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June 2004 Join Now

Council Support Efforts Can Help Military Families Cope

By PETER E. ATKINSON
Deputy Editor

As a Navy League member, and the wife of a Navy Reservist who was called to active duty in Iraq, KathyLee Wever has experienced the family support issue from both ends of the spectrum.

When her husband Mark, a military intelligence specialist, was activated in October 2002, Wever was left to juggle the care of their two young daughters and her career as a teacher. Living in Champlin, Minn., well away from any major military installation, Wever was able to find support when she needed it from family, fellow church members and people from school during her husband’s absence.

“It’s mostly National Guardsmen and reservists here, so you don’t have the usual military support network,” Wever said. “We were lucky to have people do the things they did to help us out.”

But changes for the better are afoot now in Minnesota. Wever and her husband, who returned in September after nearly a year on active duty, were invited to share their story at a Navy League area meeting in Minneapolis in January.

“They wanted to know what they could do,” Wever said. “I think that meeting really got the ball rolling.”

During the past several months, Navy Leaguers from the area have dramatically stepped up their efforts to fill the support void and provide a sense of community among the growing number of Guard and reserve families affected by activations.

The Twin Cities Council, which the Wevers joined after the January meeting, has been especially active. The council formed a Military Affairs Committee in December to help coordinate its program efforts, according to council President Joanne Knobel, and has been moving forward ever since.

“Our goal is to provide support in the way of monies, information and volunteers in supporting families and military personnel,” she said.

The council worked with the Naval Reserve Center in Minneapolis to host a “Thank You for Your Service” reception March 13 to honor reservists who had returned from active duty. More than 250 Navy and Marine Reservists, along with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, attended the event, said Robert Faust, chairman of the council’s Military Affairs Committee.

That event served as a launch pad for a new effort to work with service family support officials to better serve the unique needs of Navy Reservists. Because they often are activated individually, based on their specialty, and not as an entire unit, “It can be an incredibly isolating event,” Faust said.

But by working with each unit’s ombudsman and the affected families, the council hopes to put together a support network for each active reservist, based on their specific needs. Knobel cited the example of a young woman who is 7-1/2 months pregnant, has a 22-month-old son, works full time and whose husband was recently activated.

“A plan is being worked out to maintain contact on a weekly basis, and to make sure she has the support available around delivery time to help with meals and care of herself and her son,” Knobel said.

“Arrangements were also made for her to have access to the base videophone system so the family will be able to view each other. This is especially important so their son does not forget his dad over the year-long deployment and helps make the return transition easier.”

In another ongoing project, the council is working on a partnership arrangement with area Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve representatives to make presentations together to community leaders on the needs of families of reservists who are mobilized.

“By June, we plan to begin our first presentation together with different Chambers of Commerce around Minnesota,” Knobel said.

The Twin Cities Council also is supporting Minnesota’s Military Family Care Initiative, which was created in 2003 by Gov. Pawlenty’s wife, Mary, on behalf of mobilized reservists and National Guardsmen of all service branches. Under the program, local businesses, churches and organizations have volunteers to provide as-needed services to families of mobilized military personnel.

Constant Effort

As the Navy League council for a community that houses one of the largest military facilities in the world, support efforts for active-duty and reserve families have been a top priority and a full-time job in Hampton Roads, Va., for some time. The mobilizations and activations that have come in the wake of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq mean more people are in need and there is more work to be done.

“We really do work at these programs every day,” said Mary Ellen Baldwin, the council’s executive director. Their efforts include raising money, gathering resources for family support and offering the programs themselves. Because of the unique circumstances of having such an enormous military presence in the Hampton Roads area, the council provides services that go above and beyond traditional family support.

For spouses or family members who may be in the job market, the council hosts a variety of events, including monthly distinguished guest speaker forums, that offer information and provide networking opportunities. Resumé-writing and job-placement assistance, as well as access to Transition Assistance Program resources also can be provided through the council “to help people get their foot in the door,” Baldwin said.

Still, for day-to-day needs, the Hampton Roads Council assists the local Fleet Family Services “in any way possible,” she said. “We don’t try to duplicate services, but if they need something done on short notice, we are always willing to help out.”

And that can mean anything from help with bill-paying and baby-sitting to household maintenance and transportation.

Myriad Possibilities

“There are a lot of things the Navy League can do, especially for family members who are left behind by activation or deployment,” Wever said. “Little things like having some Sea Cadets rake leaves during the fall, or a rotating group of volunteers to stop by people’s homes from time to time to look in on them and make sure everything is OK.

“Since he’s come home, my husband has made it his mission to check in on people. Those kinds of outreach things are real easy to do.”

And, indeed, Navy League council family support efforts do take on just about any shape or form. For example:

The Channel Islands, Calif., Council hosts “baby showers” twice a year to benefit the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society at Naval Base Ventura County, which includes Construction Battalion Center Port Hueneme and Naval Air Station Point Mugu. Clothing donations are collected for the “showers” and packaged into “Baby’s First Sea Bag” to be donated to young service families. Each month, the council also collects funds for baby-sitting costs, so young parents can attend training or workshop classes provided by Family Services, said Arlene Fraser, area president for the California MidCoast/Inland Valley region.

As the USS Howard prepared for deployment recently, The Central Coast, Calif., Council sought used children’s books to provide materials to help crewmembers of its adopted ship take part in the United Through Reading Program. The program, sponsored by the nonprofit group the Family Literacy Foundation, allows service members to be videotaped reading a book, or just talking. A video or DVD is then mailed to the member’s family during deployment as a means of keeping in touch.

The Kingsville, Texas, Council donated approximately 500 two-hour phone cards for crewmembers aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt to help them keep in touch with family while at sea. They were delivered to the ship’s chaplain for distribution.

San Diego County Women’s Council volunteers prepare the USO of San Diego’s “Tuesday Night Dinner” every other month or so for local active-duty personnel and their families. The council also hosts an annual USO gala to benefit the organization. This year’s was held May 14.

Councils looking for ideas can refer to the “Sea Service Family Support Guide” available through Navy League headquarters. It has several pages of family support recommendations, including: holiday food/toy drives, donations to short-term lending centers, working with base Transition Assistance Programs or hosting events — family fun days, lunches, parties — for service members or their families.

Yet for all of the programs, special events and charity councils can and do provide, “Sometimes just being a friend or being there for someone is all it takes,” Baldwin said.

The Navy League Guide to Sea Service Family Support is available online at http://www.navyleague.org/councils/SeaServiceFamilyGuide.pdf.

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