The Family Readiness Group (FRG)

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Chapter 2: Family Support for Reserve Component Units
Families are essential when it comes to readiness and soldier support. It is widely accepted that taking care of the family is the same as taking care of the soldier. More emphasis has been placed in this area in recent years than ever before. The Family Readiness Group (FRG) is the centerpiece of the family readiness effort. The Army recently officially replaced the Family Support Group (FSG) with "FRG" as the correct term given to activities performed in support of soldiers and their families. As was discussed in the introduction, giving support to the family has been enhanced with the idea that the family needs to be self-reliant and, therefore, ready.

There are some differences between the typical Active Component (AC) FRG and that of the Reserve Component (RC). These differences set mostly in the number and position of the personnel that steer or manage the unit-level FRG program. The typical RC unit may not have a liaison, advisor, rear detachment commander (RDC), or chairperson for each unit. Some units that are collocated in an Army Reserve center or Army National Guard (ARNG) armory are near each other geographically. Therefore, it is easier to consolidate programs, allowing one FRG to serve many smaller units. Consolidation at the center or armory also facilitates resourcing an active program. Most units contacted by CALL during the collection of lessons for this newsletter admitted to having a lack of volunteers to manage all of the programs. This is a constant challenge for every unit's leadership.

This chapter examines the organization and operations of successful FRGs in the Army Reserve and ARNG today. There are six main objectives of the FRG:

  • Through education and experiences, increase the families' knowledge of the unit's mission and the organization of the Guard and Reserves.
  • Educate families so they are more aware of benefits and entitlements if their soldier is activated.
  • Assist in the development of family readiness plans.
  • Enhance outreach programs by offering information and referrals to military and community resources.
  • Encourage participation by soldiers, civilian employees, retirees, and family members in unit ctivities to establish a bonding relationship that aids in readiness and retention.
  • Develop in families and soldiers the self-reliance necessary to resolve problems, especially during periods of military separation.

FRG Organization and Operations

One of the FRG aims is to serve as a link between the deployed unit and soldiers' families, whether those families remain at home station or move to some other location. In this capacity, the FRG serves as a conduit for command information on deployment and redeployment dates, changes in the unit's status or mission, and other items of interest to family members. The FRG also facilitates deployment, redeployment, and benefits briefings and activities in conjunction with the unit commander, RDC, and any installation, center, or armory support agencies that may be close enough to be used. The FRG additionally serves as a mutual support group for family members, stepping in with advice, personal counseling, or assistance when families have problems during the unit deployment.

When Army Reserve and ARNG members are called to active duty, their families need timely information and accurate answers to their questions that directly address their needs and concerns. In some instances, they may be unable to get answers, information, or family-related services due to the geographical distance from a military installation. In fact, some 245,000 (or 43 percent) of the 576,000 Army Reserve soldiers in troop program units (TPUs) live more that 50 miles from the closest active duty military base or post. Some families might not know where to turn for assistance when their soldier is deployed, or they may not even know that assistance is available. It may come as a shock to some that many RC families do not currently have an ID card to give them access to benefits such as medical or dental care, commissary privileges, or other important services. Some RC families have never heard the terms CHAMPUS, TRICARE, or SGLI. They do not know that DEERS enrollment is mandatory to receive benefits for which they are entitled based on the death or incapacitation of the soldier.

The organization of an FRG is important in how well the group functions during times of peacetime and deployment. Army Reserve and ARNG units follow the same regulations and Department of the Army Pamphlets the active units are required to use.

Photo of young boy

Example of an effective FRG

Key Lessons Learned

  • The most important lesson learned from canvassing many RC units is that the most effective FRGs are those established as part of the unit's ongoing and routine mission preparation, rather than those created just prior to deployment.

  • The most successful FRGs are those in which the FRG leadership maintains close and frequent contact with the RDC and the designated family readiness liaison, as appropriate.

  • In effective FRGs, both the rear detachment and the FRG track family problems from the time they become known to the time the problem is resolved.

  • Many lessons learned by the AC can and should be closely read by the RC, as they will have similar points.

