Oct. 11, 2006 For officers in the V.I. Army and Air National Guard (VING), overseas travel had never previously been an essential part of the job. However, the conflicts in the Middle East have changed all that: For the past three years more than 400 VING personnel have been deployed to destinations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
With 20 percent of its staff being full-time officers, many officers being deployed are part-time guardsmen.
Families of guardsmen, who were previously used to being away from loved ones for two or three weeks, are now gone for more than six months at a time. To offset the loss due to increased overseas deployment, VING has increased its Family Program Office (FPO) staff, which — through Military One Source — attempts to support all needs of deployed guardsmen's families.
Military One Source (MOS) is a national organization that looks for trends within geographical areas in order to better meet the needs of soldiers and families. MOS guides FPO staff as to which areas need to be addressed for the betterment of soldiers and to aid in the hardships many families go through. FPO is not exclusively for guardsmen — any family member from any branch of the military can receive support.
"We make sure family members are getting the support they need," said St. Thomas FPO Family Assistance Coordinator Harry Daniels. Daniels is a VING veteran of the Vietnam War. "We do a lot of training workshops and social activities geared for children," Daniels said.
FPO uses its facilities to assist families in times such as this when parental teams are a player short, so to speak. FPO helps guide families with financial concerns to the appropriate financial institutions or counselors. FPO also directs families to counselors trained to help children and spouses cope with the void left when a soldier is deployed. "We are a referral service," said Daniels, adding that FPO does not assist the family directly.
VING's spokesperson, non-commissioned officer Sgt. First Class Karen D. Williams, said deployment of an officer can be within a unit or as an individual. Prior to 1995, VING sent many officers away for training and short periods of deployment.
In December 1995 the 113th mobile public affairs detection unit was deployed to Bosnia. Williams was part of that unit. "The V.I. has never really been a place for deployment," Williams said. According to Williams, Bosnia and the 113th's mission was the first lengthy deployment in VING history.
"Deployment affects everyone differently, it depends on the individual," she said. Williams regarded her upbringing and structured life as the reason for her readiness.
While soldiers are taught how to prepare, Williams said it's different for their children. "Children experience things differently than adults and unlike adults, children do not easily know how to express their feelings." Because of the conflict in Bosnia, Williams was away from her three children and spouse for almost a year. Her deployment had such an effect on her children and their relationship that she still feels some of the effects today.
Her eldest daughter had some relationship difficulties she was able to overcome and become quite successful. Her middle child one Williams was closest to drew away from her and they are continuing to feel that void. Her youngest, a boy, was two years old at the time; he now has difficulties in school.
"Many children react with dropping grades and isolating themselves from their friends," Williams said, adding that soldiers have to relearn how to be a part of their family again. Counseling, she said, helped her realize that what she considered to be an adventure — i.e., her deployment — left unimaginable scars on her children.
FPO, headed by program director Linda Todman, is set up for families like Williams' who may encounter these particular instances. The program, which used to be a purely volunteer organization, has now expanded out of need. Contracted employees, like Daniels, have been hired to assist the now-growing number of VING soldiers returning from deployment.
At the end of October, VING will reunite more than 100 officers with their families. These officers have been away from everything they know and love for more than a year; and parents know that one year can be lifetime for children and relationships. FPO uses workshops, such as their now-popular marriage enrichment workshop, to help partners and parents answer the hard questions: What did I do wrong? Or where do I fit in?
"Most of the problems families go through when their spouse is deployed are financial," Daniels said. Some of the problems are centered on the relationship. "These soldiers are returning from war," said Williams. She said some soldiers have to keep reminding themselves they are back home and the sound of the car backfiring is not the sound of bombs going off. "Some have nightmares, and for a spouse it can also be traumatic," she said.
Over the past three years, three military doctors, a team of military police and one unit of more than 250 soldiers have been sent into war. By the end of this month, one unit will return, and before the end of the year, another unit will be sent out.
Because of the stress caused by the number of deployed soldiers, VING — along with other organizations within the Office of the Adjutant General — thinks it necessary to take some time out to say hello to partners from different departments and celebrate their families.
The 33rd anniversary of the V.I. National Guard was recognized on Oct. 7. The organization will hold its birthday party on Saturday and Sunday Oct. 14 and 15. "It's a time for us to network and let our hair down," said Williams.
Outings such as these are greatly appreciated by guardsmen and their families. Daniels said many guardsmen thank FPO and VING for the functions and workshops because they get them through tough times.
When the soldiers return home at the end of the month, they will have access to all that FPO now has to offer, including trained counselors and chaplains ready 24/7 to help families in whatever difficulties they may face when officers return.
"When deployed soldiers return, we have a reunion workshop," Daniels said. The workshop not only helps soldiers readjust to civilian life, it also assists families in adapting to the changes that can occur when a family member returns.
Daniels said FPO tries to be as knowledgeable as possible about its soldiers so they are correctly equipped to aid the families left behind. "We don't want anyone to come around saying their boyfriend was deployed, and their baby is not receiving child support," Daniels said.
If a member of your family has been recently deployed and you are seeking any help, contact the Family Program Office. On St. Croix, try 712-7787 or 712-7770; on St. Thomas, FPO can be reached at 712-7992. Military One Source can be accessed online.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.