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Thinking Outside the Box: Military Spouses for Creative Solutions

Over the past few days, as a result of the recent USA Today article, our collective heads have been swirling with thought. Emails between the SpouseBUZZ crew have been flying back and forth. And I do mean flying. You offered your suggestions, too. We don't all agree on the right approach, but I thank each of you for taking the time to weigh in, and for a brutally honest and thought-provoking discussion.

Family support issues are complex. They cut across rank, branch and geography. Peacetime and wartime. We discuss family support all the time, but in a piece mill fashion. It's difficult to get your arms around family support when you think of it as a giant block, which is what I attempted to do a few days ago. I asked some open-ended questions of you, and you answered appropriately. For now, let's take one fragment at a time. The intent of this post is to focus on areas which we have the power to influence and improve. We're "drilling down," so to speak.

Grab a cup of coffee. Here goes:

Before we get started, I'm sure it goes without saying that there is no one-size-fits-all with respect to issues on the homefront. Much of this is common sense, but sometimes coming face-to-face with some alternatives sparks imagination. At least that seems to work for me.

What about a grassroots movement? One that encourages all of us to think outside the box. One that seeks to tailor fixes to regional needs by means of creative thinking. Let's call it "Military Spouses for Creative Solutions" (MSCS).

Next time you hear no for an answer, don't take it. Next time you have a problem that seems to require a black or white solution, neither of which are attractive, paint it red. Next time you find yourself in a room full of dysfunctional personalities, vow to plan your own get-together with non-dysfunctional people.

At SpouseBUZZ LIVE Ft. Bragg/Pope, we talked at length about the concept of empowering yourself, starting your own support system if the official one isn't working for you and being proactive rather than reactive. With that said, much of the following ideas flow from these concepts, which means that someone will have to take the initiative, and guess what? We're that "someone."

Interchangeable words:

Unit = The structure particular to your branch

FRG = Whatever your official support group is called

Virtual Bonds:

First of all, please tell me all of you have an email chain for your unit. Please, please, please tell me that. If not, the first step here would be to create one.

Almost daily, we get email and comments saying that the virtual world has been a godsend to military spouses. This is, after all, why SpouseBUZZ exists, and why it thrives. I know that many of you have virtual FRGs, unit message boards, chat rooms, etc.. But how many of you have a unit blog?

Don't have one? Create one. Just do it. Then use that email chain and invite everyone to visit and contribute to the blog. Make clear that it's not your blog, it's their blog. Some may be skeptical, but I'll just bet that out of curiosity, they'll keep checking back. Eventually, many of them will become involved.

I'm not recommending that this be used as a means to pass official information, especially information that could compromise OPSEC, but rather an avenue to get to know one another, share stories (even the mundane ones) and to reach out to those who, for whatever reason, aren't very involved in unit activities. A SpouseBUZZ for a more narrow market, if you will. It's much easier to participate in a virtual forum than a physical one. You can do so from the comfort of your own home, whenever is convenient for you. In addition, some people are more apt to open up in a forum that provides some measure of anonymity. It's especially great for people who tend to be shy. Once comfortable online acquaintances have been made, personal ones are easier to form. I've literally met hundreds of bloggers and the introductions were not awkward because we had developed online friendships first and had plenty to talk about once we met. The internet, for all its failings, is a gigantic icebreaker.

If you or the chain of command have OPSEC concerns, set the blog to private and set access by invitation only.

I think the idea of an unofficial unit blog (which can be done using Blogger free of charge) is an excellent way of getting to know one another and staying connected. I think it's especially important for those of you who are Guard/Reserve/IA spouses and geographically displaced from one another. Butterfly Wife left this comment over the weekend:

How do we come up with a support system for those families that are not geographically close to the unit the servicemember is attached to? (Phone calls, quite frankly, don't do much for me.) That has been my biggest battle for the last 2 years.

A blog would be my suggestion. If you have no experience with blogs, other than reading them, this would be a great place to start.

Create a "Wow" Moment:

Before the USA Today article came out, we hosted a radio show featuring a Vietnam-era spouse. The chat room was blown away by Elaine, our guest. Cass recently made a comment about what a valuable resource these women are, and it's absolutely true.

Call your local American Legion or VFW. Tell them you want to talk to some of these women. Invite them to speak at your next FRG meeting. Or, even better, invite them into your home. Invite other milspouses. Tell everyone to bring their kids and let the kids play upstairs or downstairs or in the backyard while the spouses are in the living room or dining room talking to the spouses who have come before you. This takes care of the childcare issue.

You will gain perspective and inspiration. This will not be a waste of your time. It will be a "Wow" moment. In the process, you'll be honoring those who came before us, at a time when affection for our military was low.

As for SpouseBUZZ, we'll be utilizing Elaine and other spouses of her generation over the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned.

Face-to-Face:

The virtual stuff is amazing, but let's face it, there's no substitute for being in a room full of people who actually "get it." Sharing our experiences and laughing and crying. That's the reason we have our SpouseBUZZ LIVE events. Without fail, attendees tell us how energized they were after the experience of attending a LIVE event. And that energy can last for days, weeks and months.