The following is from an FRG newsletter article written by LTC Kathleen Ellis. This article was sent by Mrs. Kathi Altshuler, FRG Advisor to the 89th Regional Support Command (89th RSC) located in Wichita, Kansas:

Recently, a Family Readiness Support Liaison Officer asked me, "How is a Family Support Group telephone tree supposed to work? I know what the Army regulations say, but does it really work like it says?" We recently had a chance to test Army doctrine on this matter and see if it really worked as it is supposed to.

Several weeks ago, Patty Allen, the telephone tree coordinator for an HHC of a Civil Affairs CMD Family Support Group (FSG), was having another sleepless night. Since her husband, Command Sergeant Major Allen, had left for Bosnia, sleepless nights were the rule rather than the exception. The FSG is the beneficiary of these lay-awake nights. Patty often spends this time doing family support it creating leaflets that curb rumors or updating rosters to assure we have the correct phone numbers for our soldiers' family members.

Unable to sleep, she decided to listen to the news on TV. The time was 3 a.m. Suddenly, Patty was very alert, not believing what she had heard. A helicopter had crashed earlier in Bosnia. Eleven people had died. Who were they? Were any of our soldiers from the CA CMD on the helicopter? The news reporter did not answer these questions. Patty would have to wait.

By 9 a.m., Patty had called Kathi Altshuler, the FSG advisor with the news. Kathi had just received an e-mail from her husband, BG H.L. Altshuler, with the details of the crash. The good news was that according to the released message none of our soldiers or other American troops were on the helicopter that crashed.

However, it was critical that this information be relayed immediately to the telephone tree volunteers. They, in turn, would contact the family members assigned to them and reassure them that their loved ones were not on that helicopter. Kathi forwarded the e-mail to Patty, and Patty activated the telephone tree. Patty called each of her volunteers with the information on the crash and they, in turn, immediately called the family members. In the meantime, Kathi contacted the CA CMD and provided the same information to the full-time staff working there. The staff passed this information on to the subordinate units. Within a few hours, the job was done - all the families had been contacted.

By activating the telephone tree support network in such a timely manner, the volunteers were able to reduce the anxiety and stressful fears of family members who did not know if their spouses, or significant others, were safe.

FRG Mission, Issues, and Workload

The 49th Armor Division (TXARNG) was deployed to Bosnia for 9 months beginning in February 2000. Statistics from the 49th AD show that 186 phone calls were received by the state-supported Family Support Center. The breakdown of the nature of those calls follows:

Breakdown of calls to 49th AD Family Support Center

Active duty leaders indicate that about 90 percent of the family problems they see during deployments are financial in nature. According to the above list, RC units tend to see more requests for whom to call or for information, although calls about a financial topic were a close second. This would indicate that RC units need more education for the spouses. This is because AC spouses are closer to facilities and have daily contact with their benefits when compared to the typical RC spouse. Many of the other problems commonly resulted from poor communication between spouses and soldiers. Frequently, soldiers deploy without completely explaining what bills are to be paid, or they fail to provide their spouses with access to all of the financial instruments needed to make those payments. Both AC and RC FRG leaders cite the month immediately following the unit's deployment as the worst period for these financial problems. During that month, in addition to discovering that they did not know what bills to pay, where to pay them, or how to pay them, the demands and stresses of separation overwhelmed many spouses, compounding the financial problems.

The FRGs of Task Force Eagle units played a critical role in controlling rumors related to the unit deployments, thus enhancing the unit's command information programs. Units have a responsibility to support the rear detachment and FRG efforts with timely and accurate information. A deployed unit's FRG plays an important role in limiting rumors among the soldiers' families. The FRG leadership may use a variety of means to disseminate information, including newsletters, monthly meetings, bulletin boards, scheduled monthly activation of the FRG phone tree, Internet sites, or other techniques. Rear detachment personnel and FRG leaders from Task Force Eagle units often posted themselves at the Family Readiness Center (FRC) during blocks of video-teleconferencing (VTC) time or at other places they were likely to find unit spouses.

Photo of Bosnia Deployment Information on the Bulletin Board at a Family Readiness Center
Bosnia Deployment Information on the Bulletin Board
at a Family Readiness Center

Key Lessons Learned

  • The FRG must be prepared to advise spouses of deployed soldiers on how to handle financial problems.

