Best Defense

The Army kills the family support job. Who will fill the void? ——————-?

As volunteer advisors to commanders, FRG leaders work to help soldiers and their families cope with the many challenges of Army life.

<> on January 28, 2009 in Fort Carson, Colorado.
<> on January 28, 2009 in Fort Carson, Colorado.

 

By Frances Tilney Burke
Best Defense guest columnist

When I try to explain the role of an Army Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader to civilian friends, I am either met with a regurgitation of the Lifetime TV series “Army Wives,” or a snarky comment from a colleague, such as, “Oh, so now you’re running the thrift shop on post?” As volunteer advisors to commanders, FRG leaders work to help soldiers and their families cope with the many challenges of Army life. In fact, these volunteer roles, particularly since 9/11, have been grueling, heartbreaking, exhausting, time-consuming, administratively overwhelming, and often thankless.

Recognizing the difficulties that volunteers faced during continuous deployments while running these vast FRGs, the Army started to augment battalion-sized units and larger with Family Readiness Support Assistants, or FRSAs, who, according to a 2008 Army Posture Statement, were supposed to “decrease volunteer stress…and provide administrative/logistical assistance to volunteer leaders, allowing them to concentrate their efforts in assisting families.” FRSAs completed tasks formerly left to volunteers, such as updating extensive soldier rosters with emergency contact information, helping to pinpoint financial or psychological resources for struggling Army families, or calling phone numbers of hundreds of soldiers’ next-of-kin to ensure accuracy. The FRSA position filled a key administrative vacuum — but the Army recently eliminated it due to budget cuts.

The demise of the FRSA position only increases the burden on Army volunteers. For instance, not every commander has a spouse and, for those who do, they are not always willing to fill the administratively intensive support role of company-level FRG leader or battalion/brigade-level FRG advisor. Although the leadership demographics within the Army are changing, these volunteer positions are almost exclusively filled by Army wives. I have meet a number of women who, knowing the expectations of their role as a commander’s wife, chose to entirely exempt themselves from the role of FRG Leader for a variety of reasons. This further reduces the available pool to fill these volunteer spots. If the commander is single, he or she will have very little understanding of the needs of young families or, if the commander is female, she has to scramble to find another female to fill the position as FRG Leader (itself an odd and slightly tense relationship between a professional woman and a full-time volunteer wife).

Now that the Army has cut the FRSA positions, how will commanders meet these increased administrative requirements without shifting the burden onto an already diminished volunteer corps? Despite the fact that fewer commanders’ wives are able or willing to fill the volunteer roles — for free — during a stressful command stint, and fewer senior warrants’ wives or first sergeants’ wives are able to step into the volunteer leadership breach, the Army continues to scrutinize commanders’ FRG programs, where rosters of volunteer leaders and key callers are still sent to Division for inspection, and Brigades and Battalions are still held accountable for the success of their family support.

With fewer Army wives on tap to volunteer their free time to support the unit, and no embedded civilian FRSA to fill the void, battalions are scrambling to create solutions. Many battalions have already created a position called the Family Readiness Liaison (FRL), a “green-suiter” or soldier, essentially tasked to do the same thing as the FRSA but as an additional duty. However, commanders tend to pick a low-ranking soldier, who, at the end of the day, has little leverage to pressure company commanders to shape up their family support programs. And, unfortunately, a focus on family support programs may be far down on the commander’s to-do list when he has pre-deployment training, equipment maintenance, legal issues, and a hundred other things to handle.

The Army seems unready to evolve. I have had my husband’s mentors’ wives tell me that it is my patriotic duty to volunteer for my husband’s unit, and that’s a compelling argument, but it’s not reasonable if many Army wives are pursuing degrees, deeply involved in professional careers, or raising small children. My hope is that someone in the Army hierarchy raises the red flag to reshape the expectations of the Army wife, because, as a fellow FRG volunteer (and a former corporate lawyer) friend said to me, “We do it because it’s expected and it’s frowned upon if we don’t take on the role willingly — with a smile on our face.” It is unrealistic for the Army to depend on volunteer spirit alone, particularly after the death of civilian FRSA positions, to fill these vital family support roles when today’s families are so vastly different the stereotypical Army wives of the past.

We may not see the consequences of the Army’s parochialism with regards to spousal roles until the next big deployment cycle, when both soldier and family readiness may suffer because institutionalized volunteers have all but become extinct.

Frances Tilney Burke is a former special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. She is also an Army wife, mother of three, and two-time FRG Advisor in the 101st Airborne Division, where she was nominated for installation “Volunteer of the Year” and twice received the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Public Service. She and her husband, a career Army officer, are currently pursuing graduate work at The Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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