WASHINGTON, DC - Family Forums at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual meeting and exposition opened at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 25.

As the largest defense-related exposition in the nation, AUSA highlights the capabilities of Army organizations and presents a wide range of commercial industry products and services.

With 125 chapters worldwide, the Association of the United States Army's Family Programs Directorate has held forums at the expo every year since 1999 as an opportunity for senior Army leaders to address issues of concern to military Families and to announce new initiatives.

In the past, AUSA hosted three Military Family Forums, one on each day of the annual meeting. This year, a fourth forum has been added on Wednesday, Oct. 27, and the forums can be viewed live via streaming video. Visit the AUSA tab on the homepage of www.ArmyMWR.com for details.

According to AUSA leadership, the fourth forum is needed because of the burdens the Soldiers and their Families have carried as the Army heads into its 10th year of war. The themes this year are: "America's Families - Our leaders," "America's Families - Our children," "America's Families - Caring for Ourselves," and "America's Families - Caring for our Survivors."

Sheila Casey, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, Junior's wife of over 40 years, immediately connected with the with the audience when she began with her own story.

"I can fully appreciate the journey you are on. As we watched our son, Ryan, leave for Afghanistan with his National Guard unit, I realized I was losing the most important job a mother has for her child - the ability to protect him. So we found comfort by tapping into our Army community. Your really are the rock in keeping this country safe," Mrs. Casey said to the nearly 2,000 member audience of soldiers, spouses and Family Readiness Group leaders.

She added that the Family Forums provide everyone a chance to speak up about their own story and how the Army can do better.

"The Army Family Covenant turned three years old this month. It's good to know that these programs exist when you need help, but we also need to calibrate these programs to make sure they provide a community of caring," Mrs. Casey said.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh emphasized this need.

"To be effective we have to take care of what Soldiers care about. I've been to Iraq 15 times so far, and every time I'm there Soldiers bring up how much they care about their Families," McHugh said.

Gen. Casey said Army leadership is addressing that need as quickly and efficiently as it can-since becoming the Army Chief of Staff, the budget to support Family programs has doubled to $1.7 billion annually-but Soldiers and Families must take part.

"With that kind of money, the programs might get started fast but they might not be necessarily efficient. I need feedback from you when you think these programs are redundant," Casey said.

Casey also spoke of how the Army is working towards longer dwell times, with Active Soldiers returning home from deployment for two to three years National Guard and Reserve for four to five years.

"With the growth of the Army, we should be able to reach this by the beginning of the 2012 fiscal year," Casey said.

"But my wife gave me a look much the same as the look I'm getting from you. She told me, 'Our son will be home when he gets home.'"

Getting Soldiers to stay home longer before re-deploying led Casey to answering the next question - what will they do when they stay home for a longer period of time'

"Of course, the Army will work on strengthening administrative and training skills. But the most important job will be building resilience for the long haul. The reality is that this war will likely go on for awhile," Casey said.

"We will remain focused on Families and sustain what we've been doing with our programs by building upon them," Casey said.

Maj. Gen. Rueben Jones, Commander of the Army's Family and MWR Command, spoke briefly about the Exceptional Family Member Program, one of many aspects of the Covenant directly managed by his command.

"This program is so very important to the Army Family," Jones said. He went on to explain that as important as it is, we're still making changes to improve access and awareness, ensuring we're offering the right support to the right Families.

Jones had a number of senior leaders from within his command, primarily from the Family Programs Directorate, sitting in the audience to learn from both the speakers and the audience.

"The Family Forums present a great opportunity for our Families to hear directly from the senior directly about programs that are important to them," Jones said, "but more importantly, they also provide an opportunity for us to hear directly from the Families."

Casey illustrated this most clearly when he brought up what he said the audience had been waiting for, the informal survey of how the Army's Family programs have met their expectations.

Standing in front of a crowd of nearly two thousand, with more watching in "overflow" room via a live electronic feed, Casey asked a series of questions about specific programs and activities, encouraging the audience to "just yell out 'yeah' for liking the program, 'eh' for thinking it so-so, and 'boo' if it did nothing for you."

The responses were mixed, and Casey repeatedly looked to the other senior leaders in the room to ensure they were getting the message.

"We will keep working on this. We think we're making progress but we will never stop. You are the strength that underpins the strength of our nation," Casey said.

When the question was raised as to whether he was hearing the responses from the overflow rooms, Casey grabbed a microphone, walked down the hall and met with those guests face to face. Their cheers at his arrival were felt through the floor in the main meeting room. He stayed in the overflow room through the question and answer period.

Questions were fielded by a panel that included Casey, Lynch, Jones, Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, Commanding General, U.S. Army Reserve Command and Maj. Gen. Raymond W. Carpenter, Director of the Army National Guard (Acting).

One FRG leader spoke up about an issue that brought many cheers.

"It's not easy with four children under 10 years old," said Joy Mitchell of Fort Bragg, N.C. "Especially when my husband and I are both in the military. Is there any way you can ensure that one of us can stay home while the other is deployed'" Mitchell asked.

Casey said this can be done, but the power of these forums was demonstrated when Deeta Wester-Gravelle, a nurse and an FRG leader who joined the National Guard last year and is now a captain, spoke up. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Harry Gravelle and she have five children.

"At Fort Collins, Colo., we became foster parents to help care for the children of deployed parents or parent," Wester-Gravelle told Mitchell. "Check with your garrison to see if they have this same program and if not, get one started."

This interaction of ideas and best practices, along with the direct access to the Chief of Staff to voice concerns and issues, make the forums a powerful tool for refining how the Army supports its Soldiers and Families.

Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of Installation Management Command and assistant chief of staff for Installation Management, summed up the forum by saying "The Army won't break because of our Soldiers, but it might break because of the wear and tear on our Army Families."

I promise that we'll take your suggestions and make our programs better," Lynch said. "We only exist at IMCOM to provide Families with the Army's home."