Year of the Air Force Family promotes sense of community

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The Air Force's top uniformed officer and his wife welcomed the Air Force's newest Airmen into the service during a visit here July 8 and 9.

The Basic Military Training graduation at the "Gateway to the Air Force" was the perfect backdrop for Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and his wife Suzie to reflect on the efforts of the service's leaders over the past 12 months during the Year of the Air Force Family campaign. The initiative runs through July.

"The year really referred to a larger audience than just families," General Schwartz said. "It referred to family members, single Airmen, retirees, civilian employees of the Air Force and so on. In a broader sense, what we really were seeking to do is rekindle that sense of community we have had as an Air Force."

The general said the initiative largely was to focus on assessing what the service was doing right, and what it could be doing better, in supporting the entire Air Force family.

Through feedback from leaders and Airmen across the Air Force, General Schwartz said there were several issues brought to light.

"A couple of them were somewhat surprising," he said. "Some of them were not. One thing that we are not as good at as we need to be is how we assist our family members and families with special needs children. Another area of concern is, not surprisingly, education."

"Education came out as the number one issue affecting our families," Mrs. Schwartz said.

She said that information led Air Force officials to move forward more aggressively with a plan to establish primary points of contact across the service to help families navigate local school systems.

"The Air Force has been able to put some funding behind more school liaisons...and we now have a school liaison office at almost every Air Force base," she said.

Along those same lines, officials at each Family Readiness Center identified a single individual to serve as an information resource for Airmen with special needs family members, Mrs. Schwartz said. Air Force leaders had identified that the Exceptional Family Member Program needed to evolve from an assignment-focused program into a more comprehensive and proactive family support program.

Another program that gained momentum for mobile military families this year was the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.

The general said the intent of the Interstate Compact is to facilitate transitions between school districts so that when families move "the whole process of integrating into a new school will be much, much easier and more standardized."

The Interstate Compact spans 35 states nationwide "and we continue to encourage the other states to enact the agreement," the general said.

Simply put, the Year of the Air Force Family has been about connecting Airmen with the resources they need. In some cases, that simply meant doing a better job about making sure Airmen know what programs are already available, Mrs. Schwartz said.

"To me, I think it was even more about communication than anything else," she said. "We think we communicate really well, but sometimes we don't.

To bolster communication, Mrs. Schwartz said Air Force leaders reached out in new ways, such as hosting the first Single Airmen Summit, and worked to enhance programs already in place, like the Key Spouse program, which equips spouse representatives at bases to help spread the word about support resources available at the base.

"We really put some time and effort in to the Key Spouse Program," Mrs. Schwartz said.

The goal was to harness the speed and efficiency of the spouse network to better communicate with families and "use it more as a communication tool for all times and not just for deployments."

The Year of the Air Force Family programs not only helped Air Force leaders get their messages to Airmen, but allowed Airmen to voice their concerns to Air Force leaders as well.

"We held an annual Caring for People conference," Mrs. Schwartz said. "In that forum, instead of getting information out, we were able to get information back in. It was really a great tool to find out what works and what doesn't for Airmen and their families."

A goal of the Year of the Air Force Family was to focus on such a dialogue. Follow-on efforts will build upon the knowledge and momentum gained from the Year of the Air Force Family, especially in the area of feedback, she said.

"For me the number one event is the Caring for People forum," Mrs. Schwartz said. "I really see that as a lasting forum that will continue each year, bringing out people from across the bases and telling us what's working and what isn't."

She said getting such feedback from the base level is best, and armed with that feedback "we will continue working to improve family satisfaction."

(Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes contributed to this story)