By Elizabeth M. LorgeJanuary 23, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 23, 2008) - In an age of persistent conflict and geographically-dispersed Families, the Army is taking Family support to a new level with virtual installations and virtual Family Readiness Groups.
The Army Reserve wants to create local and Web-based virtual installations where Families, who may live hundreds of miles from the nearest installation, can access the same support and resources as active-duty Soldiers and Families, such as: TRICARE, child and youth services, counseling and chaplain's programs and financial and legal information.
"We need to retain these Soldiers and you do that by retaining the Families," said Laura Stultz, wife of Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz. "If the Families feel secure, the Soldier won't worry about them, and the Families will know that their problems will be looked into. They need the same services that active-component Families have on an installation because their Soldiers are putting their lives on the same line as everybody else. They deserve the same degree of help and resources."
She added that they want to have a zip-code-based system online, similar to the search function on
www.MyArmyLifetoo.com, where Soldiers and Families can enter their zip codes into the Web site and find the nearest place to get help and the nearest FRG, whether it is active-duty, Reserve or National Guard.
The next step would be to set up mini-Army Reserve centers in towns and cities across America, which would function like Army Community Service offices, repositories for community support, emergency relief and even places Families can go to renew their military IDs.
"I was just insistent that there be some place that you can have face to face meetings with people. A lot of people don't have access to a computer, or English is their second language, or they just don't know how to explain their needs on the telephone. I wanted there to be offices or some place across the country where Families could go to and talk to somebody live.
"In my experience, there are veterans who say 'What can we do to help'' In some instances, all we'll need to get is a computer and a telephone hookup for them; and others it will be finding a place. Some towns we can use the National Guard centers or the veterans' halls, but if there's no place to put it, we might have to find our own office space, in a shopping center or something people can find easily. Hopefully in a few years, everyone will know where it is, just like they know where the post office is," Stultz said.
Right now, the Army Reserve is beginning focus groups with Families to see where they want these centers and what they want online. Ideally, the Reserve would begin building the centers near the heaviest Reserve population centers that are far from installations.
Located two hours from the nearest FRG with four young children during her husband's deployments to the Persian Gulf and the Balkans in the Nineties, Stultz knows how hard it can be to fit crucial support meetings into busy schedules.
Per the request of Families, especially children and teenagers, she and the Army Reserve are looking to find ways to incorporate chat rooms on the Web site, and plan to add this feature as soon as they work out security issues.
Chat rooms, blogs and instant messaging are also a goal of virtual FRGs, said Shaunya Murrill, the automation manager for the Family programs directory at the Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. She also runs a virtual FRG for her husband's Indianapolis Recruiting Battalion.
Tested in 2004 and launched Army-wide in 2006, virtual FRGs are paid for by FMWRC and are a way for commanders, rear-detachment commanders and Family readiness leaders to provide up-to-date information to Families, even if they are geographically spread out, as with the reserve component.
"It was never designed to replace the FRG, but it's an extension of it," said Murrill. "Family members can find out what's going on with their unit by logging in. This is an opportunity for the commander to stay connected. I think it's been a valuable tool to my husband and his colleagues because they don't necessarily have the time to have a lot of meetings or the funding to bring in Families from across the state. So this is an opportunity for them to get relevant, pertinent and timely information out.
"If you want to get involved, you see what's available, you see the calendar, you jump in if you want to, and if you don't, you don't have to," she continued. "Before with the telephone tree, when people were doing it only the old way, people would leave and kind of fall off. Here, you come in and update your information with the automated telephone tree."
To date, there are about 1,200 sites and 117,000 registered users throughout the Army. Commanders at the battalion level and up simply must fill out an application at
www.ArmyFRG.org, provide a point of contact and some basic information, and Murrill and her team set up the site. They provide tutorials for the site manager and any necessary technical support.
The sites typically include news articles, photos, hyperlinks, frequently-asked questions and updates from commanders. FMWRC is still working on the security issues related to blogs and chat rooms, but the sites can have monitored forums.
Virtual FRGs have undergone the Defense Information Technology Certification Information Accreditation Process and are completely secure. Soldiers provide a list of loved ones in writing and the system automatically generates an invitation to the unit site, complete with hyperlink. The list can include anyone the Soldier wants: spouse, but also parents and siblings, for example.
Murrill said the most common feedback she receives are requests for more interactive features and comments that the Army waited too long to go virtual, but that she never hears anything bad about the virtual FRGs. The best thing, she said, is that instead of Families having to wait for their Soldiers to tell them about events or new initiatives, the Families are often updating the Soldiers.