If there is one thing I love about the military, it’s the wealth of support resources available for those who want them. And if there is one problem with that great upside, it’s that if you even hear about them in time, they can be impossible to find.
Case in point: my family and I recently PCSed across the country. We took our sweet time getting where we were going, dawdling in a variety of National Parks along the way. A plus was that we got a vacation in between episodes of “Elmo’s World” on the DVD player. A minus was that our household goods arrived at our new base before we did and went into storage.
We hit post for the first time on a Tuesday. On Wednesday we secured housing and called the movers, only to find that they wouldn't deliver our goods for another five days. That was five days of sleeping on an air mattress in an empty house, cooking food in a disposable aluminum pan on the stovetop, using a tshirt as a hot mitt and eating from paper plates. My toddler was very confused when we sat on the floor to eat our food.
Fast forward two weeks to the spouse orientation for the school my husband is attending. During that time we had received our goods, unpacked and watched my burn from forgetting to use the tshirt/hot mitt heal. The room at the orientation was full of people just like me (minus the burn). Not a single person was still awaiting the delivery of their stuff.
And yet it was at this orientation that the Army Community Service (ACS) representative chose to tell us about the lending closet, where we could have scored a giant box of kitchen supplies to hold us over until our goods were delivered. It was at this briefing, not when we checked into post, not when we were at the housing office and a solid two weeks after we didn’t need it anymore, that I learned of this burn-abating resource.
While having nothing to do with deployment support, my experience with ACS is not isolated, says Dennis Orthner, a researcher with the University of North Carolina. A study he did on the program for the Army showed that while the office does offer significant resources for those who live on post and seek them out, it struggles with spreading information, including news about deployment resources, elsewhere. When it comes to helping spouses deal with the stress of loneliness during deployment, ACS can be the greatest resource -- or most elusive target.
“We tend to support best the people that are most available, we get the low hanging fruit,” Orthner said. “People who are in the most need tend to get the least support. ... We have to do a better job in reaching out and strengthening relationships."
The problem, Orthner said, is that those who can most use help are also those who are the hardest to reach. For example, junior enlisted spouses living off post are often in the greatest need of support, but are also those that are the least mobile and likely work during the day, he said.
“ACS services are typically offered during convenient times and on the base instead of getting out into the community where the people are,” he said. “If you’re a one car, junior enlisted family living 10 miles from the post it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get those services.”
One possible fix would be to extend the offices’ hours. Another would be to bring the services out into military-heavy off post neighborhoods, Orthner said. Even services like the Family Life Consultant program, which doesn’t observe traditional hours of operation, are filtered through ACS. If a potential user cannot visit the office to find out about the resource, she is unlikely to ever access the service.
Yet many officials are unwilling to offer new solutions. Mike Hoskins, a Pentagon official who oversees the military and family life consultant program, said that it is up to installation commanders and the public affairs office to get the information out.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of science behind it,” he said.
We know the Army likes to hear our ideas on how to fix the things we believe to be broken, so let's help them with this one. How can ACS fix this obvious problem? And while you mull that over, be sure to check back later for an example of a component that is slowly but surely doing something about this.