USS IWO JIMA, Arabian Gulf -- More than a name change, Part 1
discussed implementation of the new Family Readiness Program. In Part 2
, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Commander Col. Mark Desens described the change as a paradigm shift from former programs. Family Readiness Officer Kelly Cotton described some of the things the FRP can do for a unit.
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."
-- Continued in the final installment, More Than a Name Change Part 4, which discusses accomplishments of the new program and lessons learned by the 26th MEU.