Mrs. Kirwan Goes to Washington: A DoD Cinderella Story
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 6, 2000 You never know where life is going to take you. Ask Kelli Kirwan. She won't hesitate to tell you that Cinderella stories still come true.
Kelli Kirwan (right) addresses reporters at a Pentagon press conference May 31, following the first annual Military Family Forum. Janet Langhart Cohen (left), wife of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, invited Kirwan and her husband, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Charles Kirwan to the meeting on quality of life issues. The two women met in January at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where the Kirwans are assigned. DoD photo by R.D. Ward.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Kirwan, 32, and her husband, Charles, 33, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant assigned to Communications Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion, 1st Force Services Support Group, Camp Pendleton, Calif., recently met the military's top brass here -- all because the self-proclaimed 'military brat' isn't inhibited by rank or status.
"The tip of the spear needs to be sharp, and it can't be if the military family is falling apart," said Kirwan, who joined Pendleton's fledgling Enlisted Wives Club to champion military families.
The Kirwans were among 100 service members and spouses selected to attend the Defense Secretary's First Military Family Forum, a day-long conference focused on quality of life. While service officials selected most of the participants, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, invited the Kirwans.
The secretary's wife met the sergeant's wife at Pendleton in January. Kirwan was among family members chosen to talk with the Cohens about the financial status of junior enlisted personnel. Kirwan's candor apparently made quite an impression.
"Kelli took charge" when speaking to the secretary at Pendleton, Langhart Cohen said. "She outlined the issues and then she said, 'Bottom line, Sir, we need more money.' That just cut the ice. She's bright, she's walked the walk and she talks the talk."
In her travels to military bases around the globe, Langhart Cohen said, she's come to understand that the military mentality prohibits complaints. "Everything's OK, or you look like you're whining," she said. "People think we don't want to hear any bad news. Yet we're the leaders, and you lead by understanding your people and knowing what their issues are."
"Kelli talks it straight," Langhart Cohen said. "She has the empathy to understand why it's the way it is -- and that's OK with her -- but she also asks, 'How can we make it better?' She's always thinking of the other spouses and the mission. She's thinking of her husband getting back safely. She helps me see the whole picture."
While in Washington, Kirwan shared with the secretary's wife some of what it's like to be a military family. She told her that military families appreciate the recent pay and compensation increases and are glad to see DoD spotlight improving housing and health care.
Health care is a major issue for military families, mainly because it affects the children, Kirwan said. She is convinced DoD leaders are concerned about TRICARE and are working to correct problems.
"My children and I stand at a civilian airport and say goodbye to our husband and father for a year," she said. "There's no flag waving. There's no fanfare. He's going to do his job and we're going to stay back here and do what we're supposed to do. Being able to walk into a military hospital and have my children seen if they need care while he is gone is not something I should have to fight for."
Separations deeply affect military families, Kirwan said. As the daughter of retired Air Force Capt. Ernest Wade, she's known separations both as a spouse and as a child.
"Military families want to improve their ability to care for themselves," rather than simply complain about frequent deployments, she said. "We don't want anything done for us. We want to be given the tools to do for ourselves.
"We don't want to take the military out of the military," she stressed. "Our force is smaller so the optempo is greater for us. If we had a larger force then we wouldn't be out as much. But there are some sacrifices you knowingly make when you decide to become a service member's spouse. "
Kirwan said during deployments, her family is like a piece of cloth. When her husband leaves, the weave of the fabric is pulled apart.
"We as a family have to tighten our threads to bring that fabric back together so we are able to do what we need to do. Not just to survive, but to thrive, to be productive, to continue to grow and develop," she said. "When he comes home, there's no room -- we've pulled together to make it through. So it's painful to pull that apart and make room for him to fit back into the family."
The 12-year veteran Marine Corps wife volunteers as a mentor for young spouses as part of the Marine Corps Lifestyles, Insights, Networking Knowledge and Skills program, or LINKS. She explained that the deployment cycle begins when service members start getting ready to go. As the stress level rises, minor hassles can lead to marital clashes.
"As children become more cognizant of mortality, they wonder if Mom or Dad is going to come back. Little ones sense the unrest in the family and sometimes they'll act out." This can mean problems at school or not sleeping or eating properly. Some children withdraw or become more sensitive or defiant. "All react differently and it's a real challenge as a parent," she noted.
Feel the pain when your spouse or parent finally heads out, Kirwan advised. "Allow yourself to be angry at the Marine Corps and your husband. Be sad, lonely, scared, whatever. Have your 'pity party' and then stop. Open your shades, get dressed and go out. Make some plans. Do some projects."
As for her four children, Victoria, 9, Wade, 7, Rebecca, 4, and Austin, 18 months, Kirwan said she's their rudder. "If I am having a rough time, they're going to have a rough time. If everything is going smooth and I'm locked on, they're fine. When my Wonder Woman mode kicks in, I'm organized. I can do anything."
Contact during deployments has improved dramatically over the years, she said. "Our children can now keep in touch with their father personally. They can write an e-mail and I don't have to be privy to it. They can receive an answer from him."
Despite best efforts to keep busy and stay in touch, she admits there are some very dark, lonely moments during a deployment. "Halfway through the deployment, you'll find yourself alone at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The kids are in bed. You sit down and you want a hug, and you want it from your husband."
At that point, you need to understand and believe in the military mission, Kirwan said. "Sometimes that's what gets me through. I believe in what my husband does. I believe in the need for it. I believe it even when I have people around me pooh-poohing it. That is what makes me say, 'OK, tomorrow I'll get up and do it again.'"
Kirwan served as a forum panel moderator and appeared afterward at a news briefing with Langhart Cohen, Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Berryhill of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
"I'm excited about the potential for future family forums because it's a way of keeping our senior leadership in touch with what's happening with their troops," Kirwan told reporters. "And if the troops and the senior leadership are in line with what's happening, we've got a straight shot at mission success."
Grassroots action may be necessary, however, to keep the momentum going into the next administration, she added. "As soon as the new secretary of defense is announced, I think we should write him a letter and say, 'Please do this again.'"
At the end of her long day in Washington, Kirwan sat on the sidelines as senior military leaders, service members and family members left a formal dinner hosted by the Cohens.
"This is so unreal," she said. "Tonight, I'm here sitting next to Mrs. Cohen and the secretary. Tomorrow, I'll be back with my kids, cleaning a vacation rental to supplement our family income."