Story by Bryan Gatchell, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Nov. 6, 2017) – To bring to light issues that affect Army family readiness, several delegates from different on-post populations and organizations formed the Army Family Action Plan conference Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 at Fort Benning’s Army Community Service.
As part of the conference, the delegates brought forward the following issues: continuity of TRICARE coverage for beneficiaries of Soldiers who share custody and an Army youth career-building paid internship program. The conference deemed these issues likely to affect Soldiers and families at installations throughout the U.S. Army.
The Army Family Action Plan, or AFAP, which is a department-wide program to identify issues that affect the quality of life of Soldiers and their family members, culminates at the local level with an annual conference. The conference takes place over the course of three days. During that time, several community members – active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard Soldiers, family members, civilians and retirees – learn about their roles and responsibilities as delegates so they may collaborate on what issues are important to them and the demographic they represent, determine which issues take priority, and work that issue into a clear statement for elevation to the command level and possibly to the Army level.
At the beginning of the conference, Col. Clinton W. Cox, garrison commander for U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, talked about the importance of the conference.
“I think you realize how important this is to how we function as an organization and how we take care of families,” said Cox to the delegates. “Your voice can be heard all the way up to the Department of the Army.”
Nicole Heller, the AFAP manager, expressed why it is important AFAP gives community members a voice.
“Everything that’s part of our community affects mission,” said Heller. “It affects our readiness, it affects our families, it affects our Soldiers’ ability to function in the Army lifestyle. So it’s important they know they have a voice.”
During the conference, military personnel are in civilian clothing and are not referred to by rank. Conference administration, which includes the facilitators, recorders, transcribers and subject matter experts, are there to help the delegates work the issues but are not there to contribute their own ideas.
“The rules we have in place for our staff and for the subject matter experts not to give their own opinions – to give our take on things – we don’t want that group to be skewed in any way,” said Heller. “We may have a perspective or a feel of how things should go, and we may not be seeing it from the family or the Soldier perspective. Because it’s their voice and their conference, we want to keep that intact.”
Sharon McKean, Employment Readiness, served as the recorder for the event, which meant she captured ideas on easel paper. McKean has worked on three other conferences.
“Everyone in that room is a different demographic for a reason,” said McKean. “They are all either selected, or they have all volunteered. A lot of them didn’t know what AFAP was to begin with, but they are a voice for a specific demographic within our community.”
Faith Chick, ACS volunteer with the Army Family Team Building program and Army Family Action Plan, served as facilitator for the AFAP conference. Her role during the conference was to ensure that conference members were able to express their viewpoint freely by limiting outside influence on conference members. She has served in an administrative role for three previous AFAP conferences.
“The hardest part about being a staff member in the room is giving priority and space and encouraging their involvement while acknowledging that I’m human, so of course I’m going to have opinions,” said Chick. “Self-regulation comes from valuing the process and understanding if I don’t, then I’m impeding the process in some way. This is not my platform, this is our platform.”
Another impediment administrators helped delegates avoid was keeping delegates’ viewpoints from becoming too “emotionally charged,” as Chick put it.
“They did a really good job of trying to remove a lot of the emotion,” said Chick of the delegates. “They debated very professionally and diplomatically, which was really cool to see.
The process by which locally generated proposals make move to the Department of the Army begins with the garrison commander. Cox signs off on the issues, and then they move to the headquarters of Installation Management Command in San Antonio. IMCOM reviews the issues to see whether they may be resolved at the IMCOM level or whether the issue requires elevation to the Department of the Army.
“Some of the things that will flush out in here are going to be Fort Benning-isms,” said Cox to the delegates at the beginning. “That’s good. Identify those because that gives us stuff to work on and fix here at our level. Hopefully there’s at least one or two big ideas that will come out of here that will shape the way the Department of the Army takes care of families.”
Since AFAP’s inception in 1983, 698 issues have entered AFAP. Of those 698 issues, 528 found resolution: 129 through pieces of legislation, 187 through policy changes, and 212 through improvement of programs and services. There are currently 10 active AFAP issues.
Some of the higher visibility impacts AFAP has had include the conferral of Montgomery GI Bill benefits to dependents, the creation of the family readiness groups, the creation of Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, and paternity leave for Soldiers.
ISSUES FROM BENNING
When the AFAP conference here formally closed, a spokesperson for the delegates, Matthew Nygren of the Army National Guard Warrior Training Center at Harmony Church, served as spokesperson. He delivered the results to the command group Nov. 2.
