WASHINGTON — Maj. Karen Ruff-Northey is a military brat. She grew up in Honduras and at the age of ten her mom married an Army Soldier and they moved to Germany.
Although she began life as a military child she made the decision to join the Army and begin her military career.
“In my junior year of high school I joined the U.S. Army Reserve, went to basic training and came back. After I graduated, I went to AIT,” said Ruff. “I was in the Reserve for a while until I went to college and joined ROTC. After college I went into Active Duty.”
Ruff met her husband while she was in in college. Her father was the First Sergeant at the Miami Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and her husband’s father was the commander of the Miami MEPS. They were introduced to each other and the rest is history. She and her husband are now both Soldiers serving on active duty at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). They have twin four-year-olds, a two-year-old and are expecting their fourth child.
Needless to say, Ruff and her husband know a little bit about navigating parenthood in the Army.
As the “Month of the Military Child” approached Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, the Army G-1 and G-1 Sgt. Maj. Mark Clark visited JBLM to speak with single and dual military parents. This allowed Ruff and other parents to share their experiences having and raising children while serving in the Army.
Ruff was flushed and fanned her face as she waited to share her thoughts; she had just taken her gestational diabetes test the same day.
The Family Care Plan
During his Army career Clark has had experience both as a single parent of three children, and as part of a dual military couple. As the G-1 enlisted advisor he has seen Soldier feedback drive positive policy changes.
“The changes in the grooming standards and appearance policy started in a group just like this,” he said. “So we want to know the challenges that exist that would cause you to choose between your careers and your families, so we can look at the policies to see where we can improve, and retain talented Soldiers like you.”
Ruff was the first to start and the topic at the forefront of her mind was the family care plan.
“I have been very fortunate to have supportive leadership,” she said. “But I have seen Soldiers in effect get punished because the family care plan regulation is very vague.”
Ruff said lots of Soldiers have found themselves in difficult situations during the pandemic; balancing caring for their families while meeting Army requirements. These Soldier parents may be too scared to engage with their leadership to explain the challenges they face.
Brito, a parent himself who has moved in the Army 16 different times during his 35-year career, stressed leader education.
“When enforcing the family care plan, leaders can ‘flip it’ and ask what leaders can do to help Soldiers care for the family,’” Brito said. “Leaders need to understand the policy; communicate it well to the Soldier or the family, and balance it with common sense readiness decisions, so Soldiers don’t have to choose to walk away from their careers.”
The family care plan, governed by Army Regulation 600-20, helps to ensure family members are taken care of when a Soldier needs to be absent due to military requirements. Soldiers are required to have both a long-term plan for events like a deployment or an unaccompanied tour, and a short-term plan for no-notice or short notice military duties.
“We have to put the human aspect into our policies. Sometimes what is considered human is a matter of the perspective of the individual looking at it,” said Clark. “I think that’s where we need to help provide clarity and some specificity in the policy so that we are all on the same sheet of music.”
Education for leaders on how they execute and enforce the family care plan can have an impact across the force.
Maj. Christina Crittenden, a single parent for the last six years, has struggled with the Army’s family care plan policy. Because of this she did an independent research project on the family care plans while she attended Air Force Intermediate Level Education (ILE).
“When I looked at who it affected across the Army, I saw it was 90% enlisted who had been chaptered out for hardship or voluntarily resigned due to the family care plan,” said Crittenden. “That issue has been in the Army for the last 20 years. I found old information papers relating to the same topic.”
Crittenden left a copy of her information paper with Brito and Clark to provide more in-depth feedback.
Pregnancy & Postpartum
Members of the group were quick to praise the changes the Army has embraced that assist Soldiers experiencing pregnancy. Various regulations govern the life of pregnancy with specific medical and physical guidance for each stage of pregnancy.
Staff Sgt. Tracyann Gregory is also part of a dual military couple. There was emotion in her voice as she shared she has two living children and one who has passed away. In May 2015 Gregory’s daughter Trislyn was born with a condition called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH) and after 21 days she lost her life.
