By David Ruderman, USAG Vicenza Public Affairs OfficeSeptember 4, 2012
VICENZA, Italy - Scores of Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, crowded into the post theater Aug. 22 to be briefed on their roles in implementing the Total Army Sponsorship Program. They were not the first and will certainly not be the last, as the Army rolls out the congressionally mandated TASP across the force.
"There's work to be done and we're going to do it," said Pam Hammerle of Army Community Service, who briefed the Soldiers on the importance, roles and responsibilities of sponsorship.
"It's going to be an officially assigned duty. You're crucial to mission readiness," she said.
TASP is being implemented to direct the role of individual Soldiers and units, and to integrate the support of Installation Management Command agencies to ensure that incoming troops and Families have a positive experience as they arrive and begin to settle into an unfamiliar and occasionally confusing environment.
"This emphasis on sponsorship is not new," said U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza Readiness Relocation manager Julia Sibilla, who conducts TASP briefings on behalf of the command. "Sponsorship means a Soldier taking care of another Soldier or a family taking care of another family."
But the practice fell into a depreciated status over the past decade, as the Army's focus shifted to conducting deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.
"That's a very different world. When 9-11 happened, priorities shifted. With war on one front and then war on two fronts, sponsorship was not a priority. Many of you never had a sponsor and have no idea what sponsorship is all about," she told a group about 25 Soldiers from the 1st Bn., 503rd Inf. Reg., who attended a briefing Aug. 28.
Now the Army, the Department of Defense and the nation are transitioning to another phase, posited on the end of direct combat involvement in Iraq, a planned drawdown from Afghanistan and the re-shaping of a smaller force. One consequence will be a greater emphasis on quality of life issues for the troops, and TASP is one element of that shift in emphasis, she said.
"Sponsorship was moved to the front again," said Sibilla. "This kind of briefing is going on all over CONUS."
Doing an on-the-spot, show-of-hands survey, Sibilla quickly profiled the demographic situation that TASP is tasked to address and set to rights.
She discovered that only one Soldier in the group had been in the Army for more than five years, about half the group were married, and only six of them had had sponsors themselves when they first arrived in Vicenza. Sponsorship rates in Vicenza, based on surveys conducted by the TASP liaison office in August, registered a sponsorship rate of 76 percent, approaching the 80-90 percent targeted range, she said.
"My goal for all of you is to leave here knowing why sponsorship is important," said Sibilla.
Bad sponsorship can lead to unhappy wives and upset children, which in itself puts a strain on Soldiers and can negatively impact mission. But it can also lead to loneliness, isolation and very negative second- and third-order consequences such as sexual assault, she said.
"Bad sponsorship or no sponsorship leads to a tour that gets off to a bad start. Predators prey on people like that," Sibilla said.
Hammerle said that as a leader of Army Family Team Building groups she has seen firsthand the detrimental effects of sponsorship gone wrong.
"We always have a spouse who breaks down and cries when we get to the sponsorship piece," she said.
The bad experience is very often the result of a sponsor leaving before the incoming family or individual arrives, Hammerle said.
Among key milestones sponsors must must meet are contacting the incoming Soldier or civilian within 72 hours of being assigned the duty, establishing two-way communication with the newcomer, and including their spouse in the loop from the beginning.
"That's the big chunk we are not doing, setting up the lines of communication," said Sibilla.
Sgt. Dale Tiner, one of USAG Vicenza's three-person TASP liaison office, said the added value his team brings to the cycle is to push direct communication between an incoming Soldier's spouse and garrison contacts who can provide help in their specific areas of expertise, such as the FRG, the unit, the volunteer coordinator, school liaison officer and CYSS office.
"They can give them all the email addresses and they (the spouses) can figure out how often they want to contact them, so they've got options," he said.
Tiner also pushes Soldiers to get a mailing address immediately so that the sponsor can send out a newcomer packet. At that early juncture, the sponsor should also make arrangements for the incoming Soldier or civilian's CMR mail box. After that, it's a matter of being available and responsive until the incoming member or family are on their way, he said.
The next key milestone is meeting the newcomers at the airport or upon arrival at Caserma Ederle, ensuring their lodging is squared away and that they know how to get something to eat.
The airport shuttle bus can be very helpful at that key juncture, said Hammerle.
"The shuttle is no stress, they know where they're going, and it's free," she said.
Responsibility for TASP is distributed across the force, and success can only be achieved by leaders at all levels making it happen, said Sibilla.
"So your battalion commander is going to be asked by his boss, the brigade commander, how well that's working . . . what's the satisfaction level of his people? That's coming down the pike. If you're a squad leader and you want that program to be successful, if you put the effort into it, it's going to be successful," she said.
Newcomers have lots of questions and sponsors have to respond. It's basically a question of communicating, Sibilla said.
"You're going to find out the answers. That's a big part of your job. You don't have to invent anything. We have a ton of programs in place. You don't have to know everything, but you have to point that person to the right information," she said.