  • The FRG must also be prepared to control the spread of rumors and disseminate information. It must also be prepared to make arrangements for communication between family members and the deployed soldier.

The FRG Leadership

The primary factor in determining the success of a unit FRG is the energy level of its leaders. Company and battalion FRG operations are successful or not successful based on the energy of the personnel leading the family support initiatives at home station and on the command emphasis placed on FRG operations. In most cases, the best approach to identifying the leadership of the FRG is to ask for volunteers among the soldiers' spouses. The FRGs in which the commander or 1SG's spouse took the lead without really wanting to be involved generally suffered later. At the same time, it is desirable to have someone lead the FRG whose spouse is of moderate rank within the military unit. This criterion was identified as important for the simple reason that the primary goal of the FRG is to disseminate unit information. Those individuals with less rank within the organization tend to get less information informally, or they get the information later in the process than those of higher rank.

Often FRG leaders are overwhelmed during unit deployments. FRG leaders were identified as caring, energetic, and charismatic volunteers who kept working until the job was done. At the same time, many of these FRG leaders were overworked, particularly in cases where units were unexpectedly extended in the theater of operations. Additionally, support agency personnel noted that FRG leaders often tended to try to help everyone by themselves, instead of relying on agency personnel or other spouses within FRG. Unfortunately, it was also noted that other spouses, upon seeing that the FRG leader was willing to work all issues, were more than willing to leave the myriad tasks to the FRG leader to accomplish alone. FRG leaders should delegate problem-solving to other responsible spouses, installation support agencies (if close enough), and rear detachment personnel.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Successful FRG leaders generally are charismatic, people-oriented, energetic persons who tend to volunteer their time to the community in other ways as well.

  • The spouses of company leaders should serve on the FRG steering committee, regardless of their general interest in FRG operations, to facilitate the general two-way flow of information and to assist the FRG in making organizational decisions.

FRG Tasks Before, During, and After Deployment

According to USARC Regulation 608-1, Family Readiness Handbook, to be considered functional, an FRG must perform a minimum of seven requirements. These tasks are:

  • Develop a family concern tree and recruit a chairperson to serve as the point of contact.
  • Provide outreach to new family members and sponsor new families at least twice a year. One contact will be within the first 24 hours the soldier is deployed.
  • Provide information and referral to military organizations, veteran organizations, and social service agencies that provide services to military members and their families. Maintain a contact listing of these agencies and update it annually.
  • Recruit family member volunteers.
  • Ensure volunteers attend training, such as the Family Program Academy.
  • Ensure volunteers complete appropriate forms for reimbursement and logging of hours served.
  • Publish and mail a newsletter to the soldier's family.

Tasks that should be conducted before deployment:

A functional FRG has many tasks that should be conducted when a unit is notified of a deployment. Commanders and FRG leaders should screen their soldiers to find those who have family members with special circumstances or special care needs. In addition to screening soldiers' family members for pregnancies, exceptional family member medical conditions, and other situations prior to deployment, units should be aware of family members who might not speak English so that they can properly plan alternative means to keep those family members informed. After identifying those individuals with special circumstances, it is then necessary to adapt an overall FRG plan for those special needs.

An FRG should also determine which spouses plan on departing the home station area after the unit deploys. Spouses may desire to live with relatives during the deployment; the unit and FRG leaders need to make special provisions to disseminate information to them and assist with medical care, dental care, and other personnel services.

Tasks that should be completed during a deployment:

During a recent deployment of RC units to Bosnia, informal sampling indicated that 10 to 25 percent of soldier families in most units relocated away from the vicinity of the home station installation during the period of the deployment. In addition, some of the individual augmentees' families also relocated during their deployment windows. While the task force commander made arrangements for these families to have access to command information through a toll-free telephone number and through a frequently updated website, some soldiers reported difficulties with family support. Specific problems included securing healthcare, dental care, and access to commissaries and other military facilities. Soldiers also reported problems with phones (no DSN access) and difficulty in achieving access to command information at the unit level.

