USS IWO JIMA, Arabian Gulf --
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.