Meg Falk Planted a Seed; Her Team Made it Grow
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 13, 2002 Meg Falk, director of the Defense Department's Family Policy Office, says her leaders and her staff "conspired" to nominate her for a national award for her efforts in the wake of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon.
"What we did at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center was not about me," Falk said. "It was about the incredible, competent and caring people who showed up and would do anything to support these families. It was such a group effort."
Good Housekeeping honored Falk for setting up a family assistance center for hundreds of grieving family members. The center was up and running within 24 hours of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon that killed 184 people. The Defense Department civilian was one of 10 women cited for improving the lives of others through personal integrity and dedication to public service.
Falk believes in giving credit where credit is due. She said the department's 50 or so military community and family policy specialists, plus the thousands of volunteers who helped man the Family Assistance Center at Crystal City's Sheraton Hotel deserve recognition. She said she planted a seed. They made it grow.
On June 12, Falk received the Good Housekeeping magazine's award for Women in Government at the Library of Congress. Humbled by the honor, she said she accepted top prize "on behalf of all of the people who worked at the Family Assistance Center and on behalf of all the dedicated people who over the past 20 plus years, have worked in Defense Department family programs."
Falk was in her Pentagon office when terrorists crashed hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 into the building. She thought the blast was a bomb and instructed her staff to evacuate. Escaping the burning building, Falk "staged a strategic retreat to an office in Crystal City, Va., and began creating a refuge for the families of the victims of the Pentagon tragedy," said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness.
Chu described Falk's actions in a nomination letter to Good Housekeeping. "While the nation still reeled in shock," he wrote, "Ms. Falk coordinated with local government and relief agency officials to obtain space for a family assistance center in a local hotel. She couldn't call on local (military) installations to provide facilities, because increased security measures closed the bases to many family members.
"Working late into the night," Chu continued, "Ms Falk rallied dispersed Defense Department colleagues and assembled an amazing array of resources to assist victims' families. These included casualty officers to help families obtain all appropriate benefits, counselors and chaplains, public assistance agencies and private organizations, and hundreds of volunteers."
The Pentagon Family Assistance Center opened the morning of September 12 and remained open around the clock until Oct. 12, helping both Defense Department victims' families and families of the passengers aboard Flight 77.
Caring for people is an inherent part of the military community tradition, according to Falk. This was evident on one of the worst days in American history and in the days immediately following.
To hear Falk tell it, she was just doing her job on September 11. She knew the families would need a place to go so she did what had to be done. She called for reinforcements from the Navy family support program that had dealt with the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. They drove to Washington from Norfolk to help get things set up.
"I called a woman who used to work for the Air Force family support program but now works for the (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)," Falk recalled. "Before she arrived, she went to her office and with her colleagues help, cleaned out the supply cabinets and brought office supplies to the family center. She knew we needed them."
That type of spirit prevailed at the Family Assistance Center, Falk said. Generals, admirals, military leaders' spouses, the Queen of Jordan, actress Lynda Carter, Miss America, members of the House of Representatives all did what they could to show support for the grieving families.
"Anything great that happens, whether it's in the Department of Defense or in any community across America," Falk said, "It's not one person that makes it happen. It's a group of dedicated people that makes things happen. I'm very proud and awed by the people who showed up and what they were able to do."
Falk said the Defense Department's leadership provided unequivocal support for the families in the wake of the attack and credits Army Lt. Gen. John Van Alstyne deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy for his compassionate leadership at the family center. "Our commitment was to provide totally, accurate and, of course, very difficult information to the families," she said. "The general briefed family members twice a day."
Giving families accurate, timely information, Falk said, "is one of the most powerful, supportive things we can do. This applies to everything from relocating to getting help with spouse employment to getting kids in the right schools. Good information gives people the opportunity to take control of their lives."
Raised in Dearborn, Mich., Falk now calls Washington, D.C. home. She'd worked as a teacher in inner city schools in Detroit before teaching at Defense Department schools in Okinawa and Germany for five years. She returned to the States to complete her Master's Degree in public administration, and was selected for the presidential management intern program. She moved here in 1980.
During her two years as an intern, she worked for the Justice Department and then the Navy, where she became involved in the start-up of the Navy's family centers.
"Given my five years overseas working with military families and children, gave me a pretty good idea of what some of the challenges were associated with the military lifestyle," she said. "I was very pleased to have been a part of the early history of those programs that are now totally institutionalized."
After about 10 years with the Navy, Falk transferred to the Defense Department Office Family Policy. In 1998, she became responsible for the military's casualty and mortuary affairs and funeral honors, which she said has been a challenging policy area. On September 11, all her years of experience working with military families came to the fore.
"I think I'm very blessed to have a job where I feel that the staff and I can make a positive difference in peoples' lives," Falk said. "For me, being able to listen, and to work with caring, competent people to make the right things happen, it's a very rewarding work experience. I can't imagine doing anything more meaningful with my life."