USS IWO JIMA, Red Sea -- 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 (LINKS) 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:
• Understand your CO's intent for his or her Family Readiness Program
• Know the families and have an open door policy for them
• Know the Marines
• Understand the new funding regulations and partner with Marine Corps Community Services
• Understand your role as a command representative first and foremost, not just as an MCCS employee
• Make a clear distinction between "official" functions organized and sponsored by the command and "social" functions organized by others
• Clearly delineate the FRO's duties and responsibilities; avoid "mission creep"
• Partner with your fellow FROs
• Experiment – each command has its own unique needs and concerns
"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:
• Is prepared for family separation and life events
• Can assume responsibilities when the Marine or sailor departs
• Is informed and able to use benefits, entitlements, programs and services
• Knows the command structure and resources available
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."