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Strong Fathers, Strong Families

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 8, 1996 – A soft-spoken Coast Guard chaplain dazzled top administration officials with two short, simple statements.

"Our families spell love, t-i-m-e," said Lt. Cdr. Gary P. Weeden. "Time is the currency of fatherhood."

Weeden, district chaplain at the Coast Guard's 9th District in Cleveland, was one of two service members who addressed Vice President Al Gore and other federal officials at a conference here May 3. "Strong Fathers, Strong Families" was the day's theme. Sharing information on programs to strengthen the role of fathers in families was the day's goal.

Gore opened the meeting, chairing a two-hour, 10-member panel discussion including Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, Transportation Secretary Frederico F. Pena, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and officials from the departments of Education and Health and Human Services. Dalton attended on behalf of Defense Secretary William Perry.

According to Gore, the federal government is leading the way as a "father-friendly" employer. Agencies are developing alternative work schedules, flextime, telecommuting and other initiatives aimed at giving fathers more time with their families.

DoD's history of family support programs makes the department a model for other federal agencies, Gore said.

"The Department of Defense for decades has shown leadership in the difficult task of keeping parents, especially fathers, close to their children while they're deployed for long periods of time," Gore said.

Helping parents care for their families despite long hours, frequent moves and long-term separations is inherent in the military community's promise to take care of its own. Long deployments create a unique challenge for the military community, Dalton told the conferees.

Family centers -- nearly 300 DoD-wide -- recreation programs, youth programs and civilian personnel programs have been developed to support service members and their families, Dalton said. "Each of these programs has a special emphasis on supporting the role of fathers and the family unit," he said.

More than 500 people at about 60 Coast Guard units have attended Weeden's "Dad's University," a workshop based on Family University's "Secrets of Fast-Track Fathering." The course focuses on parenting skills, common mistakes and recognizing what spouses and children need from their fathers.

"Men often gauge themselves by what they do, what they own and who they know," Weeden said. Family relationships aren't necessarily part of the equation, he said.

"The tendency is for men to give things to somehow win obedience or affection," he said. "But really, what our spouses and children want is our time."

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Gregory Bryant told conferees he recently used two father-friendly programs to keep in touch while he was on the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship in the Adriatic. Bryant said special telephone links enabled shipboard Marines to talk with their families, and facilities were set up for the men to make their own home videos on board.

Calls and videotapes were Bryant's lifeline to his wife, Kimberly, 3-year-old daughter Danielle and 2-week-old daughter Jessica. Bryant read stories to his daughters via videotape, and he said getting a tape from home was the next best thing to being there.

"It's important to maintain that vital link to your son or daughter -- to let them know dad's out here and he still loves you," he said. "I lived for the moment when I could talk to my daughter -- just to hear her tell me in her 3-year-old way how her day went. To me, the words 'I love you, Dad,' over the telephone made everything worthwhile."

Knowing the folks back home are cared for is crucial to service members and unit readiness, Bryant said. "These programs give us ways to communicate with our families even though we're halfway around the world," he said. "This is important because we can't afford to have our minds distracted with worries about our families back home."

Dalton cited a number of ongoing service programs as examples of DoD's overall effort to strengthen fathers' role in families. The Army has a program called Journey into Manhood, a two-day workshop with group discussions on understanding the family. The Air Force has Long Distance Parenting Workshop, designed to give fathers strategies and resources to stay connected with the homefront no matter how far away they are or for how long.

The Navy program Dads and Discipline helps fathers expand and improve their repertoire of disciplinary techniques. The Marine Corps and the Navy have a program called Return and Reunion. Teams of educators and counselors fly out to returning ships to help parents ease back into domestic life and get back into the role of being an effective parent after six months or so deployed.

While the military community has a history of providing family support, many federal agencies are now developing such programs. Last June, President Clinton signed a memorandum asking federal agencies to review policies, programs, research, evaluation and personnel practices to strengthen support for the role of fathers in the lives of children and families.

"President Clinton and I strongly believe that the future of our republic depends upon strong families and that committed fathers are essential to those families," Gore said in a letter to conference attendees.

Agency responses to Clinton's initiative were sent to the vice president at the National Performance Review, which, along with the Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Health and Human Services, hosted the conference for about 270 federal workers.

The absence of fathers in many American families represents a national crisis, Gore said. "In 1994, more than 19 million American children were growing up in homes without fathers," he said. "Compared to children whose fathers live with them, children in homes without fathers are five times more likely to be poor. Twice as likely to drop out of high school. Twice as likely to get pregnant when they are teenagers. One and a half times as likely to be out of school and out of work in their late teens."

While the administration is committed to being a flexible, responsive employer, Gore said, it will take more than a decree by the federal government for fathers to become more involved with their children. "Solutions lie in the hearts and consciences of individual fathers and the support of the families and communities in which they live," the vice president said.

Fathers have been at the periphery of the national debate for too long, he said. "It's time to move them to the center. Every institution in America must begin formally to see fathers as more than just a paycheck or a child support payment."

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