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Gunnery Sgt. Bryce Piper, 26th MEU Public Affairs
USS IWO JIMA, 2-27-09
As the Marine Corps transitions from Key Volunteers to the new Family Readiness Program, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit entered its ten-month milestone with the new program Feb. 5.
Spearheading the transition for the Marine Corps, the 26th MEU has lessons to offer units making the change. As the Marines wind down their 2008-2009 deployment, MEU leaders say in order to understand the new program, you have to let go some notions about the old program first. It's about combat readiness
"Family readiness contributes directly to combat readiness," said 26th MEU Commanding Officer Col. Mark Desens.
"If our Marines and sailors know their families are taken care of and prepared for deployment," Desens explained, "they're better able to focus on the mission and worry less about what's happening at home. It all leads back to accomplishing the mission and taking care of people."
It seems the Corps would agree. The new Family Readiness Program will be standard across the Marine Corps by Oct. of this year, and Marine leaders have invested time, energy, guidance and funds into it.
"How serious is the Marine Corps about family readiness?" asked Desens rhetorically. "Serious enough that Headquarters Marine Corps has allocated appropriated funds so that every unit can hire a professional Family Readiness Officer and support the transition and sustainment of this new program. That money could easily have gone elsewhere."
Evidence of the Corps' commitment to the new program is apparent in two recent messages to all Marines.
According to MARADMIN 0011/09, the Marine Corps authorized an increase in appropriated funds to Marine Corps Community Services specifically to build up Marine Corps Family Team Building and the FRP. The Corps also directed units to hire a Family Readiness Officer by January 2009, have that FRO trained and operating by March, and fully transition to the FRP by October.
Additionally, the Marine Corps hired a civilian firm to help target the Corps’ family readiness needs, according to MARADMIN 709/08. The company conducted focus groups and phone interviews with Marine families in January at seven of the largest installations across the Corps to help develop stronger family programs.
It's a new, officially-sanctioned and funded approach to similar programs of the past like the Key Volunteers Network.
"This is not just an evolution of the same program," said Lt. Col. Wes Capdepon, 26th MEU executive officer. “The FRP is a revolutionary new way to foster family readiness.” The new program puts family readiness on a wartime footing and professionalizes the vital task of preparing families for their Marine’s deployment and maintaining their needs while he is away, he said.
Professionalizing an honored tradition
Capdepon's wife Janice first got involved in the family readiness in Dec. 1983 when her husband was a young sergeant. Through the years, she said she's seen its development through the Key Wives Network to Key Volunteers and now full circle to the FRP.
"If my memory serves me right, family readiness in 1983 was education on resources and assistance" she said.
"(Operation Desert Storm) is when we changed to the Key Wife's Program," Janice then explained. "There were different needs, worries, and concerns. I remember doing everything and it seemed to be expected. Making trips to airports to either take or pick up spouses, sitting in the ER with sick moms, babysitting all the time because childcare was hard to find or there was not the money for it. Phone calls to always make. I don't think it was intended to end up the way it did but we were in emergency mode."
In the years following Desert Storm, Janice said the program developed more of a social aspect among the spouses, but lost some of its information and referral abilities.
"I think the FRP will take us back to educating families," she said. In the past, the Corps relied on volunteers to organize all manner of family events. “It is now the FRO's job to plan and execute."
Specifying the mission
The FRO has specific duties within the command, as laid out in the Marine Corps Family Readiness Command Team Handbook. The FRO is responsible for official communication, readiness and deployment support, information and referral, family outreach, family-related administrative and logistical coordination, event management and volunteer management.
With so many responsibilities, the FRO is protected from assuming collateral duties. The handbook states that the FRO should not be required to oversee any additional unit responsibilities.
"Information resource and referral – don't let it get beyond that," warned Desens. "We still have vital family events, but it's important to protect the professional reputation of the new program by maintaining a division between this family resource and social functions," he said.
"The important social aspect is still there," Desens clarified. "There's still leadership, there's still involvement. Nothing can replace the value spouses bring to the unit, but there's a clear delineation of responsibility," he said.
The colonel said giving the FRO additional duties, even temporarily, will lead to 'mission creep,' allowing someone's duties to grow over time. Mission creep would interfere with the FRO's primary job: family readiness.
"The FRO's responsibilities are more than enough," he said.
