Chairman Links Family Readiness to Military Readiness
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
ST. LOUIS, July 21, 2008 Military commanders agree that troops need good training and good equipment before they deploy.
But equally important to preparing servicemembers for war is readying their families, the nation’s top military officer said today.
“Family readiness is really about military readiness,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of about 1,500 family support volunteers gathered here for a National Guard volunteer workshop.
“[Family support is] tied to having a healthy, dedicated, focused, capable military that can accomplish the mission it needs,” the chairman said.
This was Mullen’s first visit with an exclusively National Guard family audience, although he has talked with National Guard troops and families as part of his regular town hall meetings around the world. The volunteers represented every state and territory in the United States, and packed a downtown hotel’s banquet hall. The back of each chair was marked with a state’s name, and ever so militarily, they were lined up alphabetically, row after row. Many groups in the crowd wore color-coordinated shirts, scattering swaths of red, green blue and other colors throughout the crowd.
Mullen noted the transformation of the military’s reserve components from a strategic reserve to an operational force that has taken place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
“What the Guard and the reserves have done since 9/11 … has made what we are able to do with fighting these two wars possible,” Mullen told the crowd. “It would not be possible -- we would not be making the progress we are making in both of these wars -- without the incredible performance of the Guard and Reserve.”
But, Mullen conceded, policy makers inside the Capitol Beltway haven’t always given enough attention to programs for families of the National Guard spread out across the nation. While spouses of active-duty troops typically live on or near military installations, reservists often are spread out in rural areas, many times hundreds of miles from the nearest military installation, and sometimes even from the armories where they report for duty.
In fact, Mullen told the audience, his single biggest worry is “the disconnect between the policies that we have and what is actually going on on the ground. We don’t get enough feedback.”
Mullen said in an interview after the visit with the group that the audience understood what he was talking about. The admiral said he could see heads nodding affirmation in the audience as he addressed the issue.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have is to -- no kidding -- find out what’s actually happening in execution [of policies],” Mullen said.
Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the Guard was not fully ready to take care of its families in the wake of the heavy demand for reserve forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Programs were in place to take care of families while the units were activated, he said, but the support systems were not properly resourced as the Guard transitioned from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve. Missing were the programs that would help prepare families as the units were readying for war, and take care of them after the units came home from deployment, he explained.
“When we first started this war, we were not prepared for the full life-cycle support of the citizen-soldier and -airman,” Blum said in an interview after his opening remarks.
But now, Blum said, the programs and policies are in place to take care of families in all phases of deployment: before, during and after. He said the Army especially has made supporting families one of its top priorities.
Both Mullen and Blum said this conference and others like it are key to breaking down the dissonance between policy makers and those they affect, and continuing to improve policies. These workshops bring representation from each state together to propel their issues to the forefront of the leaders and policy makers. Family programs are now better because of them, Blum said.
Mullen said in the pace of today’s war and deployments, the military can ill afford lag time between identifying a needed change and creating policy to make the change.
“Too many of us in Washington think [when] we’ve essentially created a policy that things are OK,” Mullen said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. You’ve got to have good policies, but how do you know it’s working?” Workshops like this one provide the type of “grassroots” feedback vital for healthy policy change, he added.
“There is so much information in this ballroom,” the chairman said. “If I could tap into that information and feed it into the programs and policy changes instantly, I would be a very happy guy, and I know I could make some really positive changes.”
The admiral said he wants family members to continue to put pressure on military leadership so that discussions continue on key family issues.
“Believe me, we want to get this right,” Mullen said.
Feedback on developing family programs is critical as the military continues to rely heavily on its reserve forces for combat deployments, Mullen said.
“There is going to continue to be a battle rhythm which requires us to continue to deploy [the National Guard and reserves],” Mullen said. “We cannot move forward without the Guard and the Reserve, and we have high expectations to be able to do that in the future.”
The admiral implored those in attendance to deliver honest, unfiltered feedback throughout the workshop that could make programs better.
“There is no one that knows how to take care of families better than families,” he said. “Those in the field around the nation are able to take care of families around the nation better than those in Washington. Bring forth those things that aren’t working. Bring forth those things that don’t make sense. Bring forth those things where we need to have policy adjustments, resource adjustments, better focus.”
Mullen also said that he wants to use the Guard and reserves to help connect America with its military. Blum noted that the only active-duty Army installation in California is the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The only interaction Californians have with the Army is with the National Guard, he said.
Mullen said he worries that what the American people understand about the military is what is in the headlines of the mainstream media, and not the depth, dedication, needs of those who serve. The Guard and reserves, he said, are the hometown connection of the military with Americans.
“This is something we have to continue to do better to make sure the military needs of our country are met and that the people of America understand what the United States military is all about,” he said. “There is no better group in the country than the Guard and reserve to do exactly that.”
“If you really want to reach into every ZIP code and sample -- Are we caring for our veterans? Are we caring for our current servicemembers? Are we caring for our families? -- this is the group that will serve as the litmus test for that,” Blum said.
And while both Mullen and Blum said that military family programs are now better than they have ever been, both also said that there is still work to be done.
“If we could create family programs for the Guard and reserve that are commensurate with their sacrifice and their commitment in these two wars … it would be a home run,” Mullen said. “We’re not there. But we need to be. They deserve it. It’s critical, and we’ve got to do that, and that’s what this is all about.”
Blum said supporting the family is critical to maintaining an all-volunteer force. The National Guard never has drafted anyone into its force, he said.
“If we lose the ability to generate the volunteer force and keep it whole, we’ve really lost the ability to defend this nation the way our government intends and the people of America intend it,” Blum said.