By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffMay 21, 2008
The family issues highlighted at the Army Materiel Command's recent Army Family Action Plan Conference are varied in both subject matter and recommendations.
But each touches the lives of Soldiers and families now making sacrifices in the Global War on Terrorism.
In its 30 years as an Army program, the Army Family Action Plan has relied on volunteers to make hundreds of recommendations for change, many of which have had long-lasting positive effects on the Army's families.
"The first Army Family Action Plan conference at Redstone Arsenal was in 1976," said Cathy Hays, quality of life program manager for Army Community Service. "Since then, the demographics have changed, but the process itself has stayed constant and the emphasis has remained on Soldiers and family issues.
"In the mid-'70s, child care was a huge issue and many of our child care programs of today had their beginnings in the Army Family Action Plan. Then, the issues changed to focus on medical and doctor concerns. In the past five years, the major emphasis has been deployment issues. So, the issues have a cyclical focus and involve what the Army's families are experiencing at a given time."
AMC's 2008 Army Family Action Plan Conference, held in mid-April at Fort Belvoir, Va., involved 13 volunteers representing Redstone Arsenal; Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Anniston Army Depot; Chemical Munitions Agency, Md.; Detroit Arsenal, Mich.; McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, Okla.; Pine Bluff Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, Ark.; Rock Island Arsenal, Ill.; and Sierra Army Depot, Calif. The volunteers reviewed and discussed 16 issues, and voted on four issues with recommendations to be reviewed and possibly adopted by the AFAP conference at the Department of Army level in October.
Representing Redstone Arsenal at the AMC AFAP conference were Mike Fishel, a youth minister on Redstone Arsenal, and Colleen Nicholson, who works for the Army Community Service, Victim Advocacy Program.
"Both were excellent representatives for Redstone Arsenal," Hays said. "Mike has been very involved in the AFAP process for about seven years. He works with youth on post, he is a retired Marine and he now works as an Arsenal contractor. Colleen is a military spouse whose husband is deployed in Iraq for the second time in three years. She is a mother of military children, and she is a contractor on post working with Soldiers and families. These two can look at the Army from a lot of different sides and I knew they would represent us well."
The top four issues the AMC AFAP voted to send on to the Department of the Army AFAP conference are:
Aca,!Ac Basic Allowance for Housing Appropriation and Data Collection Criteria - BAH appropriations continue to provide insufficient housing allowance for Soldiers with dependents living off post. The criteria to establish BAH does not include key factors in the current data collection. Changing the criteria would enable Soldiers and families to meet the high standards of military quality of life. Recommendation: Increase BAH appropriations to meet 100 percent of the national median housing costs. Change annual data collection criteria to include the following key factors: mortgage rates, schools, crime rate, condition of housing, housing availability, and forecasts to accommodate cost of living and utility increases.
Aca,!Ac Reintegration of Reserve Component Soldiers from Combat Zone - Many RC Soldiers are not given sufficient time to reintegrate into civilian life from a combat zone. Reintegration for RC Soldiers is very different from active duty in that many return immediately to civilian jobs in order to maintain employment. As reported in the Army Times, according to the DoD and Veterans Affairs, many RC Soldiers and family members are experiencing issues (ie. marital discord, mental/physical abuse, suicide) at a higher rate than their active duty counterparts. Providing RC Soldiers and their families time to reintegrate will ultimately strengthen military readiness. Recommendation: Fund special drill weekends for RC Soldiers and families at home stations focusing on reintegration.
Aca,!Ac Tricare Coverage for Pediatric Dietary/Nutritional Care - Currently, pediatric dietary/nutritional care including evaluation, education and counseling is only offered under Tricare if the beneficiary is diagnosed as "failure to thrive." Examples of disorders not covered for dietary/nutritional care are food allergies, Crohn's disease, diabetes, childhood obesity and gluten intolerance. Lack of this coverage results in beneficiary out-of-pocket expenses. Providing this Tricare benefit for pediatric dietary/nutritional care will result in cost savings for both the beneficiary and Tricare, and will improve quality of life. Recommendation: Require Tricare Management Agency to amend insurance benefits to include dietary/nutritional preventative wellness evaluations and counseling for children under age 18.
Aca,!Ac Military Permanent Change of Station Travel Voucher Requirements - Soldiers do not receive timely reimbursement for PCS travel expenses. Travel vouchers can take months to process manually through Defense Finance and Accounting Service. The process lacks notification of problems relevant to PCS travel vouchers. Prompt reimbursement through Defense Travel System will reduce financial hardships and emotional stress. Recommendation: Utilize DTS to process and track PCS travel voucher reimbursement. Implement a policy for DFAS to reconcile travel reimbursement within 10 business days or they pay interest with penalties until implementation of DTS.
"With the war going on, there was a lot of emphasis on issues that support the Soldier and their families," Nicholson said. "Other issues, like incentives for federal employees who have unused sick leave, just are not a top priority right now."
Many of the issues reviewed came out of personal experiences of Soldiers and their families.
"The Tricare issue originated with a young girl who had Crohn's disease," Fishel said. "There isn't any educational benefit to help this girl and her parents learn how to manage the disease and care for the girl.
"The BAH issue came out of Rock Island where the BAH is based on housing located right outside the installation that is not in good condition and is in a bad neighborhood. The Soldiers don't want to live there. But their BAH is based on the rent and utility expenses in this neighborhood outside the installation, and it isn't enough to pay for a rental property in a nicer neighborhood."
Both Nicholson and Fishel believe a program to help reintegrate Reserve Soldiers after a tour of duty is important to the health of both the Soldier and the Reserve program.
"A reintegration program, though, must include the spouses because sometimes they see reintegration issues with their Soldier before anyone else sees them," Nicholson said. "It's important to get the whole family involved in the reintegration."
And they believe the travel voucher issue, which can negatively affect a Soldier's view of the Army at a time of change in the life of the Soldier and their family, can be easily addressed if the Army demands that the DTS online computer system be revamped so it can properly be used for Soldier reimbursement.
Both Fishel and Nicholson were impressed with the AFAP conference they attended.
"The Army is the only service that does this," Fishel said. "The others don't. It shows the Army's dedication to Soldiers and their families."
"The whole AFAP process is a really great process," Nicholson added. "As a military spouse it really makes you feel better because you can see the work being done on issues. You can see how the commanders take these recommendations seriously, and how the Army really cares and really does want to make things better for the total Army."