END PART 1
USS IWO JIMA, PArt Two–
More than a name change, Part 1 discussed the Marine Corps' implementation and funding of the new Family Readiness Program, including hiring a professional Family Readiness Officer. 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Commander Col. Mark Desens stressed the purpose of the program is to support combat readiness. And longtime volunteer Janice Capdepon shared her experiences with family programs from the 80s to today.
As with any new program, Desens said making the transition can be difficult, particularly when Marines and families are used to the old system.
"It's not as easy as flipping a switch," Desens said. Hanging on to past experiences can hinder a leader’s understanding and proper utilization of the new program, he said.
"This is different," Desens continued. "It's not Key Volunteers Network. This is professional information, resource and referral. The FRO is a member of your staff, a key leader in ensuring your command is prepared – just like your adjutant or your logistics officer."
A new paradigm
"We were trying to put into practice what hadn't completely gotten written into policy," said 26th MEU FRO Kelly Cotton. "And quite honestly, were all still trying to wrap our hands around some of the new paradigm. This was more than a name change, but I don't think any of us (FRO, command team or assistants) realized how much more until we began working through the new paradigm," she said.
"This is a clean break from the KVN," said Desens. "The new FRP professionalizes family readiness within the operating forces by a wide variety of training, additional resources, budgets, equipment and a paid Family Readiness professional," he said.
"The key enabler," Desens continued, "of this new professionalized family readiness program is the hiring of full-time Family Readiness Officers with credentials and training commensurate with their responsibilities."
Desens said the emphasis the Marine Corps has placed in the new program is evident in appropriated funding and training. With a professional, paid FRO, the new paradigm allows commanders to fully integrate Family Readiness into staff planning and execution, creating a professional link between the command, immediate families, and extended families, he said.
Reweaving the social fabric
Janice Capdepon, involved with family readiness more than 28 years, said while she's glad to see the program move back to information and referral, there was great value to the social aspect developed with Key Wives and Key Volunteers.
"In my own experience it was other spouses who helped and assisted me when I was adjusting to Marine Corp life," explained Janice. She said impersonal modern communication cannot replace true social interaction.
Cotton agrees that innovations like the Mass Communication Tool, a new system for sending messages to families, are technological wonders, but are no substitute for true human interaction.
"Technology has done wonderful things for us," said Cotton. "But it can never replace the true sense of togetherness, friendship and camaraderie that comes through social gatherings. We always hear what a small "family" the Marine Corps is and how likely it is that you will cross paths again with someone you knew."
The new FRP has not neglected this important social aspect. Family events now have centralized planning and official budgets. Cotton has helped organize robust family events throughout the MEU's deployment. Fall saw MEU families at the Harvest Fest, bowling in November, and in December families attended a Holiday Party, complete with gifts and a visit by Santa and his elves. January offered both Spouses in the Midst (sponsored by MCFTB) and a bunco-game night.
Cotton teams with other FROs and MCFTB to get MEU children to "Kids N Deployment" and Return and Reunion workshops in preparation for the MEU's homecoming.
"Social interaction is one of the challenges of the new program I think commanders have to think hard about," said Desens. "I believe many spouses (and Marines) have a natural reluctance to call a FRO or Family Readiness Assistant they don't know and feel a connection to. Ideally, I'd like them to get to know their FRO and (Family Readiness Assistants) during the course of being involved in the "social fabric" of a command. This is where command-sponsored activities and Family Days are so important. Then, if they do need assistance, they are talking to someone they already know and trust."
"The slippery slope commanders have to watch for," Desens explained, "is to not allow your FRO - a professional staffer - become your social planner for activities outside of family readiness. In my opinion, that would be bad for the program."
"By professionalizing the FRP, we have not eliminated the 'social fabric' of the command," said Desens, "but only separated the purely social parts from the FRO’s responsibilities. The FRO still organizes command-sanctioned family functions. Private social functions are great, but they should be born from the relationships families build at family events like Return and Reunion classes, (Lifestyle Insights Networking Knowledge and Skills) and other command functions."
"We have always tried to make our events so good that Marines and their families will want to come be a part of the experience - that's our challenge," said Desens.
USS IWO JIMA, Part Three(Feb. 20, 2009) –
The right person for the job
Desens says one of the keys to a successful program is hiring the right FRO. On 5 May, 2008, the 26th MEU hired Kelly Cotton. It was a difficult choice from among several well-qualified people, said Desens.
