Readiness group serves as lifeline to soldiers, families

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

Communication, networking reduce feelings of isolation

PERRY COUNTY - When soldiers deploy to faraway places, their family members take on responsibilities - and stresses - they previously shared among the spouses. Home or car repairs and other issues normally handled by one can seem daunting to another who hasn't dealt with them before. In a non-military community such as this one, a wife and mother left behind can feel overwhelmed and isolated.

That's why family-readiness groups exist, such as the one meeting at 6:30 p.m. today at the Tell City armory.

"We educate families to become self-sufficient during deployment," explained Linda Ackerman, a family-readiness support assistant assigned to the Jasper armory.

Viewers of the Lifetime Television program "Army Wives" may have heard the abbreviated term, FRG, for the family-readiness group serving its fictional Army post. Generically, they're family-support groups. The word readiness highlights their role in ensuring the soldier can perform his mission.

"For the soldier, peace of mind comes in knowing his family will be able to sustain their lifestyle," Ackerman said.

Communities on and near military bases provide support services for military spouses that aren't available to those of National Guard soldiers assigned to the armory here, whose homes are dispersed over a wide area encompassing only civilian communities.

"There is an isolation within a community that's not military-minded," said Ackerman. "There's a mindset that goes with being a military spouse; when the husband is gone, it's not easy to share with other community members."

Regardless of how a couple shares responsibilities when a soldier is home, the remaining spouse must take on those of the deployed soldier. If running the home and family on her own proves difficult, she and the family suffer and the soldier can't focus on his mission.

Communication and eliminating feelings of isolation are the major roles of FRGs, leading Ackerman to describe them as "lifelines" between the soldiers and their families, and between the families and their communities. Through the communication role, family members are kept up to date, as much as possible, on how their husbands and fathers are doing.

"We help them know what's going on with the soldiers as much as possible," Ackerman said. "We can share accurate information in a timely manner."

The communication role and the network FRGs provide help eliminate the feelings of isolation. The network includes other families who understand the challenges of temporary single parenthood. Also involved are community agencies and military officials up to and including the state National Guard commander.

"We promote self-sufficiency, resiliency and stability in families," Ackerman said.

She found she needed lifelines when her husband deployed in November 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The couple was trying to refinance their home at the time, and unaware of the FRG's existence, she was left to negotiate the complexities of that process by herself. Even when her husband was only as far away as Terre Haute, she said, "things broke and there were no resources I could call."

When she needed to replace her roof after a storm, "it was devastating," she said.

Because she went through those struggles, she's working to revive the Tell City FRG, once admired by others for its members' support of each other and their deployed loved ones.

During previous deployments, "soldiers of other units in Iraq couldn't believe the Tell City-based soldiers were getting all these packages," Mary Bunner said at a July FRG meeting. She resigned as the group's president after husband Larry retired from the National Guard, but both are interested in reviving it.

Every soldier who was over there should be sitting in this room," Larry Bunner said, because they know what it's like."

Ackerman was asked to find out why membership and activity have lagged.

"Tell City and Perry County have been so supportive, I hate to see it not have an FRG," she said during the same July meeting. She knows there are people here who would benefit from an active group, "so I don't want to see it fold. We have a lot of ideas, but we can't pull them off without people to step up to the plate."

Anyone can "step up," she said, including current and former service members, families and other volunteers.

Other resources

In addition to support groups in many communities, a number of resources exist online for spouses of deployed soldiers. One at www.inarng.org/Family%20Program/readiness.htm and another at www.militaryonesource.com provide links to a variety of information. Yet another at www.tricare.mil.htm provides information on a health-insurance program families can use while their soldiers are on active duty.