Thursday, January 22, 2009

Extra Notice Helps Wyoming Prepare Families for Historic Deployment

By Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press Service

As Wyoming prepares for the largest National Guard deployment in state history, much of the planning has gone into helping those who will be left behind for a year in communities scattered across the rural state.

Nearly 1,000 soldiers will deploy in April to Iraq and Kuwait, leaving behind thousands of families and extended family members in nearly every community in the state.

"A lot of people think of the 'spouse' when they think of military family programs. Not everybody's married," William Breckenridge, the state Family Support Program director, said. "We work in terms of the comprehensive family -- moms and dads, brothers and sisters, the significant others."

Military deployments aren't new to the state and its families; nearly two-thirds of the soldiers have deployed before. But in sharp contrast to the earlier deployments after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, these soldiers and families have known about this deployment for nearly two years. In 2004, most of the field artillery units that deployed had only three months to prepare.

Defense Department officials put the long notice in in 2007 to allow units to train more at home and less at a mobilization site. Early on, some National Guard units were spending nearly two years away from home, including both the deployment and time spent at a mobilization site before and after a deployment.

The extra lead time has allowed military officials to put in place support services for the families, senior family support officials said, and has allowed them to focus on how to provide support for those in the state's far-reaching communities.

"That's a big challenge for us," Breckenridge said.

The Wyoming Army National Guard mans its family assistance center with a full-time supervisor and six part-time contractors who are based around the state where there is a large military presence. The state also has a family readiness group assistant who travels the state training the volunteer family readiness groups. Each unit commander has a volunteer family readiness group, and the state has used the extra time to encourage and strengthen those units, Breckenridge said.

Last year, a family readiness support assistant who also works with the volunteer groups was placed in the 115th Fires Brigade, a unit tapped for deployment.

Already, Breckenridge said, a center is set up to call and check on families. Those calls will continue monthly throughout the deployment, he said.

During those calls families are encouraged to attend planned information events. During January's drill weekend, the brigade held a "family academy" in conjunction with its soldier readiness process weekend. The first such family academy, which brings together soldiers and families to update them on the support services available such as health care, education and finances, took place last year.

Since November, brigade officials have held family briefings in about 15 towns, taking with them veterans' advocates, representatives from the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program and Army OneSource, chaplains and others.

"You're never going to get all the families in one place at one time, so we have ongoing, repeat opportunities," Breckenridge said.

More events are planned during the deployment, he said.

Just put in place for the first time in the state is a Defense Department team with the Joint Family Assistance Program that includes a Military OneSource consultant and a family counselor. They will spend more than half of their time traveling across Wyoming, meeting with families in the geographically dispersed state. If a problem arises during one of the monthly wellness calls, the team will follow up with the family for a face-to-face visit.

"Their charter is to connect with those dispersed folks ... and check in with them," Breckenridge said.

The state legislature created a $5 million trust fund, the interest of which is used to help financially strapped military family members. In the past five years, more than $1 million has been paid out of the program. This month, senior military officials asked the legislature for another $1 million for the fund to support families during this deployment.

Breckenridge said the state's biggest challenge so far has been attracting families to the events. Despite the months of notice, many families still put off preparing for the deployment. Also, he said, many are hesitant to attend because this is their second or third deployment.

"We deal with the result of that reluctance on their part when the deployment occurs," he said. "The folks that are not taking advantage of those tools are the folks that we will be dealing with shortly after [the soldiers] leave."

The long notice has been a two-edged sword, some soldiers, families and military leaders acknowledged. It has allowed soldiers and families to better prepare for the upcoming deployment – in fact, many said they were better able to plan significant family events such as having a baby, buying a house or changing jobs.

But on the other hand, most also said that knowing for so long is more stressful.

"The more time you have, the more time you have for your mind to wander," Shona Ross, whose husband has deployed twice, said.

But, Ross said, the extra family programs have allowed her and other families to get their "minds wrapped around deployment and what that means."

"This family readiness will help immensely, ... and the stress won't be as intense as the first time, because we have tools," she said. "You've got to kind of try to be as independent as you possibly can. Whoever you are sending over to Iraq, you want them to come back. So they need to have a clear mind every day that things are handled at home."

But, as important as preparing practically for the deployment is, preparing emotionally is critical as well, several soldiers and family members said. Those interviewed said the extra time allowed for spending intentional quality time with the family. It also allowed for planned vacations and family outings. Some even attended National Guard-sponsored marriage enrichment seminars.

Ross' husband, Staff Sgt. Adam Ross, was given only 90 days to prepare for his last deployment in 2004. His first son was only 3 months old when he left. He now has another young son.

"It gives me time to reflect on what is important to me and make sure that I take full advantage of the time that I have with them," he said. "This being my second deployment, knowing a year and a half out that we're going again has given me cause to spend some extra time with my wife, do extra things with my kids that I probably wouldn't do."

Ross said his family has been ready in practical terms for this deployment ever since he returned from his last one in 2005. He knew, Ross said, that he would go again. It was just a matter of time.

For Ross, these next few months will be about the little things, like putting his sons to bed and reading them a book -- the things he does daily and normally doesn't think about.

"I'm paying attention. I'm banking these memories, because three months down the road I'm going to wish I was here, and those memories are special," Ross said. "That's one of the benefits of knowing ... months out. I store away the special times with my family so that I can recall them later and get me through a tough time."