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A New Age Dawns for Military Families

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

PHOENIX, Ariz., Aug. 23, 2000 – Uncle Sam still doesn't issue wives and husbands, but more than half the military force has families -- and they're here to stay.

A new age has dawned, according to senior defense officials attending the DoD Family Readiness Conference here Aug. 22 to 24. Defense leaders recognize the vital role families play in supporting military readiness.

More than 800 family support specialists have gathered here this week to talk about the subject that's been a top Pentagon priority in recent months. People came in from active duty and reserve component units from throughout the United States and overseas.

The first of its kind since 1992, the large gathering is being held at the Pointe Hilton South Mountain Resort in the suburb of Tempe. Phoenix in late August is hot. Temperatures have been well over 90, but it's dry and no one seems to mind Arizona's sunshine and blue skies.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, seem to have sparked a fire in this support community when they hosted what they dubbed "the first annual Military Family Forum" at the Pentagon in May, followed by the Senior Enlisted Advisers Forum in June. Plans for a second military family forum are already in the works to keep the momentum going.

There's excitement here as people move from the main ballroom to various workshops. Dorothy Ogilvy-Lee, who heads the National Guard Family Program, said the recent Pentagon focus on family issues validates the work she and many of the other attendees here have been involved in for years.

"We're in the people-building business," she said.

A large contingent of Army and Air National Guard family coordinators held a pre-conference workshop Monday, as did the Navy. The DoD conference kicked off the next day.

Victor Vasquez, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, opened the meeting and was followed by Alphonso Maldon, assistant secretary for force management policy. Vasquez tackled community well-being, while Maldon outlined DoD initiatives to improve families' economic well-being.

Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, who'd been visiting troops in Europe a day earlier, then highlighted the department's awareness of the need for family readiness. He said DoD's overall goal is to build "strong communities that create cohesion and career commitment."

Rostker announced an initiative to meet more of DoD's child care needs by increasing in-home care. Calling this segment "the largest untapped portion of our child care program," he noted the effort would also provide more spouse employment.

He also announced that DoD will soon provide Women, Infant and Children benefits to military families serving outside the United States. An amendment to the Title 10, U.S. Code WIC program now authorizes DoD to provide food supplements and nutritional education overseas.

DoD plans to run a test pilot at five overseas locations selected by each of the services by January 2001, two in Europe, two in the Pacific and one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Rostker said he expects the WIC Overseas program to be fully implemented by summer 2001.

Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, later turned the spotlight on reserve component families. Because frequent deployments are now as much a reality for them as they are for active duty families, he said, DoD has made major strides in its reserve affairs family program.

Still more effort is needed, Cragin said, a 37-year reservist who knows the issues firsthand. DoD is looking at ways to maintain uninterrupted health and dental care for guardsmen and reservists, for example.

Cragin spoke about a woman who discovered her family could not get dental coverage while her husband was deployed for 270 days because he fell short of a policy requiring two years' active service.

"They told her, 'Sorry,'" Cragin said. "Well, 'sorry' just isn't good enough. We changed that policy."

Throughout the conference, motivational speakers addressed the group on ways to improve quality of life. Ric Edelman, author of "How to Create Wealth Without Really Trying," gave tips on how even junior-grade troops can save money. Federal Trade Commission representatives talked about a new Web program called "Soldier Sentinel," that's helping law enforcement officials eliminate scams against service members.

But it was retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Bob Gaylor who stole the show on opening day with his talk titled "High Tech, High Touch."

With a humorous, folksy twist that had even the top Pentagon leaders in stitches, Gaylor said embrace technological advances that make life easier, but don't let them take away the "human touch."

"My wife and I have a microwave fireplace," he said. "What a great gadget. You can lay in front of it all night in eight minutes," he said. "I just made that up."

High-tech gadgetry is here to stay, Gaylor said. "The last gadget you bought was outdated when you plugged it in. It's like Old Man River; it keeps rolling along. It just keeps getting better and better.

"I like it. I don't understand all of it, but that which I do, I like. My VCR's blinking 12 o'clock and I don't know how to stop it. ... I'm still fascinated by my garage door opener. Sometimes I sit in the car and watch it go up and down."

But, Gaylor said, people still need "high touch." That means caring, sharing, giving and doing things together and for people. "It's an interactive thing," he said. "A hug is high touch. Good service in a restaurant. Allowing someone to merge in heavy traffic and they wave to you and you feel virtuous."

He told of seeing an 11-year-old boy named Juan in Laredo, Texas, who delivered burgers and fries from a local stand after school. The boy actually ran to the customer's address and then ran back. He asked Juan why he ran, and the boy replied, "People like hot french fries."

"People need to be treated like we would like to be treated," Gaylor concluded. "I believe that has a name. It's called the Golden Rule."

The chief then saluted the military's new emphasis on family concerns. "When I went to Korea years ago, I left behind a wife with two children and a newborn," he recalled. "When I tried to talk to my platoon sergeant about it, he said, 'Why are you talking to me? That's your concern.'"

As this conference shows, Gaylor said, times have changed, and it's definitely a new age for military families.

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