Once the unit learns that the troops are coming home, arrangements should be made to conduct reunion briefings. Observation has shown that deployed task forces that conducted well-prepared and comprehensive reunion briefings significantly reduced incidences of spousal abuse, DUIs, and other redeployment problems among unit soldiers. Some deployed units provided group counseling and briefings on the likely sources of friction among family members after a lengthy separation. The briefings included issues of control and established routines in the family that may have changed during the separation, in addition to changed financial circumstances and renewed relationships with children. The units also conducted briefings aimed at ensuring that soldiers used alcohol responsibly upon their return, a particularly appropriate topic since alcohol had been off-limits during the months of deployment. Chaplains served as the primary action agent for the briefings in the field, and FRG leaders and RDCs facilitated the briefings at home station.

Tasks that should be completed during both pre- and post-deployment:

Unit funds. During regular drills, the FRG shifts to a slightly different mission. It must continually educate soldiers and families. This is a very difficult task given the distance some soldiers commute to attend drills. One technique may be to hold special functions, such as the yearly Christmas party or a summer picnic. These activities take time to plan and execute properly. The FRG must conduct activities that generate funds for future activities. One method of raising funds is to sell donuts and fruit each morning of the weekend drill. (The IRS may grant a tax-exempt number for this purpose, which will make the initial cost of the food less.) Toys may be purchased throughout the year and volunteers requested to accompany the soldier during the October and November drills to help wrap the presents. Car washes and bake sales usually do not generate the amount of funds required for the FRG to sustain itself for a year. Applicable regulations contain requirements and limitations on raising funds, establishing a bank account, accounting for the funds, and auditing the account.

New Families. Sponsoring new families is a daunting task and one that should be handled by only experienced FRG members. It is important to bring new families into the Army family and show them that they have rights and benefits. One unit has a practice of having a first-line leader or representative visit a soldier's house to explain what benefits the family would receive if the soldier was activated. This practice does a number of things. First, it gives the spouse the feeling that the Army really does care. It also introduces the spouse to someone in the unit whom they will recognize at the next FRG meeting. Then when they feel comfortable with attending at least one meeting, they are introduced to other families so that a ring of support is established. Another technique is to send a letter to each family during periods of annual training listing the benefits they would receive if the soldier was deployed. The downside to these practices is that, occasionally, spouses will call requesting that their soldier be placed on a long-term deployment so that they can start receiving the benefits right away.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Use USARC Regulation 608-1, Family Readiness Handbook, or the ARNG equivalent to ensure that the unit FRG is functional. Be creative in developing plans and activities to involve and inform family members.

  • The FSR must be functional year round so that if the unit deploys, family members have a POC that they are familiar with and are comfortable going to for advice and council.

Training the FRG Leadership

Some units go to great lengths to train their FRG volunteers. One unit conducted extensive training prior to deployment to support the effective execution of FRG tasks at home station. Training topics included:

  • Family crisis response and referral
  • Suicide warning signs
  • Legal information
  • Family readiness group organization and operations
  • Family advocacy
  • American Red Cross capabilities
  • Childcare options
  • Sponsorship standards
  • Basic military justice
  • Supply accountability
  • Personnel policies and accountability
  • Chaplain support services
  • Casualty procedures
  • Basic finance
  • Public affairs
  • Physical security

The commander conducted situational training exercises (STX) designed to ensure that FRG and rear detachment personnel would respond effectively to the inevitable challenges that would arise during the deployment.

The Family Program Academy conducts training for all family readiness personnel. This training is particularly important for the volunteers and spouses that may be new to the Army Reserve or National Guard. Appendix A provides the course catalog from the academy. Most of the topics listed in the course catalog are taught at each of the academies. Experience and participation of the attendees may not allow for the inclusion of all topics at every academy.

Key Lesson Learned: The unit commander should ensure that FRG leaders have attended the Family Program Academy.

Photo of a Family Readiness Group Leader Consulting with a Rear Detachment Commander at the Family Readiness Center
A Family Readiness Group Leader Consults with a
Rear Detachment Commander at the Family Readiness Center

Statement by LTC John Wright, MP Battalion Commander, MOARNG

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Chapter 2: Family Support for Reserve Component Units

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