Work with your local FRGs and post/base leadership to create your own LIVE events. Create a workshop or panel sessions where you focus strictly on military life, not taking care of official business. Poke some fun at your situation, share stories and yes, vent. Then, after you're finished venting, as airforcewife said at SBL3, "pull your big girl pants on."

You can also request the SpouseBUZZ team (or some variant of the team) come to your local installation.

I Need a Break:

Childcare, childcare, childcare. I don't have children, but this is a huge subject for those of you who do. We hear about it all the time. Having a deployed spouse limits what some of you can and cannot do because of non-availability of childcare, the cost of childcare or other factors. If you think you need a break, chances are most of your peers think the same thing. Yes, I know that some installations have reasonable and liberal childcare programs. But some don't. And sometimes what's already in place just isn't enough.

Start "I Need a Break" clubs in your area. Once a month, or twice a month, or whatever works for your select group, plan a day or evening where people can drop children off at someone's house and the moms or dads can go run errands, take a nap, have a lunch or dinner date with a friend or whatever they want to do with their free time. Might be a pain in the neck to host ten kids once in a while, but it'll be pure bliss when your time to drop-off comes around.

Love My Tanker is a big fan of ASYMCA. See here for details.

Manage Your Surroundings:

There is no rule that states that you have to socialize with spouses in your own unit, or not socialize at all. There is no rule which states that if you invite one, you must invite all. I fully understand that many of the problems with FRGs, social functions, etc. stem from a clash of personalities. This is an age-old problem and one that will never be solved. If you're in this situation, use your FRG as a means to obtain information and join or create a social group you enjoy. Whether it involves spouses from your unit or not.

Buck the System:

I can already feel the push-back here. I know it's coming. But seriously, should your support and information flow really be held hostage by someone who isn't getting the job done? I think not.

If your support group has significant, legitimate issues stemming from poor leadership -- truly poor leadership -- it's never going to get fixed unless someone speaks up, or offers an alternative. Voice your concerns, have documentation in hand and offer some constructive suggestions. If nothing changes, go back to the "Manage Your Surroundings" section. Start your own group. Do not allow one or two people to muck up such an important thing.

Caveat here - I fully understand that this is easier said than done...

Burnout:

Another age-old problem and one that comes at a more rapid rate during combat operations. Understandably so. You have fresher perspectives than I. It's been a long time since I've been an FRG leader, but I have yet to find one who hasn't held onto the leadership position for entirely too long. Not always their fault, I realize this. What's wrong with a rotating model, especially during a deployment? Amy can be the leader for the first half of the deployment and Sally can take the second half. Anyone have experience with a rotating model?   

Community Involvement:

airforcewife is devoting an entire post to this category. You'll read it very soon. But for now, let me throw something out here. In order to alleviate some of the more ridiculous calls to FRG leaders, make sure your FRG has a list of reputable businesses and/or local businesses which have offered their services, discounts, etc. to spouses of deployed troops. A mechanic, a tow service, a plumber, a dog sitter, etc.. You get the idea. And make sure that everyone has this information at their disposal.

With respect to The Army Family Covenant, from what I understand, that money is already allocated. For better or worse, depending on your perspective. In addition, that is Army-specific. We are, however, working to have a spokesperson join us on SBTR to talk to us about this program, and how money will be allocated. Money does enter into the equation (paid FRG leaders, congressionally-mandated funds, etc.), but for the sake of staying on track, we'll leave that out of the present discussion.

These are merely a few suggestions offered to deal with specific concerns you have raised, and to make us think about how we can creatively overcome the obstacles which are standing in our way.

Please note that this post in no way implies that the military does not care about families, or isn't working hard to support them. It in no way implies that FRGs are a thing of the past, with no practical value. FRGs are vital, relevant and fulfill a huge need. The work they do is amazing and the people who step up to man and run them are to be commended. The USA Today article was the catalyst for this post, but the inspiration came from comments and emails from SpouseBUZZ readers, and discussions that have erupted during our LIVE events.

We think of SpouseBUZZ as a compliment to your support system, not a replacement. Some of you use SpouseBUZZ as a supplement to your physical support system, some of you use it because you have no physical support system (geography, etc.) and some of you use it because you prefer virtual support. It's here for everyone, regardless of their situation.

We're toying with the idea of further developing the MSCS model and taking it from a mere concept to an energetic movement. Maybe having a separate site devoted solely to seeking practical, creative solutions to tough problems. A site where you can share your challenges and others can offer suggestions. A place which recognizes military spouses who have affected positive change by taking matters into their own hands. We'll see how -- and if -- it all plays out, but look for a MSCS logo and avatar soon.

If you've run into a problem and found a creative or imaginative solution, please share it with us. If you currently have a problem and aren't sure how to handle it, tell us what it is. We all learn from each other, that's the beauty of a forum such as SpouseBUZZ.

So, what say you? Wanna create a movement? Want to have marches and meetings and conventions and buttons and bra burnings? Okay, I'm getting a little carried away here (I need my bra), but you get the idea....

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