By Mr. Patrick Buffett (IMCOM)November 17, 2009
FORT MONROE, Va. -- Two years ago, former Secretary of the Army Pete Geren joined Fort Monroe leaders here for the signing of a much celebrated document called the Army Family Covenant. It made several promises - the foremost of which is a commitment to "create a quality of life in the military community that is commensurate with the value of the American Soldier."
And the outcome thus far has been impressive.
Roughly $1.5 billion has been allocated for Army Family programs since 2007. Funding has been OK'd for more than 100 new child development centers Army-wide. More than 41,000 military spouses have landed jobs through the Army Spouse Employment Program. According to the 2009 Army Posture Statement, more than 21,000 new or refurbished homes for military families have been provided through the Residential Communities Initiative over the past two years.
The covenant has focused attention on the military family experience as well. New community support programs have been established to address the hardships of lengthy deployments and the harsh realities of having loved ones in harm's way.
The Army will soon employ 1,079 readiness support assistants at installations where troop deployments occur most often. A new survivor outreach program is focusing on improved support for families of fallen Soldiers; and the service has launched a Warrior Adventure Quest initiative that helps returning troops "decompress" after coping with the stresses of a combat environment. For newcomers to the ranks, the Army is building a 212-member team of military family life consultants.
Another component of the current covenant success story is the increased effort to open lines of communication with military families and get them involved in the process of improving community welfare. Fort Monroe has its own shining examples of that trend. Over the summer, the U.S. Army Cadet Command Headquarters here, invited spouse representatives from ROTC organizations across the nation to the annual Senior Leadership Development Program Conference. It was a USACC first that opened new avenues for the exchange of information and ideas.
"With our unique mission, the families in this command are geographically dispersed and do not have the support routinely provided by local, on-post military agencies," explained Maj. Gen. Arthur M. Bartell, USACC Commander. "To facilitate communication and improve outreach, we invited the spouses of our senior leadership team to be a part of the (SLDP). Our objective was three-fold - provide a conduit for face-to-face dialogue, arm the spouses with information like the virtual resources that are available, and provide training they could take back to motivate other dispersed families in their area."
Among the virtual resources mentioned by Maj. Gen. Bartell are the newly published "Well Being Services Booklet," the "Welcome to the Army Guide," and the "New Spouse Orientation Video," all of which can be downloaded and used as references when dealing with quality of life issues. "There are a lot of resources out there to assist our geographically dispersed families," the major general noted, "but maintaining that communications flow is a challenge we work continually, and the recent SLDP event is a reflection of that effort.
"If we (senior leaders) are to remain in sync with the Army Family Covenant, we must stay involved. We must keep those programs that service families on the front burner, be responsive, and always seek new ideas to improve delivery. It is the only way to ensure our families are resilient, which (in USACC's case) has a direct link to commissioning and retaining officers in our Army," Maj. Gen. Bartell said.
The annual Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) process also deserves a plug for its ability to make life better for Army families. This 26-year-old grandparent of the covenant gives community members an opportunity to influence future command decisions relating to pay, health care, housing, recreation services, administrative support, infrastructure improvement and so much more. More than 630 issues and recommendations have been elevated to Army level through AFAP. It has driven 107 legislative changes, 154 amendments to Army policy/regulatory guidelines, and 173 improvements to programs and services. It is also notable that 61 percent of all active AFAP issues have an impact throughout DoD.
"I think the two programs complement each other very well," noted Beverly Nicholson, Fort Monroe Army Community Services Director. "I know the covenant is creating additional excitement about AFAP. The atmosphere of the annual forums is always positive; our volunteers and participating commanders are united in the purpose of improving community services and welfare. The covenant has brought renewed focus to the process and that, in turn, is convincing more folks to get involved. That's a very good thing."
The 2010 series of AFAP forums here begins with the garrison event planned for Jan. 20-22. Any community member, to include military retirees and family members, can submit issues and recommended solutions. Further instructions and forms are available through the Fort Monroe ACS Web site at www.acsmonroe.org. The USACC AFAP Forum is scheduled for Feb. 22-25. Members of that organization can submit issues and recommendations to Charlotte Hazelwood (email@example.com). The dates for the Headquarters TRADOC AFAP Forum have yet to be announced.
If you're still not convinced that the covenant has value beyond dried ink and a lot of buzzwords, a final element to consider is the change in mentality toward military families. The evidence can be found among the slew of Army News stories that highlight improved quality of life initiatives, better programs for wounded warriors, survivor outreach and the efforts of senior leadership to identify the challenges faced by Army spouses and children.
Lt. Gen. David P. Valcourt, TRADOC Deputy Commanding General, offered the following observations about the importance of the Army Family Covenant - as well as its sister document, the Army Community Covenant that was the focus of a special signing event last November in Hampton.
"Make no mistake about it; there are two things we must accomplish ... win these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and preserve the All-Volunteer Army," he said. "The Family and Community Covenants play an important role, especially in the latter. Retention of Soldiers is all about retention of Army Families. We get it, and we have made amazing progress since the days when I joined the service 36 years ago.
"As for the Army Community Covenant, its value and 'reason d'AfA(th)tre' cannot be any more vividly demonstrated than by (the recent) events at Fort Hood. The military and civilian communities around our posts, camps and stations are inseparable. They support us during times of tragedy and share our grief as friends and neighbors.
"At Lawton-Fort Sill where I recently commanded, we used to joke that the only separation between the two was the hyphen ... I absolutely agree with that. Whether it is assuring security against a terrorist threat or defending against a near invisible enemy like the H1N1 flu, our families live, work, and go to school together. We must always partner up to share each other's strengths and compensate each other's weaknesses within the limits of the law."
"Furthermore, I think America's communities recognize the huge plus of having Army Families living inside their neighborhoods. It's not just the monetary aspects; what our families offer in areas of diversity, solid values, cultural awareness/sensitivity, and that broad global perspective are far more important. Soldiers want to be part of a winning team and something bigger than themselves ... I think that's the very definition of that desire."
(Editor's Note: Earlier this month, President Barack Obama pledged his support of military members and their families and said Americans have a "solemn obligation" to preserve their well-being. He issued a proclamation declaring November as Military Family Month. The opening portion of the document reads: "No one pays a higher price for our freedom than members of our nation's military and their families. As sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and mothers and fathers are deployed, military families endure with exceptional resilience and courage. They provide our troops with invaluable encouragement and love, and serve our nation in their own right. During Military Family Month, we honor the families of our Armed Forces and thank them for their dedication to our country.")