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DoD Studies Mission, Family Needs

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 1999 – Mission readiness depends on family readiness.

This message came through loud and clear at a recent Healthy Parenting Design Conference in suburban Washington that brought together about 80 parents, teens, family support providers, commanders and civilian human resource experts. The meeting was the latest DoD effort to deal with the strains placed on military families by today's frequent deployments and other pressures.

Military families and mission readiness are strongly linked, said Air Force Col. John Nelson, the family advocacy program manager for the Air Force who is heading DoD's Healthy Parenting Initiative. "The most powerful thing emerging here is an agreement that we're at the beginning of a culture shift and we need to accelerate it. That culture shift is one that demonstrates that healthy families equal readiness."

Healthy, adaptive parenting is critical for the military of the future, Nelson said. "We need to support families in order to support the mission. We need a toolbox of programs, services and information that emphasize family fitness and family readiness."

More than 780,000 of the military's 1.4 million active-duty personnel are married and another 100,000 are single parents. There are 2 million family members, 1.24 million of them children.

Family support has steadily increased as the number of spouses and children has grown, according to DoD officials here. The challenge also includes supporting a community that includes dual military couples, single parents and a growing number of elderly dependents.

Conferees, including experts from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, assembled Sept. 22 to 24 in Leesburg, Va. The group first looked at how the military community has changed over the decades and then developed action plans for the 21st century.

Conferees met in small groups to prepare and present recommendations. Along with the adult presentations, a group of teens aged 14 to 18 presented skits illustrating their concerns about military life. Shouting "Bam! Bam! Bam!" as they entered the room, the teens simulated gunfire to demonstrate how they feel when military parents deploy to war zones.

"Everybody thought they were talking about the recent school shootings," said Linda Smith, Office of Family Policy director. "But they were talking about their parents being over in Kosovo. Their view was that the media is overplaying the shootings. They feel safe in their schools. What they're really concerned about is what's happening in these other places where their parents are at high risk."

The conference goal was to help develop resources to support healthy parenting among active duty military families. Based in part on conference suggestions, Virginia Tech will solicit proposals from land-grant universities across the country to produce a variety of resources to enhance existing parenting support programs. These materials would reach the field in 2001.

Family policy officials want to coordinate existing services and programs into an overarching, comprehensive DoD-wide effort. Conferees agreed that installation, service and civilian community programs need to collaborate, Nelson said. Some conferees recommended empowering families through life skills development such as conflict resolution, stress management and goal setting.

Recognizing a need to go beyond offering traditional parenting classes at fixed locations, DoD officials aim to use the Internet and other communication modes to reach working parents. This could include CD-ROMs, interactive Web-based tutorials, chat rooms, videotapes, books on tape and other products.

Nelson cautioned against relying too much on technology to provide information to families. He stressed that "high-tech" must be balanced with "high-touch" efforts. Face-to-face education is more important than online virtual education, he said.

"Many people here are emphasizing the critical importance of personal connections and the importance of building community networks and social supports to help people take care of themselves and others," he noted. "We see a strong emphasis on personal connections and community building that I find very heartening."

Conferees called for a professional marketing campaign to promote healthy military parents and families and stressed the need for command support at all levels.

"If you don't have command support, all the marketing in the world isn't going to help you," said Sally McErlean, director of the new parent support program at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. "Our goal is for the command to own up to family readiness as an issue. That's a combination of family fitness and military mission. Family readiness is a first line of defense against all enemies -- foreign, domestic and in your home.

"We want the command to look at the family as a resource, not as a problem," the veteran pediatric nurse said. "We need to focus on what they're doing right. We need to understand that families require maintenance. They require occasional upgrades and sometimes they need to be retooled. If you use that kind of terminology out on the flight line, they're going to understand what you're talking about. It's not all touchy-feely."

The group also stressed the need to develop ways to recognize the positive impact of families families, instead of focusing on such negative factors as DWIs, early return of dependents, suicide attempts, domestic violence and child abuse statistics. The way to obtain command interest, they said, is to look at the number of volunteers, participation in youth activities, new parent programs and chaplain-, school- and community-sponsored programs.

Kendra Jackson, whose husband Scott is a senior airman at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., summed up what the conference meant to her. "I want to see families be more important to the military, because when my family isn't stable and set, then my husband doesn't do well when he's deployed," she said. "When he's not doing well, then we don't do well."

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