigade she volunteers for. "Family is whoever the Soldier says it is. And, we welcome everyone. That makes such a big difference."
It's the power behind that diverse group that gives this family program its momentum, said Morgan. "It's in the name itself-family readiness group-one person cannot do it." Over the years, she's seen people try to do it themselves. "But that doesn't ever work in the long run because that person just breaks. It's just too much."
So according to the unit, the key to their success has been teamwork between civilian volunteers, sponsors and Army Reserve Soldiers acting as liaisons between them and the rest of the unit. With a team of effort and ideas, the award-winning Army Reserve program had everything from a food pantry to individual families being sponsored for Christmas presents.
However, it wasn't all about giving things away and having bake sales. "Today's FRG is not what yesterday's FRG was," said Matusiewicz. "It's nothing like that. It's about training. It's about educating the families on what benefits are available." For example, 1st Brigade FRG assisted getting help for displaced families and Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They coordinated the building of ramps at homes and listened to what the Soldiers wanted and needed.
Of course, volunteers and sponsors can all work really hard, and an FRG can still fail, if there is no commander support. That was not the case at 1st Brigade. Their family program flourished because their commander, Col. Timothy Pulley, really inserted himself into the FRG, which is really important, said Morgan. "It's a commander's program, and him working closely with their liaison, Staff Sgt. [Christina] Hawkins, and their two volunteers, that is really what pulled them all together. And that is what you need. You have to have a backbone to an FRG and Family Readiness Program. And that's what it was: Col. Pulley, the volunteers, the family readiness liaisons. That's what made it."
Whatever the reasons behind 1st Brigade's family program success, the DoD saw something that stood out to prompt recognizing them as the top Army Reserve Family Program.
As FRG civilians and servicemembers from the other components-Army National Guard, Marine Corps Reserve, Navy Reserve, Air Guard, Air Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve-gathered together in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, The Honorable Robert Wilkie, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and host of the ceremony, explained how much the DoD appreciates the Reserve forces and their families. "On behalf of a grateful Secretary of Defense, and hopefully a grateful Nation, thank you for carrying the torch of freedom and carrying on the legacy that has made the Nation the envy of the world and continues to awe this planet."
Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, U.S. Air Force (Ret), then stepped up to say that the DoD knows the value of a good family readiness program and equates them to a "critical weapon system" behind our forces' success. "Many of you have never worn the uniform, but you have borne the weight."
Before the 1st Brigade FRG team accepted their awards, Davis personally thanked the team, explaining to the crowd just how phenomenal Col. Pulley's team has been.
"As a commander, you talk about what you want a family readiness program to be, and this is it. This is truly it. It's what every commander wants to have." And not only that, he added, "They have made it an organization that people want to be in."