FORT LEE, Va. - United in the desire to help service members and their families, about 20 faith leaders from the local community and an equal number of Fort Lee religious support personnel assembled at the Memorial Chapel Family Life Center June 13 for an idea-sharing conference and chat session.

"Today, we have a shared purpose - building bridges so you can partner with us in taking care of our military families," said Garrison Chaplain (Col.) Terry Romine as he welcomed the guests and colleagues who had been mingling and picking up literature from the Army Community Service, USO and Suicide Awareness and Prevention Program information tables lining one side of the room.

"Simply put, we (the Fort Lee chaplains and religious support assistants) cannot do it alone," the chaplain elaborated. "Our troops are out there in your communities and may be among your congregations. It just makes sense to open a dialogue so you understand the challenges and hardships they face, and what you may be able to contribute as part of our network of support."

Validating the chaplain's observation in his welcome, Garrison Commander Col. Adam Butler noted how the oft-used expression "Team Lee" very much includes the surrounding civilian communities. "We are one, which is made evident by your presence here today," he observed. "I am encouraged by your willingness to come and engage in dialogue, and I extend my thanks for your efforts to take an active role in caring for our Soldiers and families."

Conference attendees introduced themselves. The assembly included pastors, religious counselors, congregation elders, youth group leaders, a rabbi and others. Several local churches and medical centers were represented. One participant was visiting from Fredericksburg.

As a setup to the small-group "breakout sessions" planned for the morning, Romine provided some context about military life to frame the discussions. He touched on the feeling of isolation that can result from hometown friends and immediate family being many miles away. He noted how difficult it can be to ask for help from strangers and said many younger military members and families may not even be aware of the support services available to them.

"Maybe you can provide that 'grandma' who can watch the kids when the parents are in the middle of a difficult situation or need a night out together," Romine suggested. "Maybe you can assist that family through a food closet like the one we have here in the chapel program. That's what I encourage you to consider and talk about today because the need is there and you may have the resources to help."

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ed Baccich, deputy garrison chaplain, facilitated the largest of three breakout sessions. Key decision points among that group included the need for shared information about financial, family and personal counseling services at Fort Lee and out in the community; pushing away the stigma that seeking help is a sign of weakness and possibly detrimental to one's career; and developing courses of action that address the need rather than simply relying on "prayers for help and strength."

Jason Cashing, pastor of Gregory Memorial Presbyterian Church and firefighter chaplain for Prince George County, was part of that conversation and categorized it as extremely valuable.

"To be honest, I came here this morning not really knowing what to expect beyond a networking event to meet with other religious leaders and representatives," he said. "What it turned out to be is even greater because of this opportunity to talk about the important topics and needs that exist, and the unified role we can play in supporting Soldiers and their families,"

Clearly, there is value to "putting everyone on the same page," Cashing continued. He said he witnessed a lot of enthusiasm for sharing resources and concern over the challenges that exist as well as the team approach needed for effective support.

"Our common asset is the welcoming, hopeful and loving community body that wants to walk with you in all of your joys as well as the sorrows," Cashing said. "I think that's something any of us in this room would agree to right now. We might have different ways we can offer that, but it's the same goal of providing a place of comfort for Soldiers and families away from home, especially when they're facing a difficult transition or life situation."

Vanessa Justice, a teaching elder at Covenant Bible Fellowship in Petersburg, was similarly inspired by the overall discussion. Through the combined efforts of the religious organizations represented at the event, and others who will likely want to get involved, she said there is an opportunity to build a "large, loving safety net" for those away from home as a result of their military service.

"Where I personally think I can make difference is using my teaching background to help with the educational needs of military families," said Justice, who further described herself as an Air Force and Army "brat" who is familiar with the school progress gaps encountered by relocating military children. "I would really love to support families on that front because that's where my heart is, and I really think I could be of help to homeschool parents as well."

It's those sorts of ideas and offered resources that the conference was meant to foster, according to Romine's initial introduction. He closed the event with his assurance that lessons learned would be shared and future forums would be scheduled.