I have been a military spouse for just over 15 years. In that time, our family has experienced family readiness programs that were amazing and some that were, well, let’s just say less than stellar.
I have always been a big supporter of family readiness because while we all know that the number one priority of the military is, and should be, military operations ... in my opinion, family readiness is an important part of a strong armed forces. Military families have faced unique challenges over the past 13 years. I am not sure that they are any worse or less taxing than the challenges faced by military families during other times in our history, but they are unique. Family readiness programs have come a long way in helping families adjust to the challenges.
My advice to a spouse who was experiencing difficulty with a less than stellar family readiness program used to be the following: “Instead of complaining, become more involved -- get in there and make a change!” However, as the years have passed and I have not only been a part of a variety of programs, but have heard many spouses share stories of both good and bad family readiness experiences. I have changed my opinion a bit.
Do I still think that becoming involved can be a positive thing? Absolutely. I have witnessed many commands that get it right, and the support can really be an asset to your family. But, well…the other side of the coin isn't as great.
Sometimes, a bad family readiness experience can be more trouble than it is worth. Military life can be stressful enough as it is, so it’s not very helpful if the support system that is supposed to be in place to help you doesn't seem genuine, causes undue stress, or creates drama.
My advice to a spouse who has experienced that situation has now changed. Maybe it is because I have been married to a Marine for so long. Maybe it is because I am almost 40. But I now think it is best to walk away. Go find support in other places. Don’t let it turn you into a hermit, or make you think that all family readiness is toxic. Don’t form an opinion about our entire community. But don’t feel obligated to be a part of it either.
How do you know if a family readiness program is healthy? In my opinion, it has a great deal to do with the command that your service member is currently serving under. Is it their responsibility to hold the hands of the families and spend countless hours catering to the whims of every person married to someone in uniform? No. I don’t believe so. But I do believe that the command sets the tone for how successful a family readiness program can be.
Here are the things I now look for when deciding if I will be a part of a unit family readiness program, or if I will choose to let it be and find my support system elsewhere:
How to decide if you want to be a part of your FRG1. Do they perpetuate a culture of fear?
Many military families are on edge these days. With the drawdown, a career in the military does not offer the job security it did just a decade ago. Stories of good servicemen and women being forced out are shared every day between spouses. Rumors that a simple misunderstanding or false accusation could ruin a military career spread like wild fire. To be frank, no matter how many times we hear that what we do, as spouses, cannot affect our service member’s career, there is that unspoken fear that yes, it in fact can. If a command wants family members to feel comfortable in participating and supporting their program, spouses cannot be afraid. It doesn't matter how many times a family readiness leader insists that a spouse can come to them with concerns -- if the words “You need to control your spouse”ever escapes the lips of someone in the command.
2. Do they listen, and then take action or explain?
Many times spouses just want to be heard. Sometimes we are frustrated with the way things are happening even though we know, logically, that it comes with the job. But spouses don’t want to feel like they are just being pacified when they voice their concerns. Many times a concern can not be fixed, and we understand that. A simple explanation of why extra training hours before a deployment are vital to the mission can go a long way. And if there is something that can be done like providing childcare for family readiness meetings, making that happen goes a long way as well.
3. Are they stuck in the past?
If something is not working for the current group of spouses, do they insist on continuing to do it that way just because that is the way it has always been done? Are they willing to adjust the sails to keep up with technology or more dual income families? Are they open to hearing new ideas?
4. Are they respectful?
This is a simple one, but so important in my book. And it doesn’t take much to fulfill this requirement for me. Give plenty of notice for meetings and events. Ask spouses what they are interested in doing. Be aware of the makeup of families and make efforts to hold events when it is most convenient. Be straight with spouses… we are all adults; support doesn’t have to mean holding our hand. Respect our time.
Family readiness programs can be an essential lifeline for the military family. When I am making a decision about my involvement in one, these are the things that I am looking for. What items would you add to this list?
Erin Whitehead has been a military spouse for 15 years, and currently lives with her husband and two daughters in southern Arizona. Considered a leader in our community, she recently ended a successful two-year position as the Digital Editor for Military Spouse Magazine and was the 2010 Marine Corps Spouse of the Year. She is a member of the American Military Spouses Choir, is the Director of Fundraising for the Center for American Military Music Opportunities and is the Creator and President of her online business, Many Kind Regards. You may read more of her writing and learn how she helps people create their own online presence or personal brand at www.manykindregards.com