Reserve-Component Families Face Universal Challenges

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Sept. 21, 2007 - Problems facing reserve-component servicemembers are universal, regardless of which country they come from, international officials here this week learned.

Representatives from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand here to discuss reserve personnel issues all agreed that the biggest challenges facing reserve-component family programs are communication and overcoming the stigma of receiving support.

The group, known as the ABCA Information Team -- for America, Britain, Canada and Australia; New Zealand joined only recently -- has met for the past eight years to ensure member armies have necessary capabilities to conduct full-spectrum operations in a joint environment.

"Getting (reservists and their families) to admit they need help and then plugging them into the help is the challenge," British Brigadier Greg Smith, deputy inspector general for the territorial army of the United Kingdom, told the panel.

Spouses who may need support from family programs sometimes incorrectly assume that receiving assistance will hurt their spouse's military career. But beyond that the majority of reserve families do not live on military installations and aren't traditional Army families, Smith added.

"Where they are living, these neighbors aren't having these types of problems," Brig. Gen. David N. Blackledge, commander of the U.S. Army Reserve's 352nd Civil Affairs Command, said.

Not only are Army Reserve families isolated in the uniqueness of their problems in their communities, but they also feel disconnected from the Army, Paula Savage, director of Army Reserve family programs, said. "Any avenue we can communicate we try to take advantage of," she said.

The communication and isolation obstacles facing Army Reserve family-program personnel -- 345 of them geographically organized by region -- caused Army Reserve officials to rethink their approach to family support and deliver solutions that would lessen feelings of isolation and expand access to benefits.

Enter the Army Reserve's "Virtual Installations" Program.

The concept came into fruition after Laura Stultz, wife of Army Reserve chief Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, realized how scattered personnel from a single unit can be.

"A few years ago my husband had a unit in Florida and we decided to mail Christmas cards to children in the command," Mrs. Stultz said.

She then realized the unit's families were spread out in many different communities by themselves and likely felt isolated. The Virtual Installations program will help virtually unite these families in the same spirit of civilian social Web sites, but it also will inform Army Reserve families about benefits and services available to them.

"Virtual Installations is an important project to me," Stultz said. "Everything you can get on a regular installation, we want to offer to our soldiers."

The goal of Virtual Installations is to be a one-stop shop that Army Reserve families can go to and receive information on benefits and services. Many Army Reserve families do not have access to military posts and cannot take advantage of the many on-post services available to active-duty families. Stultz said the site also someday may include chat rooms for children of Army reservists, an idea the Stultzes' daughter floated.

The Virtual Installations Web site is just one piece of a two-pronged approach to reach out to Army Reserve families. The other branch is a community-based effort.

Stultz recounted to the panel an anecdote where a boy was elated to hear that his father, a deployed Army Reserve soldier, was coming home. His family and others assumed the boy knew that someday his father would return from the war. But what Mrs. Stultz and the boy's family didn't realize was that the child had learned that other soldiers had been killed in the war, and the boy presumed his father would meet the same fate and was walking around with that angst for months.

The child, Stultz said, didn't have commonality with his peers. Other kids in his community didn't have a deployed father, so he not only was misinformed, but also couldn't share his emotions with anyone who was like him -- a child from an Army Reserve family.

To fill that void, the Army is involved in multiple programs for children of Army families that occur regularly and are held regionally. The Army Reserve hosts enrichment camps, conferences and retreats that bring together children and allow them to find the missing commonality by interacting with kids living through similar experiences. The events are not only cathartic for many of the children, but they help kids establish contact with those in similar situations, the panel said.

Stultz admitted that while the Web site and community programs are effective, more needs to be done. She said Army Reserve family-programs personnel are trying to get more doctors to accept Tricare.

She noted that soldiers are offered counseling to help them cope with experiences during deployment. "We want to be able to tell these families how and where to get counseling," she added.

"These families deserve everything we can do for them," she said, adding that Army Reserve families don't want new services, just access to those that already exist for active-duty families.

Australian and New Zealand officers said they had similar issues in their forces, but that theirs paled in comparison to what U.S. reserve forces face because of the duration and magnitude of U.S. deployments.

"We have to get smarter about all this, and this has helped me," Canadian Brig. Gen. J.P. O'Brien said at the conclusion of the panel discussion.

(Army Capt. Steve Alvarez is the public affairs officer for 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).)

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