"The most important quality commanders should look for in a FRO," explained Desens, "is a love for Marines, sailors and their families. Then lots of positive energy and common sense. We can get you the training, though experience is nice. These are hard things to draw from the (hiring) processes. The 26th MEU is fortunate to have hit the jackpot with our FRO, Kelly Cotton."
"I think a FRO with experience in military life is a plus," agreed Janice Capdepon, wife of the MEU's executive officer and involved with family readiness for more than 28 years. "If they have walked our walk they truly understand. I think someone who has no knowledge of Marine Corps life may have a harder time adjusting. I'm not saying all military spouses would make the best FRO, but it does help."
The right training for the person
"Training has been developed and appropriately tailored for all positions related to the new Family Readiness Program," said MEU Executive Officer Lt. Col. Wes Capdepon. "The newly hired FROs attend courses ranging from Family Readiness Officer Training to L.I.N.K.S. (Lifestyle Insights Networking Knowledge and Skills) for Teens. These courses provide the FRO with the professional education to operate the full spectrum of Family Readiness Programs."
"All in all," Capdepon continued, "the Family Readiness Team has 12 courses of instruction available, and with a little imagination they can seek additional professional instruction."
No stranger to deployment and Marine Corps life, Cotton is the wife of a Marine captain with 2nd Marine Division. Still, the command felt it imperative she saw deployment not just from the family's perspective but also from the Marine's. During the predeployment training period, Cotton traveled with the Command Element to several training exercises, including Realistic Urban Training in Indiana in June 2008 and aboard USS Iwo Jima during the Composite Training Unit Exercise in July.
"The experiences at RUT and COMPTUEX were incredible in so many ways," said Cotton. "First, it was just plain awesome to be there first-hand and experience it myself. Second, it really helped me to understand the Marine's perspective (there really is very little living space aboard ship) so that I could better help family members understand that perspective. Third, it gave the Marines an opportunity to see me as a true part of the staff -- I was here to do a job -- and it was crucial that the Marines trust me to do my job, which was to assist their families while they were in the field, on a ship exercise or deployed, as well as while the Marine was home."
"Given her professional education and practical experiences," Capdepon asserted, "she can better relate to families and their experiences through her own."
Still room for volunteers
A key element to family readiness was and is the hard work and dedication of volunteers, said Capdepon. The work of every FRO is made lighter by Family Readiness Assistants and Morale Support Volunteers. Trained to provide information and referral, these Marine spouses and family members support the FRO, doing everything from directing families to resources to assisting at family events.
"The Corps did ask a lot of its volunteers, but the heart of a volunteer knows no boundaries!" said Linda Desens, wife of the 26th MEU commander. Linda said she's been involved in family programs for as long as she can remember, including fundraising activities, family events and as a Key Volunteer and KV Advisor as her husband moved up the ranks. She's currently Family Readiness Advisor to the MEU and has worked tirelessly with Cotton as the unit transitioned to the new program.
"Volunteers willingly gave of their time without complaining. It is a special calling to serve our families. However, because of the extent of the responsibilities involved, the program needed to be formalized."
"Given the high operational tempo of the current times, our families are challenged more than ever," Linda continued. "We have to keep in mind that our volunteers are family members who are going through these challenges like everyone else."
"Taking care of the families is one of our top priorities as a command team," said Linda. "There are so many family members who share this same passion. They give of themselves as Family Readiness Assistants, Key Volunteers in the old program, and as volunteers in our military and local community. The time they give to our families touches so many in ways that most of us will never fully realize. Most of them have young children of their own too and are balancing deployments like the rest of the unit. They never complain, but ask, "What else can I do to help?" I like to think of them as our 'posse of angels' - they're unstoppable!"
A new role for the CO's spouse
A major paradigm to break for the new program is the role of the CO's spouse, said Linda.
"In the old program," Linda explained, "a lot of responsibility was delegated to the commander's spouse to ensure a strong and vibrant Key Volunteer Network within the command. The new family program offers the commander's spouse a unique opportunity to support the program in a true advisor role should they choose to be a part of the program. Given their experience as a military spouse for so many years, commanders' spouses have a lot to offer. They understand the programs that are available to the families; they understand from firsthand experience how tough deployments are; they have created valuable networks through their years in the Marine Corps that can benefit the families; and they probably understand more than anyone the commander's intent."