“I wanted to share with you it’s a big deal all the policy changes that have happened with pregnancy,” Gregory said. “I’m standing here today to show everyone here, and in the Army, that whatever you go through its ok, as long as the policies are moving in the right direction. It’s amazing to see the changes happening for female Soldiers.”
Pregnancy loss can cause lasting grief within Army families. Currently, Army policy provides Soldiers with convalescent leave for Soldiers who experience a loss after 20 weeks of the pregnancy.
“Recent policy changes have been really good. The Army is starting to recognize women who have experienced pregnancy loss, and they’ve validated leave times for different stages of pregnancy loss, that’s a really big step in the right direction,” said Capt. Erin Buerschinger. “A lot of women have miscarried in silence and it’s not necessarily acknowledged, so to see the Army acknowledge that is a really good step.”
Ruff is part of a special population not only because of her diverse background and dual military experience, but she also went through fertility treatment with her first pregnancy.
“Like many military couples, my husband and I waited to find the perfect time to have kids,” said Ruff.
Once they decided to start a family, they kept trying and trying, to no avail. “We even went through the medical hospital who told us to just relax and it would happen,” she said.
It didn’t, and the doctors could not explain why.
The couple ended up going through In vitro fertilization with two retrievals and two transfers. Happily, within six months they were expecting their twins. Ruff was fortunate to have had a very supportive chain of command and stabilized at her duty station during the treatment.
It was after the twins’ birth in 2018 that Ruff struggled to get her body back into shape after a C-section. She was scheduled to attend ILE within six months, so she trained.
“I needed to pass the PT test and pass (body fat composition) ‘tape’- I had never been taped in my life- or they were going to drop me from the course,” she said. “So it’s great to see the policy expanded because the greatest hurdle for females is getting back into shape within six months.”
In March 2021, the Army published an Exception to Policy extending the postpartum body composition exemption from six to 12 months. Like thousands of other women Soldiers Ruff will benefit from this change during her current pregnancy
Retaining Critical Talent
Army couples who have experienced a move or permanent change of station are familiar with the Married Army Couples Program. Soldiers who are part of a dual-military couple are required to be enrolled in the program to ensure consideration is taken for personnel actions, like assignment moves.
In 2021 while stationed in Hawaii, Gregory and her husband were enrolled in the MACP and used the Assignment Satisfaction Key – Enlisted Module - a.k.a. ASK-EM - to PCS.
“Initially, my husband was put on orders for JBLM, and I was put on orders for Kansas, and my first reaction is like, ‘what’s going on,’” said Gregory. “They finally fixed it in the ASK-EM cycle but by then we only had 30 days to get to JBLM.”
Gregory says MACP and events like moving can present challenges to Army families.
“Every PCS we have ever done as a dual military couple has been a challenge,” said Gregory. “When it comes to MACP, when we talk about resiliency, that’s what makes families or breaks them.”
During the discussion Brito and Clark were very receptive to the feedback they heard.
“We’ve asked our team to emphasize the ‘human’ in ‘Human Resources Command’, especially with respect to assignment orders,” said Brito. “We need to move orders to the left as far as we can, for predictability 180 days out; it should be precision movement for MACP. This is a continual management and leadership cycle and we need to better communicate with our families,” he said.
Soldiers went on to describe a sort-of “dance” dual military couples have to do in order to choose which Soldier would lead, and which would follow when it came to career and station moves.
“It’s all about compromise,” Ruff said. “I’ve seen people’s careers go in different directions, if they weren’t able to compromise.”
As dual military, Clark can empathize with career challenges, moving around and trying to balance parenthood. He stressed the relationship with human resources career managers.
“Communicating with your branch manager is critical,” said Clark. “You have to be able to have that open dialogue with your branch managers to tell them if you want to follow your spouse or if you want to take the lead when it comes to career positions and moves.”
Near the end of the discussion Gregory’s hand shot up to add a final point.
“Dual military couples are strong and are great motivators and leaders,” said Gregory. “It’s the strong, dual military couples where you keep your retention in the Army. And, it’s our children who may be the ones who are serving in the future too.”
Brito smiled and said, “We hope so. I’d be lucky to serve alongside them.”