The first issue was ensuring TRICARE coverage for beneficiaries of Soldiers who share custody. The issue paper put it so:
Soldiers who share custody of dependents are unable to maintain continuity of care when transitioning health insurance coverage for visits over 30 days in excess of 100 miles. Soldiers must contact TRICARE to change beneficiaries’ region status before leaving and before returning to primary residence. This process occurs several times within a year adding stress to an already fractured family situation. During the process, beneficiaries may lose their [primary care manager] and active referrals at the primary residence. Soldiers also incur additional out-of-pocket cost for having to switch to TRICARE Standard. The inability to maintain continuity of care causes undo stress for Soldiers who share custody, which affects Soldier and Family Readiness.
The recommendation the delegates offered was to “create a coding system to tag shared custody beneficiaries of Soldiers similar to an EFMP identifier to allow continuity of care between regions.”
Nygren explained how the original issue submitted through AFAP evolved into the issue they presented to the garrison command team.
“We feel it’s important to enable the health care systems and the individual Soldiers and families to manage those financial resources by having to go through this continual process,” said Nygren.
This particular issue began differently than what the AFAP conference produced.
“This was kind of an offshoot of an issue of one of the 10 that we originally had,” said Nygren to the audience of delegates, ACS staff, USAG Fort Benning command group, and subject matter experts. “We got into the facts, found some stuff that there were already programs and policies in place. And then we found that this could be an issue that impacts individuals that travel outside of that 100-mile radius in TRICARE.”
The second issue presented at the out-brief was about standardization of paid internships for dependent youths, ages 12 to 21. The scope of the issue was as follows:
Across the Army there is not a standardized career-building program for youth dependents to gain workplace experience. There are limited employment opportunities for youth dependents due to frequent moves. This makes networking and making connections to find employment challenging without a standardized program. Night and weekend hours are also difficult to obtain. There is no one-stop resource program, or continuity in youth employment services across all installations, making the job search more difficult. Youth dependents are at a disadvantage because there are no standardized resource programs available that provide employment opportunities.
The recommendation that resulted from the above was to “create a standardized career-building paid internship program for youth dependents.”
“Just volunteering is good, but giving specific job skills that gets them into that mindset of employment, it starts that career going forward and helps them focus on what they’re going to do in the future for college,” said Nygren. “This can help improve and develop the future Army family by having this consistent program. So as people PCS throughout their career and the youths follow, the families have a consistent, focused program that’s the same at all installations.”
Thomas Jones, a Soldier with the 30th Adjutant General Reception Battalion, said researching the programs for dependent youths was a challenge the delegates had to work through.
“We found out there were programs in the past,” said Jones. “We found out some installations still have HIRED! (an Army youth apprenticeship program), but it’s kind of phasing out. So we were trying to see if we could have one standardized program for the youth at all installations that fits the budget that they’ve got the resources for. If the resources are already there – that’s something we were looking for.”
“Almost all the issues we had were good, well-written issues, and they brought forth some good subjects,” said Nygren of the 10 issues they winnowed down to two.
HOW TO HELP THROUGH AFAP
The conference at Fort Benning is an annual event, but AFAP is a year-round process. Anyone may submit an issue to Army Community Service for AFAP review by visiting https://benning.armymwr.com/programs/army-community-services1.
“It’s easy in military life for the service member and the family member and everyone in between to feel like military life happens to you,” said Chick. “So much you get told to do, or you find out and you have to deal with it. But this, AFAP, is a program that really allows the people in this life to have the agency and realize that it isn’t just something that happens to them but is something they can affect.”
McKean said while living in Germany, she saw how AFAP allowed Gold Star family members to gain access to space-available flights from outside the continental U.S.
“There are real Army issues that affect real family members that come out of this (process),” she said. “When you look at the past and how our family quality of life, and our Soldier quality of life, and our DoD civilian quality of life have changed because of AFAP – I like being a part of that.
“It’s important,” McKean continued. “We’re changing people’s lives. We’re changing the Army for the next generation.”
Several delegates did not know what AFAP was when they arrived Oct. 31. Nygren did not initially believe that he brought much – in the way of viewpoint – to the conference.
“I’m a single Soldier on post, a National Guard guy, what am I going to bring to the table?” asked Nygren rhetorically. “But my perspective was very helpful, even as a single Soldier not related to family stuff.”
Though Jones felt that there were a few points of contention, the individuals in the group “agreed to disagree.”
“We all came down, put our heads together and got it done,” said Jones. “I commend everybody who was in there for that. There was no individual. Everybody was working toward the same goal.”