FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Navigating the world of resources, paperwork and requirements in the Exceptional Family Member Program can seem overwhelming, but Fort Wainwright's EFMP team is determined to overcome confusion and provide a clear, streamlined path for Soldiers and their exceptional family members.

The EFMP team, comprised of Trisch McMurray, EFMP special needs advisor, Bassett Army Community Hospital, Crystal Reyes, EFMP medical support assistant, BACH, and D'Letter Shumate, Army Community Service EFMP manager, works to inform Soldiers and family members about EFMP and streamline the process to ensure that Soldiers and families have the care and services they need without a lot of unnecessary steps or hassles, Shumate said.

"I call us the EFMP team," McMurray said. "I really want people to be able to put faces with names because I think they get confused a lot" about who serves which function in the EFMP process at Fort Wainwright.

Part of the confusion with EFMP begins with enrollment and who is eligible. The Army defines EFMP as "a mandatory enrollment program that works with other military and civilian agencies to provide comprehensive and coordinated community support, housing, educational, medical and personnel services to families with special needs."

The program describes an "exceptional family member as a family member, both children and adults, with any physical, emotional, developmental or intellectual disorder that requires special treatment, therapy, education, training or counseling."

Soldiers and family members may not understand fully what their enrollment means or all the benefits available to them because of their EFMP status, McMurray said.

"Sometimes Soldiers honestly don't know their family members are candidates for EFMP," she explained. "They don't understand what would qualify them to be enrolled in EFMP. They may not realize they have an exceptional family member because it's sometimes as simple as having diabetes or if their child has an individual education plan at school they would be enrolled educationally. Soldiers just don't always know. That's probably the biggest part of our job is explaining this to the families and what the benefit of it is and how to keep it updated."

Another area of confusion for Soldiers and families enrolled in EFMP is the duration of their enrollment in the program.

"Family members need to know that once they are enrolled in EFMP they are enrolled until they request a disenrollment," McMurray said.

Soldiers must update their enrollment every three years or if there is a change in diagnosis or services and not doing so will flag Soldiers, she said. "All family members are enrolled in the program under the sponsor's (social security number) which means if (their status) expires it can flag that Soldier from PCS moves, promotions and reenlistments until it gets updated."

There are many benefits to being enrolled and keeping enrollments current in the EFMP program here, Shumate said. In addition to ensuring that exceptional family members receive all the care they need, caregivers can also apply for free respite care. "Respite Care is a program designed to give the caregiver a break," Shumate said. "So whether the caregiver is a mother, the sponsor or whomever, respite care is a real benefit."

Another advantage for EFMP members is their priority status for making appointments at BACH. "A benefit that a lot of people aren't aware of is that family members enrolled in EFMP have the same priority as active duty Soldiers for appointments within their diagnosis," McMurray said.

Shumate also provides a monthly support group for EFMP members and weekly activities including arts and crafts, bowling, rock-wall climbing, winter tubing, laser tag, movie nights and more. "I also have a ton of resources available in my office and can refer Soldiers and families to resources in the community, too," she said.

A situation unique to Fort Wainwright and other overseas locations involves the issue of command sponsorship and Soldiers and family members often confuse command sponsorship with EFMP, Reyes said.

"They come to EFMP but they really need command sponsorship," she said. "Whether they are new to the Army or just trying to bring family up here, a lot of the time command sponsorship is the screening they really need."

While EFMP is just one part of the command sponsorship process, it's an important part that can set the tone for a Soldier and family member's entire stay here or even in the Army, Reyes explained. But the road can be rocky for Soldiers who arrive at Fort Wainwright without going through the proper channels.

"Family members are supposed to be command sponsored prior to coming here," Shumate said. "But problems often arise when Soldiers get married en route or are just coming here from (Advanced Individual Training)."

This is one of the biggest challenges the EFMP team faces, McMurray said. Arriving here with family members without command sponsorship "causes problems when I review (their forms) and I see that they have medical needs that may cause me to deny the command sponsorship because we just don't have the services they need here."

Fort Wainwright and the surrounding community have limited resources or a back-logged waiting list for specialty services in a wide variety of areas from speech pathology to adult psychology.

"You've got to realize that the biggest group that this is happening to is our AIT Soldiers who are new to the military and they're also new to Alaska which is a culture shock, and now they're separated from their family. It's really hard on these Soldiers," she said.

Denying command sponsorship or working compassionate reassignments to other installations are not what the EFMP team wants to do, but it is sometimes what is in the best interests of Soldiers and family members. "The Army's goal is to keep families together," McMurray said. "The reason for the separation sometimes, I think, is just a lack of communication and the Soldiers knowing what to do to push forward."

The EFMP team will continue advocating for Soldiers and working to ensure their families are well taken care of, but the process does require Soldier participation, Shumate said. "EFMP is a wonderful program.
It was designed to do a lot for Soldiers and families but Soldiers have to do their part, too."

The EFMP team is currently seeking any Soldier whose family member has an expired EFMP status so they can complete required updates this summer. To update EFMP status or for more information about EFMP, contact the BACH EFMP team members at 361-5959 or Shumate at 353-4243.