Families, readiness groups overcome historical challenges

By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff

LATHAM, N.Y. – Because she receives calls from family members missing their husbands, wives, moms, and dads, Beverly Keating, the main contact for families of the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, feels it’s extremely important to have a communication bridge between the military and civilian worlds.

“They need to feel they can call me and feel comfortable with that,” said Keating, a family readiness coordinator for the New York Air National Guard. “It helps to dissolve anxieties, uncertainties and provides someone to turn to in an emergency.”

New York’s Soldiers and Airmen leaving and returning on deployment know the value of peace-of-mind when it comes to communication through family readiness.

“Readiness emphasizes preparing Soldiers, Airmen, and their families, readiness is the key to our work,” said Sgt. Maj. Charles Steele, State Family Program Director.

The sergeant major and his staff oversee 90 Army National Guard readiness groups and the Air National Guard’s mandatory group per air wing. Spread out across New York, each group is as unique as its community, a daunting task: assuring each is keeping families informed.

“We are dispersed all over the place,” Steele said. Unlike active duty brethren where families live around a base, there are no support facilities for families to get information. “So they have to be creative on where they get…support,” finding what’s available in their communities.

This may seem challenging enough, but add a war on terrorism, historical numbers of deployments and a military in transformation and the challenge shifts into overdrive. That’s where the value of strong family readiness comes in.

Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) are the key components to a Soldier or Airman’s successful deployment overseas and on the home-front.

New York’s FRGs continue to meet the unique and historical challenges tasking today’s National Guard, they said.

There is a new mindset with long-term deployments and the danger that comes with them, Steele said. He explained that getting information flowing between families and units is a challenge for FRGs.

“Information is the key,” Steele said. “On the whole, they are doing very well.”

In his office are stacks of pamphlets on stress management, benefits, wills, budgeting, and other information families might need while a loved one is away. The office also maintains a directory to keep track of families across the state. Most importantly is the readiness group information binder. Handmade for group leaders, they are frontline reference tools for New York’s scattered FRGs.

Once a year the Latham-based office holds classes for the lead volunteers across the state. An essential FRG 101, the class empowers leaders with knowledge of group dynamics and information that allows them to organize effectively.

“If they are new, we will go to train them,” said Patricia Jensen, State Family Program assistant.  Jensen explained that the goal is  … to have the group function on its own, helping the families.”

“We got up and running around April,” said Headquarters, 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division FRG co-leader, Kathy Andonie, whose husband and Soldiers deployed to Iraq for a one-year deployment.

“They guided us in the beginning … provided suggestions on what committees to form and what was needed to do.”

Her FRG has about 278 family members on a register, of that, she said around 30 members take an active role disseminating information through meetings and fundraisers at the Troy armory.

“We would like to see more people being active,” Andoni said. She explained that the added tasks of the group can often overload volunteers, who work regular jobs and support their families while loved ones are away. To tackle the work-load, the group split up responsibilities. “We made committees,” Andoni said.

Mrs. Andonie and co-leader Donna Antal, whose son is also deployed, said that the group is productive, they have guest speakers, fund-raisers and are sending their first care packages to the deployed Rainbow Division.

“We had a good turn out,” Antal said on building the care packages.

Back in Latham, the sergeant major said that groups often invite guest speakers from Tri-Care, the Red Cross and military pay specialists to help families get detailed information.

“Of course normal activities like gathering to make care packages provide an outlet to share experiences and emotions,” Steele said.

At some meetings, the families just talk. “We just go around the room telling about ourselves and such,” Andonie said, as it’s one of her more favorite things to do.

“Before deployment, the focus is the readiness, during and after the deployment the focus is support,” Jensen said. Her husband recently returned to Fort Drum from a year in Iraq as Bravo company commander, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry. As a wife of a deployed Soldier, “the group kept me informed of the unit,” she said.

As a State Family Program Assistant, Jensen makes a lot of trips around the state supporting the 90-plus FRGs.

She encourages volunteers to continue their information management after Soldiers or Airmen return from deployment.

“We try to encourage them to stay on,” she said. “Just because the deployment is over doesn’t mean FRGs are not needed.” She went on to say that maintained readiness is important, Soldiers and Airmen still deploy for their two weeks training, and to keep information flowing to the families. “When the family is happy, the Soldier is more likely to stay.”

Back at the Stratton Air National Guard Base, Keating, who has managed the Family Readiness Office for three years, says that Airmen understand her role and value to their families as an open and confidential office to turn to for help and information.

“Just listening to them helps and is the most rewarding to me,” she said. “It’s truly crucial.”

Families are encouraged to contact their armory, air base or the State Family Programs Office for information on readiness meetings and volunteer opportunities; call toll free 1-877-715-7817.

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