By 1st Lt. Kristofer Baumgartner, Maryland National GuardFebruary 8, 2013
BALTIMORE (Feb. 8, 2013) -- A faith-based program started by a Maryland National Guard chaplain is gaining momentum and expanding nationwide as part of a Defense Department initiative to meet the needs of service members in all branches of the military.
The Maryland National Guard's Partners in Care initiative matches Maryland National Guard members, in need of support, with local religious congregations and will now lend spiritual support to a multi-faceted assistance initiative helping the DOD to aid service members in need.
"If a service member finds one more source of support, that makes them more resilient," said Col. Sean Lee, Maryland National Guard state chaplain and Partners in Care creator.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense became aware of the unique National Guard program through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, which used Partners in Care as a pilot program in 2011. SAMHSA provides suicide prevention training to different groups including clergy and proposed starting Partners in Care programs in Oregon, Minnesota, Virginia, Missouri and Arizona to help combat suicide rates in those states.
Based on the success in the initial five states, the DOD's Suicide Prevention Office began adapting Partners in Care for use across all the services last year.
"They are taking the idea [of Partners in Care] and adapting it to the active duty and Reserve, as well as National Guard now," said Lee.
With more than 32 years in the National Guard, Lee thoroughly understands the nature of the National Guard and wanted to find a way to apply the Guard's organizational concept to this network of faith-based congregations. The Guard is a community-based organization with 39 National Guard readiness centers located throughout the state, and Lee knew that this wide distribution allows service members to more efficiently serve their neighbors in times of emergency.
That model works well for Guard members supporting their neighbors, and it also works for communities to support the Soldiers and Airmen, he explained.
"The proximity of support is the strength of the Guard," said Lee. "[Partners in Care] increases the capacity of support to rural and dispersed populations."
From its inception in 2005, Partners in Care has created a network of local congregations, which agreed to support Maryland National Guard members and their families according to the congregation's ability. Services have included counseling, childcare, youth support groups and basic auto repair. Service members can be referred to their nearest congregation, free of charge and without regard to any religious affiliation.
The Maryland Partners in Care initiative started with four pilot congregations and has grown to 90, as of December 2012. All 23 Maryland counties and Baltimore City have at least one Partners in Care congregation providing support to the state's approximately 6,500 Guard members.
"Some have never had a referral, but they're willing to be there when we need them," said Lee.