Guard Bureau Hotline Links Deployed Troops, Hurricane-Struck Families
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 1, 2005 With thousands of troops from the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast deployed thousands of miles from home and worried about their families, a program operated by the National Guard Bureau is providing a vital communication link and assurance that families are being taken care of.
Army Col. Anthony Baker Sr., the Guards chief of family programs, told American Forces Press Service that calls to the programs support network have ticked up greatly since Hurricane Katrina lambasted Mississippi and Louisiana, displacing thousands of families.
Unlike typical requests, generally from families of deployed active, guard and reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the biggest increase in contacts is from troops overseas. Theyre calling to ask about their families, Baker said.
Both Mississippi and Louisiana have about 3,000 National Guard troops deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, defense officials said. However, this figure does not take into account active-duty troops or reserve forces from the Gulf region, figures more difficult to factor.
Baker said hes expecting calls from families to increase as the afflicted states begin airing public service announcements publicizing the family assistance centers and their contact information.
The Guards Family Program Web site also is encouraging military families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama displaced by Hurricane Katrina to report their status and whereabouts to the hotline.
To accommodate the increased traffic to the toll-free number, Baker said, the Guard Bureau is working to have a new phone bank operational by Sept. 2 at the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Va.
Manned by paid staff and volunteers, the center will monitor all calls to the toll-free Family Program hotline and connect them directly to the appropriate family assistance center able to help, Baker said.
And while center staff members dont have all the information that may be asked, they have access to a cornucopia of contacts at their fingertips who frequently do, he said. These range from the American Red Cross, which tracks the names of displaced people being sheltered in the hurricane region, to emergency relief organizations that provide a variety of services to military aid programs.
Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, described these centers that dot the country as a single-stop shopping source for families needing information or assistance, not only during the deployment, but also before and after.
These centers offer reassurance to deployed troops who cant be home to take care of their families themselves, Blum said. It tells deployed troops, number one, (their families are) being accounted for and, number two, that theyre being properly taken care of, he said.
These centers are particularly important now, when family members throughout the region might particularly need their assistance.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina knocked several family centers in the Gulf region out of service when they were needed most. As of Aug. 31, 80 percent of Mississippis centers and 20 percent of Louisianas were down due to power outages and communication gaps, Blum told Pentagon reporters.
Today seven Mississippi centers are operational, and seven of Louisianas nine centers are up and running, Baker reported. Efforts were under way today to restore operations at the family assistance center at Jackson Barracks, the historic home of the Louisiana National Guard that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, Baker said.
Baker acknowledged that no program, however responsive, can fully take away the stress families are likely to feel as they face Hurricane Katrinas aftermath during a deployment.
But knowing theres somewhere to turn if they need assistance helps put them at ease, he said. As long as they know that, they will rest a little easier.
The National Guard Bureau toll-free number is (888) 777-7731.