Communities Step Up as Army Celebrates Covenant
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 18, 2012 When the Army began its Community Covenant program four years ago this week, few could have imagined the grassroots momentum that would take hold, or the effect if would have for families across the services.
Volunteers with the Richfield, Utah, community covenant team pose in the back of the White House where they were among five winners of the Joining Forces Community Challenged recognized at an April 11, 2012 event. From left, they are Mike Turner, Richfield city councilman; Army Capt. Cody Workman, commander of Richfield’s Utah National Guard unit; DonaMae Workman, family readiness group leader for the unit; and Richard Barnett, a city councilman and founder of “Coins for a Camouflage Christmas.” U.S. Army photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Former Army Secretary Pete Geren started the program as an extension of the Army Family Covenant to give extra support to military families. The idea was for communities to fill in gaps where the military couldn’t.
“The Army can’t send someone out to cut your grass and take care of your pets, but the community can,” said Maria Lloyd, who leads the three-person headquarters team in the Pentagon for the community covenant program.
The first community covenant was signed with Columbus, Ga., outside of Fort Benning; now each of the Army’s more than 700 garrisons has a signed community covenant, Lloyd said. How active communities are in supporting the covenant -- a nonbinding, largely ceremonial document of support -- is up to them, she added.
Lloyd and others say the program has taken off in big and surprising ways. Some of the most-supported covenants are in small communities, many not even close to active military installations.
Also, communities determined on their own that their support, by way of the covenants, should support military personnel of all services -- active, reserve and National Guard -- and their families, as well as many that support veterans, said Robert Hansgen, also with the Army community covenant office.
“We don’t view this as an Army program, we view it as an armed forces program,” he said.
Throughout the country, communities are answering the needs of military families -- with priority for those of the deployed -- by taking care of lawns and home repairs, offering legal and tax services, hosting job fairs, giving rides, babysitting and in many other ways, Hansgen and others said. And many are celebrating service members in their communities by hosting social events, having parades, and entertaining military children, he added.
“It’s grown in ways we couldn’t even have envisioned,” Hansgen said. “The more we’ve empowered them, the more they’ve taken off on their own.”
The program complements the efforts of “Joining Forces,” a campaign First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, began last year to energize Americans around supporting military families. The city of Richfield, Utah, was among five winners of the Joining Forces Community Challenge -- from 300 entries -- and was recognized in an April 11 White House ceremony.
Richfield was recognized for its support of its local Army National Guard unit, which has deployed four times since 9/11. Its support, officials say, has ranged from publishing and distributing a city resource guide to military families to waving public utility fees and entertaining the children of deployed members. The community covenant the city signed with the Army in May 2011 formalized that support.
Local communities’ initiatives have solved “this challenge of how we connect the national to the local,” Hansgen said.
In Chelmsford, Mass., the town government signed a covenant with Hanscom Air Force Base and Fort Devens in 2009 to give structure to the help local people wanted to give, said Pat Wojtas, a member of the town’s board of selectmen.
“It’s one of those things that if you can’t serve, you want to do the next best thing and help those who do serve,” she said.
The board, including a member who had just left active duty, created a task force to reach out to local people and businesses to see what offers they might make, then created a database on its website for military families to access the resources.
Chelmsford has provided grocery shopping, snow shoveling, lawn care, legal services, social events, and even remodeled the home of a deployed service member under the covenant that Wojtas said creates a clearinghouse of support.
That soldier, Master Sgt. Ed Devine of the 804th Medical Brigade at Fort Devens, thanked the community at an April 12 community covenant appreciation event for the work they did on his home and other support before he returned from a year-long deployment to Iraq in November 2011.
“When I came home, you would not believe my yard,” Devine said. “It was absolutely beautiful. … They did shopping for us, people cooked dinners. They came to my house and shampooed carpets. I mean, I could go on and on and on.”
Sometimes community covenants are led by people who also are part of the military community, such as when Julianne Sanford spearheaded the effort to sign a covenant in Jacksonville, Texas, last year. Sanford, an Army wife, registered nurse and mother of four, was the volunteer readiness leader of the Loan Star Military Resource Group when she decided military families and veterans would be better served if more support came from the civilian community.
With vast knowledge and access to state resources, Sanford put her nursing career on hold and worked to start community support efforts and, ultimately, the signing of a community covenant in May 2011.
“I had all that information,” she said. “The year before my husband’s unit was to deploy, I said, ‘What if we had family readiness for the community, rather than the unit?’
“With all those resources, and the Army suicide rate at an all-time high, I had a burning desire to do something, and I had all these resources in my back pocket,” she added.
With the covenant adding credence and structure, Sanford said, the community came together with a resource book, job support, transportation, financial counseling, home maintenance, spiritual counseling, child care services and behavioral health support.
“Because I can speak the military language, I had a bit of an advantage,” she said. “If someone in the community wanted to do it, it would help to have that guide.”
As an adjunct professor at University of Texas-Tyler, Sanford educated her students about combat disabilities, only to find that three of them are combat veterans, she said. Together, they created information packets with compact discs, including Sanford’s contact information and that of specialists who treat combat-related disorders, and distributed them to 60 doctors’ offices.
With an email contact list of more than 400, Sanford said, she provided networking, education and outreach, and encouraged health care providers, homeless shelters and employers to ask the people they serve if they are veterans -- an important part of people getting proper treatment and benefits.
Sanford acknowledged that communities can support military families without a covenant, but it would be harder, she said.
“The covenant gave us a little more structure to go by, and something for the community to sink its teeth into,” she said. “There’s really no wrong way to do it, but the community covenant gives them the basic steps to get started.”