By Ray Johnson, IMCOM-Europe Public AffairsMarch 6, 2008
HEIDELBERG, Germany - Last October, the Army Family Covenant was announced as garrison-level signings were held worldwide. The $1.4 billion service-wide program promised to improve the lives of military Families, especially those impacted the most by a high operations tempo that isn't slowing down any time soon.
It was a pledge sorely needed by Families who have sacrificed much in support of the nation. It's also a pledge that has been kept, especially for the youngest members of the military community.
Be prepared to get a somber history lesson when asking Cherri Verschraegen to talk about the children of Soldiers who have been deployed three of four times since the Global War on Terror began.
Verschraegen, the Installation Management Command-Europe Child and Youth Services program manager, will quickly make these points:
"Army Families are strong and proud but the deployments have gone on so long."
"Every single child in our child development centers was born after the war started ... for some of them, their parents have been gone for half of their lives."
"Every single child in our school age program has entered elementary school since the war started. They should be thinking of homework and recess and playing dolls and playing ball - but that's difficult for some when they are living with a single parent who may be stressed out."
"Every single teenager in our middle school and teen program entered their teens after the war started. Instead of thinking only about the prom and girlfriend/boyfriend stuff, they also have to deal with the extra responsibility in dealing with a stressed-out parent at home - and sometimes having to care for that parent while the Soldier is deployed."
Not one to pull any punches, Verschraegen added: "So when you look at the implications of six years of war with no end in sight, we have to deliver the promises of the Covenant."
And what has the Covenant delivered so far for the thousands of youth whose parents are stationed at installations throughout Europe'
To begin with, it has expanded the baseline services of CYS, including weekend openings at those facilities. It has provided free transportation for kids who may not have been able to enjoy youth programs previously because they couldn't get a ride. And it has allowed for children of deployed servicemembers and civilians to participate in various sports and instructional programs for free.
"What is important for Families to know," Verschraegen said, "is that it didn't matter whether or not the check was in the bank; programs were implemented as soon as the Covenant was announced. We began to ... implement everything that was promised. Those promises are being delivered.
Another major benefit is the expansion of respite care, which parents sorely need sometimes. A deployed Family - military or civilian - can receive up to 16 hours of free care monthly. And for CYS, the deployment cycle starts 30 days before a person leaves for downrange and 60 days after they return.
"We are including the pre-deployment and reintegration periods," Verschraegen explained.
And what does this mean monetarily' Verschraegen estimates that a family with two children age 6 or younger, if they took advantage of every free offering for a year, would save $2,254 in childcare expenses ... "and participate in some pretty cool programs."
While the programs that CYS oversees certainly have been helped by the Covenant, so too have those people who keep them running. Many care-giving staff also are members of a deployed Family. Additional funding has allowed garrisons to hire more people, giving the staff well-deserved respite time.
"Mission fatigue ... in all of our programs ... mission fatigue is becoming our greatest challenge," Verschraegan relayed, adding that the applicant pool from garrison populations has declined - and the number of spouses working altogether - has declined because of personal stress and ever-increasing deployments
Those new hires brought aboard include students from a university intern program and host nation employees. Just a few years ago, there were only 41 host nation employees in all of CYS in Europe. That has been increased by 350 percent, with nearly 140 new additions.
"These folks come with very good backgrounds, very good qualifications," Verschraegen said. "They bring an added dimension to our program with the different languages and different cultures. They fit right in; they work hard; they are helping to fill the gap."
Overall, these Covenant enhancements - to already existing programs - are meant to help Families recover from stress, to help loved ones deal with separation and to normalize things for children.
"IMCOM-Europe had delivered the promises of the Army Family Covenant to Soldiers and Families," Verschraegan said. "We didn't wait. We found ways to expand. We are overcoming our staffing challenges. We are committed to serving those who need us the most."