The Defense Department's military family policy chief is leaving the job early next month to take a new gig in public affairs over at the Department of Veteran Affairs -- and the military community is sad.
Rosemary Williams, known among military family advocates, community activists and journalists like myself for her frank and friendly military family update emails, accomplished something at the Defense Department that few can: she created an atmosphere of candor and approachability in a universe known for its red tape and bureaucracy.
Williams is personable. She has at least one photo of a real live military kid taped to the wall near her desk, which the live kid's mom and everyone she knows thinks is just awesome. She gives speeches that are easy to listen to and informative. She hands out her direct email address to anyone who wants it -- and then actually responds to messages. She sends monthly updates packed with useful military community tidbits and self deprecating antidotes.
And she makes military community members feel like they are fighting the good fight with her -- not against her, not around her, not in spite of her, with her.
Not everything has been perfect in DoD family policy land under Williams' watch. Statistics released last year showed that child abuse and neglect had become a major problem across the DoD. When Williams took the deputy undersecretary of military community and family policy post in 2013, sequestration was just hitting the DoD and programs faced cuts. A few beloved programs, such as free SitterCity.com memberships, were canceled outright. Belts had to be tightened, they said. The excess had to go. Not everyone agreed on what was "excess."
But the vast majority of what Williams leaves behind is good. A task force was assembled and recently completed its recommendations for dealing with the abuse issue. The office landed permission to use paid advertising to spread the word about DoD-funded military family programs -- a feat that sounds very minor but in a culture like the DoD is a huuuuuuge deal. Not only was Military OneSource, the DoD's premier family program conglomerate, protected from cuts but many parts of it have been expanded. The site received a face lift making it worlds easier to use. The free non-medical counseling it offers was kept and could soon be expanded thanks to a push by Williams. New tools were made available. And while I have had plenty of critical things to say about OneSource over the years, I will now confess: all of the improvements are good things.
Williams isn't exiting the community entirely. She's leaving the DoD to go to the VA to continue her work for military families as a public affairs official there tasked with helping families connect with VA programs.
But with such a broken VA, you have to wonder what difference one non-policy person can make in the short time she has. The new job, like the old one, is a political appointment that will end when a new president takes office next year.
Then again -- we've seen Williams be an unrelenting force in a glacial DoD system. Even one inch of difference is a huge deal for a mountain. If anyone can leave a dent, it's her.
Who will take her place at DoD? No plans or guesses have yet been made public. But no matter who steps in, we can only hope she takes some notes from her predecessor.