By Shandi DixMay 10, 2010
FORT RILEY, Kan. - Spouses were invited to a special town hall meeting May 8 with a special guest from Washington: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The biggest topic of the event was the issue of overpopulation in the Geary County Unified School District 475 on Fort Riley.
"I have some good news for you all," Gates said. "I was briefed on this problem in the schools here on post in preparation for this visit and I've looked into it and what I'm about to say requires the approval of Congress. I have the money to fund an additional elementary school, upgrade two elementary schools and the middle school here on post. I need to transfer it to the education department so that they can extend it and that requires congressional approval."
The issue will go forward to Congress May 10; Gates is hoping for quick action.
"That is fantastic news," said Kathleen Whittle, spouse. "The school my children go to, it was built in 1955 and I'm pretty sure it hasn't even had a coat of paint since then and so this is a much needed and fantastic decision."
Whittle's two children both attend Fort Riley Elementary School.
"They do an excellent job. It's the Unified School District 475; they do a great job taking care of our kids but the help from the Department of Defense would be fantastic," she said.
Another topic of discussion was healthcare.
A question brought up by a spouse in attendance was how the new healthcare program was going to affect both active duty and retirees.
"I'm pretty confident that there will be no change in terms of active duty and I think there's been little change for retirees but I'm not a hundred percent sure on that," Gates said. "I think the one change that we will make ... is the extension of the parent's benefit to the child until they're 26 (years old). That's part of the healthcare bill and I think we're adding to that but other than that I don't think there is significant change."
Another question brought up was the future inclusion of Licensed Professional Counselors along with Licensed Clinical Social Worker's and licensed psychologists into practice on installations.
"To be honest I don't know," Gates said. "I do know that the Army is working very hard to hire additional mental healthcare professionals and get them available as quickly as possible. I can tell you that I don't think that (Army Chief of Staff) Gen. (George) Casey and (Vice Chief of Staff) Gen. (Peter) Chiarelli spend more time on any issue than they do on this issue of mental healthcare, post traumatic stress, (traumatic brain injury) and care of wounded warriors."
Spouses were welcomed by Brig. Gen. David Petersen, 1st Infantry Division deputy commanding general-rear, before Rachel Holbrook, Army spouse and host of How-to-TV introduced Gates.
"This is the first time Secretary Gates has joined the U.S. Army spouses in a town hall such as this and I speak for all U.S. Army spouses in thanking him for his attendance," Holbrook said.
In a brief address prior to the question and answer session Gates thanked the spouses.
"Thank you for all you do for your loved ones in uniform, your Families and your communities," he said. "Many of you are running single parent households while your spouse is deployed or have done so in the past. Some of you have done it more than once."
Following the session spouses were able to shake hands with Gates and received a coin for both themselves and their Soldier. Garrison Commander Col. Kevin Brown also presented each spouse with a red rose.
"I was very impressed with the fact that he was able to make the time," Whittle said. "I know his schedule is packed solid, I'm sure. It gave the people that were responsible for this trip a lot of extra work to make sure that he was able to get out here and talk to us today. No matter what question these spouses threw at him and there was a wide variety, he was able to speak intelligently about all of them. He was well informed on all of the information."