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Services' top enlisted members discuss family support

Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton W. Kent (center) answers a question from the audience druing a town hall meeting during the Defense Department's Joint Family Readiness Conference Sept. 1, 2009, in Chicago. Sergeant Major Kent was joined by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy (left) Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston. Arthur J. Myers (right) moderated the discussion. (Defense Department photo/Samantha L. Quigley)

Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton W. Kent (center) answers a question from the audience druing a town hall meeting during the Defense Department's Joint Family Readiness Conference Sept. 1, 2009, in Chicago. Sergeant Major Kent was joined by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy (left) Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston. Arthur J. Myers (right) moderated the discussion. (Defense Department photo/Samantha L. Quigley)

CHICAGO (AFNS) -- The top enlisted servicemember from each of the four services offered their appreciation to those who support military families before fielding some tough questions during a town hall-style meeting here Sept. 1.

The meeting was part of the Defense Department's three-day Joint Family Readiness Conference, the first of its kind since 2000.

"There's a lot of emphasis by this administration on family support," said Arthur J. Myers, the Defense Department's principal director of military community and family policy, who moderated the meeting. Each of the services is emphasizing family support, as well, he added.

The Army's top enlisted soldier said he was pleased to have had a part in improving the service's support for families.

"I'm really proud of and very proud to have been a part of the process in designing and implementing the Army Family Covenant," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston. "Up until the implementation of the Army Family Covenant, the programs really weren't resourced at the levels they needed to be."

The covenant has improved many aspects of family support. Its components, including child care and youth services, housing, access to health care, and family readiness support assistance at the battalion level all across the Army, has had a huge impact, Sergeant Major Preston said.

The Army is continuing to grow and modify the family covenant to make it even more effective, he said.

Sergeant Major Preston also touted the Army Community Covenant, which allows for the sharing of best practices in family support between the Army installation, local communities and state governments. The hope, he explained, is that best practices that work in one area can effectively be used in the communities surrounding other Army installations. As an example, he cited the Interstate Education Compact, which allows military students' schoolwork to be recognized as compatible and earned credits to transfer from one school to another, across states.

Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton W. Kent passed along the heartfelt thanks of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway before reassuring the audience that the commandant truly understands the need for an emphasis on family support programs.

"He has taken it to a wartime footing," Sergeant Major Kent said. "Prior to 2001, we were deployed constantly, but it was not a deployment like seven months back in the rear and seven months forward deployed. We're doing that now."

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick D. West called for interservice cooperation in the approach to family support, and he asked for input of the family support personnel attending the conference.

"I hope you take the energy from today and bring that to something for us to work on the table," he said, "because I saw a lot of good energy over there in that (gathering in the ballroom)," Master Chief West said. "We can all be individuals or individual services, but if we're not working together, some of our families are going to fall through the cracks, and we can't have that."

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy, who has been in his job for only two months, said he's learned much from working with the other services while he served in various other roles.

"Each of us (does) something kind of unique, and in our own unique ways, and they all seem to fit our own service," he said. "What I try to tell people is, 'Let's garner that from each one of the services and try to figure out, Does it work for us?' And if not, we don't need to use it. We can give it back. But for the most part, it's going to work."

The Air Force has designated July 2009 to July 2010 as Year of the Air Force Family. Sergeant Major Preston's description of the Army Family Covenant sounds much like the plans for the Air Force initiative, Chief Roy said, which focuses on the needs of the families and then fine-tuning the programs to meet those needs.

One of those needs is for more child care for military families, said Marla Talley, the director of child, youth and teen programs at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., during the question-and-answer period.

"I'm sure that we're not unique at Lejeune -- that there are other places that have problems finding child care outside the installation," she said. "I can't tell you the number of times I've had a young wife call me up in tears because she can't get hourly child care just to go take care of her own basic medical needs.

"I can't put them in a family child care home," she added. "And not everybody has a good support system of friends where they can call someone up and say, 'Can you keep my kid for a few hours while I have a doctor's appointment?'"

The solution, Ms. Talley said, is more facilities, more options and more programs. These solutions also may be an answer to another conundrum.

"There's an incredible number of chaplains at Camp Lejeune who are doing wonderful marriage retreats during the day with units," Ms. Talley said. "The problem is (that) when they do them, there's no child care available. I have no spaces to put them in.

"I realize you can't fix this overnight," she said, "but please don't forget the fact that we have got to keep these child-care centers coming, and we've got to find a way to support everybody, regardless of what their need is."

Sergeant Major Kent thanked her for making good points and assured her child care is one of the top priorities he included in his recent testimony before Congress. 

Navy officials are working the same problem in a similar manner, Master Chief West noted.

Nancy Cosgrove, a Navy spouse and ombudsman, said one of the biggest problems with her ombudsman position is that it's not funded. Ombudsmen on Navy installations -- spouses of servicemembers within the command who serve as a point of contact for all family members connected to the command -- are volunteers.

"I can't tell you how many deployment briefs I've done for the Navy that have come out of my own pocket because there's no funds for it," Ms. Cosgrove said. "I just wanted to ask Master Chief West if there's a plan in the future for the Navy to be following the Marine Corps, because it's a great program."

Master Chief West replied that changes are in place to prevent such problems. 

"We have reviewed and put some other things in the instruction to provide more structure so you don't have to dig into your pocket for things like that," he said. "Our commanding officers and leadership teams have that available to them. There should not be a time when our ombudsmen are digging into their pockets to perform their duties. If that's happening, let me know."

The Navy is looking at all the options for structuring the ombudsman program, Master Chief West said, but he added that leaders are not sure they want to completely fully follow the Marine Corps' model, which provides for family readiness officer positions. 

"At this point in time, we're not going to make any drastic changes overnight," he said.

The Air Force's Key Spouse program is facing similar financial challenges, Chief Roy said.

"One of the challenges that we're running against is just that: the funding of it," he said. "I'll be working with the ... gentlemen up here, as well, to learn more about that, because we already know that there's a challenge there. (Ours is) a brand new program, per se, even though it's been out there for awhile. Trying to get the money for it is certainly a challenge." 

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