Navy ignores IA Families


10-Year Member
Jul 9, 2006

Navy ignores IA families, critics say

Fleet reaches out to spouses with relocation stipends, newsletters
By Chris Amos - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Mar 25, 2008 5:48:51 EDT

Maggie Haas has endured three deployments. Each one was hard, but she says the support she received from the Navy and from other Navy families helped her endure.
But the fourth deployment was different. Instead of deploying with a P-3 squadron, her husband, Lt. Cmdr. James Haas, went to Iraq as an individual augmentee. He was one of two sailors attached to the Army’s 3,000-member 3rd Brigade Combat Team, where he worked with an electronic warfare unit that jammed roadside bombs.
Haas said she doesn’t know what a brigade is. She didn’t know why the Navy would send a pilot to help an Army unit search for roadside bombs in Iraq. She didn’t know where in Iraq her husband was and was unsure of who she should contact if she needed assistance. And although she lives within a half-hour drive of one of the largest concentrations of Navy installations in the world, she felt the Navy had abandoned her.
Haas is one of the people the Navy — which is rolling out a series of programs to make the process easier for sailors and their families — is trying to help.
“There are a million IAs here,” she said last fall. “I just don’t know anybody. The times before, I had other Navy wives and kids. We got together at least once a month, if not more. We had parties and holidays together. Now, it’s just me and our kids. It would be nice if we felt like we were in the Navy.”
Former Navy ombudsman Beth Wilson, who has written opinion columns for Navy Times, said she has been hearing complaints similar to Haas’ for several years. She said those complaints point to problems in the IA process, which uses individual sailors to fill vacancies in deployed Army and Marine units — mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the Horn of Africa and at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Wilson hears from IA families who say they are given only a few days’ notice that their loved ones will deploy, that many family members are never contacted by a Navy ombudsman during deployment, that others don’t even know who their ombudsman is, that there is no Navy-wide training to prepare families for what they and their sailors will face.
“Why are we sending people on one of the most difficult deployments they will ever go on without giving their families access to support?” she asked.
Data provided by Navy Personnel Command show that more than 60 percent of active sailors and 75 percent of reservists have spouses or children. If those numbers are extrapolated to the IA population, at least 33,000 family members — probably many more — have sailors who have been sent on IA deployments.
Those numbers and the intensity of complaints have led top Navy officers to take notice.
“Too often, IA families are completely forgotten about by parent commands,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chief of naval operations, in a podcast released in September. “IA spouses have used the word ‘orphan’ to describe themselves. We have got 10,000 IAs throughout the Navy, individuals, who have volunteered and are serving overseas, in some cases away from their families for a year. I haven’t been happy with the way we have treated either the members or their spouses.
“This is about retention; it’s about the kind of focus that we need to make sure we have for our families.”
The Navy has taken several steps to address the complaints. IA newsletters and discussion groups have been created, individual units have been ordered to call family members during deployments, grant programs that allow deployed sailors to monitor their child in school electronically have been created and larger commands have made plans to send specially trained counselors overseas to greet returning IAs before they leave the theater.
But a big problem, according to Wilson and another ombudsman, Taya Neely, is that many of the reforms are left up to local commands because there is little standardization. That leads to a mixed bag of results.
She also said improving the IA support structure should include allowing sailors and their families to take part in overlooked Navy institutions, such as homecoming ceremonies.
“Roses, new babies, everybody is there,” Wilson said. “The emotional and psychological benefit of that event for the family member and sailor is beyond my ability to express. Here we have people deployed under the most difficult circumstances. Where is the fanfare when they get home? Emotionally, that validates what they have done. It is the springboard to their psychological recovery.”
Larger commands such as Fleet and Family Readiness centers San Diego and Norfolk, Va., have done a better job of supporting IAs, Wilson and Neely say. But smaller commands, and especially reserve commands, have struggled to provide support for family members of IAs.
Calling six months late

Andrea Bedard said her husband, a hospital corpsman stationed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., deployed to Iraq last year.
Bedard said there has been little support from the Navy, but that she did get an introductory call in October — six months after her husband left home — from a nearby Fleet and Family Readiness Center at Fort Meade, Md.
“You know what?” Bedard, who has a 2-year old daughter, said she told them, “At this point, I don’t need any help. It took you six months to figure out to call me?” The caller told her that her office only receives contact information from an office in Norfolk sporadically and that sometimes the IA deployment has ended by time they get in touch with the family member.
While her husband was gone, Bedard said she had to replace the roof on her house, fix a broken water heater that flooded her basement and deal with news reports of violence in Anbar province not knowing if her husband was safe.
“You are scared the whole time,” she said. “It’s different from a ship deployment. My imagination just went wild. I had nobody to talk to about it. It was horrible.”
The main problem, Wilson says, is that the Navy does not have a centralized system of identifying IAs or a standardized process of dealing with their families.
Fleet and Family Readiness officials say they are working to establish a top-down management system, but say the transition has been difficult because IA deployments are so different from what anyone in the Navy is used to supporting.
One way to combat these differences would be to allow family members to move to larger commands while their sailors are deployed, Wilson said.
The Navy apparently has thought the same thing. All IAs are now being assigned to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Command at Little Creek, Va. This will have little effect on service members — most will spend just a few days at their new bases before heading overseas. But each IA family member now will be able to move to either Norfolk or San Diego — or to a closer Navy location — at government expense while their sailor is gone.
Wilson said that change was a good idea because it will give IA family members the option of moving to a command that has large numbers of IA sailors, increasing their access to Navy support structures.
This is particularly important for families of reservists, since many live hundreds of miles from the nearest Navy base, making accessing military health clinics, commissaries, recreational facilities and other amenities next to impossible.
But, the program is only open to families of active sailors and only about 30 percent of them are choosing to participate, a Navy Personnel Command spokesman said.
Moreover, families are limited to moving to the coast their sailor expects to return to — meaning that if a sailor’s next orders after his IA assignment are to a smaller coastal base, the sailor’s family could face two moves in less than a year.
Bedard said moving to Norfolk or San Diego is not an option for her because she owns a small business in the Washington area, has a small child and knows nobody in either city.
Neely said the program would not work for many reservists.
“These are families that normally live a civilian lifestyle,” Neely, an ombudsman for Embedded Training Team Afghanistan, said. “They have homes. They have careers. What is going to make that family member move to a different location to start over for a year? They have no idea.”