Defense Department Aims to Improve Families’ Lives
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2009 Military families make tremendous sacrifices in support of the nation and deserve recognition as well as the best programs and policies the Defense Department can deliver, a defense official said yesterday.
Tommy T. Thomas, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, underscored the importance of Military Family Month, gave a broad overview of family programs and offered a glimpse at future initiatives in a wide-ranging interview here with the Pentagon Channel.
“We take the time to do this to recognize the sacrifices that our military families have made in defense of this nation,” said Thomas, referring to Military Family Month, celebrated every November. “We have many deployed family members -- whether it be mother, son, spouse or daughter. [The] bottom line is we look at that entire entity as a family. And we look at and honor those successes that those families are making for this nation.”
Military families face many unique stressors, including maintaining stability at home in the face of deployments and frequent moves, he said. An average civilian may stay in a hometown for 15 to 20 years, he noted, while a military member may move 12 to 14 times in a 27-year period.
“One of the biggest challenges I see is trying to maintain that way of life, just as our civilian counterparts do, and keeping some stability in the family structure,” Thomas said. “We have a number of programs that we offer to make that happen.”
Thomas pointed out the department’s child care and education programs and various programs to offset family child care costs. He added that the military family life consultant program has been a “tremendous benefit to our military families.” The consultants provide anonymous, nonmedical counseling support to troops and their family members. “We sit down and listen to the needs and wants of military families,” he said.
Additionally, the department’s Military OneSource site offers military families 24/7 access on the Internet to counseling services, he said, and commissaries and military exchange stores around the world give servicemembers and their families a “taste of life back home,” as well as economic savings.
Thomas also highlighted a pilot program, the Restoration and Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, aimed at helping servicemembers and their families deal with post-traumatic stress. The program is “serving as a tremendous tool,” he said.
Thomas said he received firsthand proof of the program’s effectiveness during a visit to Fort Bliss about two weeks ago. He was conducting a focus group when a soldier walked up to him unexpectedly.
“What he said to me is, ‘I want you to know, sir, that the resilience and restoration program saved my life,’” Thomas recalled. “It’s a true testament to some of the programs we have out there and the effectiveness of those programs.”
Defense Department officials always look for ways to tweak programs as they aims to improve them, Thomas said. “You should never rest on your laurels,” he said, noting that it’s vital to hear from the people who are executing the programs as well as from the end users, the military families.
“I’ve logged about 32,000 miles going out talking to focus groups on about 16 installations,” Thomas said. He takes time to speak with military families around the world and uses that information to assess and improve the department’s programs, he added.
It’s not always about program quantity, he noted, but effectiveness, which is why tracking usage and soliciting feedback is so important. He said feedback led to a recent addition of family support services. During visits to Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Drum, N.Y. -- both “very high-ops tempo Army installations,” he said -- he received requests for more military family life consultants, a sentiment that was echoed in Europe.
As a result, the department added 118 military family life consultants, all due to feedback at the program-execution level.
Thomas said his No. 1 goal is to make a long-term difference for military families. He pledged to work toward getting “the proper funding and resources we need in our baseline” to create adequate and lasting family programs that also can evolve to meet growing needs.
Above all, military families deserve the best possible programs the department can provide, Thomas said.
“We owe that to our military families -- to make sure we’re doing whatever we can for them, to make sure they’re part of the Defense Department team, that we’re working together collectively,” he said.
In honor of Military Family Month, the department’s Military Community and Family Policy office has several events aimed at improving quality of life for military families, Thomas said, including a Leadership Summit on Military Families on Nov. 9 and 10, a Defense Department/joint services conference called “Improving the Quality of Life for Military Families” from Nov. 16 to 18, and a child development conference, also from Nov. 16 to 18.