HEIDELBERG, Germany -- Looking to tackle problems that impact U.S. military communities throughout Europe, 58 delegates from garrisons in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany met earlier this month for the 2009 Army Europe Army Family Action Plan Conference.

Out of 85 issues discussed during the week-long event held in nearby Weinheim, 14 were forwarded to a steering committee that is briefing Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, on July 17. Afterwards, Ham will approve whatever issues are sent to the Army-level AFAP General Officer Steering Committee for final review and possible implementation service wide.

Conference participants - who are at the heart of a process that pinpoints problems and proposes solutions - included a mix of active-duty Soldiers, family members, civilian employees and retirees who also participate in garrison-level AFAP programs.

"They are the ones at the forefront of ensuring Soldiers and families obtain and keep the standards of living they have earned by sacrificing so much," said Bonnie Thomas, conference coordinator and a community life specialist with Installation Management Command-Europe.

During the conference, delegates split into five work groups, focusing on these areas: health care; force support; community and family support; employment; and consumer services.

Prior to work groups moving to their break out sessions, Ham addressed them, saying: "Your challenge is to prioritize issues ... from all Army communities in Europe and developing recommendations for their solutions. I ask you to be thoughtful, deliberate and resourceful in making your collective decisions."

Each issue examined at the conference arrived via a garrison AFAP programs and an Installation Commander's Steering Committee. Under the AFAP concept, any problem not resolved locally, depending on scope, could be forwarded to an overseeing major command for further assessment.

The number of issues raised at the installation level range anywhere from a handful to several hundred. For example, community members at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart submitted 260 quality-of-life topics for its AFAP conference this year.

"It's really a grass-roots effort to (make) changes," said Felice Procaccio, a civilian employee at Stuttgart and AFAP delegate.

Whether at the installation or region level, when concerns are reviewed, conference delegates are supported by subject matter experts and issue managers, like Sherry Davenport of USAG Wiesbaden.

"We are here to bring reality and experience," said Davenport, an 11-year veteran of AFAP. "We ensure the delegates have a clear understanding to get (the issue) where it needs to go."

These subject matter experts and other participants, such as facilitators and issue managers, bring years of experience and keep conference attendees on track, said Thomas, by detailing what can and can't be achieved through the process.

Besides reviewing 85 issues brought to the 2009 Army Europe conference, delegates were asked to rank issues and areas that have been previously pushed up the AFAP chain or other quality-of-life programs. The three main areas and rankings were:

Most critical active AFAP issues at service level:

* Distribution of Montgomery GI Bill benefits to family members
* Inferior shipment of household goods
* Convicted sex offender registry at overseas installations
* Medical entitlements for college-age family members
* Minimum disability retirement pay for medically retired wounded warriors

Mobilization/deployment challenges:

* Dwell time use for training/exercises
* Increase in suicide rates
* Soldiers charged leave for Rest and Recuperation break
* Vehicle storage during deployment
* Slow processing of Veterans Affairs claims

Mobilization/deployment strengths:

* Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
* Rest and Recuperation leave
* Warrior Transition Units
* Additional pay and benefits during deployment
* Medical care in theater
* Army Community Service

"This additional tasking is another way to let leadership know what people are concerned about," said Thomas. "It allowed the delegates to further highlight the concerns of communities they represent."

She also noted that 2009 is the 25th anniversary of the Army Family Action Plan. Since the program's inception, 633 issues have been identified, resulting in 101 legislative changes, 147 Army policy and regulatory changes and 165 improved programs services.

Accordingly, she encouraged anyone "who sees something that they believe needs changing," to become involved with AFAP at their garrisons. "By becoming part of AFAP, you can help fix something that is broke. You can be part of the solution."

For more information about AFAP, visit www.myarmylifetoo.com and click on the "Family Programs" link in the "Family Programs and Services" section.