"Times have changed too," said Linda. "Many commanders' spouses have professional lives or are trying to keep up with the increasingly demanding schedules of their children. The new family readiness program allows them to still be an integral part of the program, but also offers them the opportunity for a more balanced schedule."
"I am thrilled by the support that the Commandant of the Marine Corps has directed towards the Family Readiness Program," said Linda. "General Conway has made the Family Readiness Program one of his priorities and it is evident in all the positive changes that are taking place.
"The changes that have been instituted will make the program stronger than ever before!" Linda said. "The program now has paid staff, communication systems, and training that will make the program more robust and even better able to support our families. Furthermore, programs and training are being implemented through Family Team Building to further enhance the new program."
end part 3
USS IWO JIMA, Part 4
More than a name change, Part 1 discussed implementing the new Family Readiness Program. In Part 2, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Commander Col. Mark Desens described a paradigm shift from former programs and Family Readiness Officer Kelly Cotton described the new program's capabilities. Part 3 described the importance of hiring and training the right FRO, the importance of volunteers and a transformed role for commanders' spouses.
Success at the start
Cotton says in the 10 months since implementing the new Family Readiness Program, the MEU has hit some major milestones.
"We conducted the first command team training with all elements of the MEU," said Cotton. "This allowed all elements the opportunity to understand the MEU CO's intent on family readiness while developing their individual intent for their programs."
Battalion Landing Team 2/6, the Ground Combat Element of the 26th MEU, conducted the first Lifestyle Insights Networking Knowledge and Skills training for parents. This kind of training had previously been provided only to spouses. George Somjen, LINKS student and father of a corporal with BLT 2/6, said parents have a wealth of experience to offer Marines and families. Now armed with LINKS training, Somjen said he is excited to be part of the team.
Cotton said communicating with families has been a key to success for the MEU.
"Thanks to the willingness of [public affairs] to work with me, we have the best website out there," Cotton claimed. "It is family-friendly and easy to navigate, both critical features in the age of technology … It continues to draw family members back, promoting a sense of pride in the service of the MEU and their Marine."
It hasn't been easy, Cotton said. With any new program comes unforeseen issues to be conquered. 26th MEU family program organizers say they want other units just starting the FRP to learn from their efforts. Cotton has specific advice for future FROs:
"Some of the lessons learned," said Linda Desens, advisor to Cotton and wife of Col. Desens, "include the need for better communication of the new program across the Marine Corps. I think that some of the difficulty in the transition was due to the fact that Marine commanders, family members and even supporting staff didn't truly understand how the program was changing."
Linda Philipp serves as the FRO for II Marine Expeditionary Force, coordinating with and guiding FROs at subordinate commands like the 26th MEU. She said today's Marines and families have different expectations for methods and levels of support and communication.
"We must be aware and sensitive to their family readiness needs at that moment," said Philipp. "For example, 26th MEU’s mission will be different every deployment – as a FRO, I must be involved and aware of what’s going on with the unit."
"If the information I’m passing isn’t relevant or helpful," Philipp continued, "I need to know that so that I can fix it ASAP. I also believe that a FRO cannot do this all by her or himself. With the support of the Command Team and especially small unit leadership, everyone works together as a team."
Cotton said communication was key to keeping the program running smoothly. For example, she said in composite units like the MEU, parent and gaining commands' FROs must work together to ensure Marines and families get a "warm hand-off" as they change commands.
"It's important to remember that there will always be challenges when implementing a new program," said Linda Desens. "I think that we've built a strong team and have received great support from II MEF and Headquarters Marine Corps. This has led to a successful transition to the new program."
Philipp said while units Corps-wide make the transition before October, the program's immediate - and ultimate - goal is to ensure Marines, sailors and families are ready.
She said a ready family is one that:
Cotton said her immediate plans include preparing for the 26th MEU's impending return in March. She's preparing a Family Readiness stand-down for the unit, working hand-in-hand with the MEU's chaplain, sergeant major and others to ensure Marines have adequate referral resources. She's also preparing a marriage enrichment seminar with the chaplain.
Into a new era
"This has been a challenging and rewarding journey so far," said Philipp. "We understand that while this program is growing, everyone is working through to communicate the expectations and reality of this new concept of family readiness – we know that there’s frustration and confusion sometimes, but I believe if we continue to work together as a team and as a Marine Corps family, we will succeed. This process of transition isn’t easy or perfect, but we’re going in the right direction and … we really appreciate everyone’s support."