By Ken Olsen
For more than three years, Kristy Kaufmann has been one of the most prominent voices warning that too many of the nation’s military families are quietly crumbling. The wife of a battalion commander who served in Iraq, she made her case at an invitation-only gathering between commanders, spouses and a four-star general. She delivered her message to a Cato Institute forum titled “Can the Pentagon Be Fixed?” She penned an op-ed for The Washington Post about the invisible casualties of the global war on terrorism – the families – quoting a spouse who summed it up this way: “You don’t have to be a soldier to be wounded by these wars, but no one outside of (military families) seems to know this.”
Today, despite thousands of positive responses, invitations from the White House, the creation of a Congressional Military Family Caucus and a plethora of new programs, conditions for military families continue to deteriorate, Kaufmann says.
“It hasn’t been a lack of effort, at least in the last couple of years,” she says. “It’s a lack of effective effort. I think the top level of the Army has embraced it. There hasn’t been much buy-in below that – not because post and unit leadership don’t like families, but because they are under-resourced, undertrained and don’t have sufficient incentive. I’m an optimist, and I believe in the system, but I am very, very frustrated. We still haven’t shaken things up in a way that makes a significant difference for families.”
Doing that, she contends, will require rewriting the laws and regulations that restrict groups like The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary from directly helping military family-readiness units. It will require permanent, dedicated social-work and mental-health staff at the unit level. It will require a military that holds commanders and noncommissioned officers accountable for how families are faring, and gives them the resources to support those families.
“This is not just a moral imperative, it is a national-security issue,” Kaufmann says. “If you have a broken family, you will have a broken soldier, and since less than 1 percent of the population is fighting these wars, that poses a very real problem. And we’re not even talking about the impact this will have on our country as a whole in the coming years.”
A former gymnast at the University of California, Berkeley, Kaufmann met her husband, a West Point graduate, on an impulse trip to Las Vegas. Two years later, she sold her personal-training business and became a family-support group volunteer in Fort Sill, Okla. She continued that work when her husband transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., getting what she calls “the ground’s-eye” view of life for military families. She also became increasingly frustrated.
“I tried all of the right ways at Fort Bragg,” she says. When that failed, she started making her case more publicly: writing the Post op-ed, speaking at The American Legion’s national convention in 2009, and meeting with top Army officials.
Kaufmann praises those who have acted, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Chiarelli, and Adm. Mike Mullen’s wife, Deborah, who has spoken openly about the problem of suicides among military spouses. She credits the Army for family programs such as Strong Bonds, a relationship-building retreat. The list of all that remains undone, however, is far too long, she says.
The primary tool for supporting the families of deployed soldiers, volunteer-operated family-readiness groups, “are the Army’s only unfunded mandate,” Kaufmann says.
The Army has recently responded by creating paid administrative-assistant positions for FRGs, a job whose pay fails to attract the social-work and mental-health professional skills that are desperately needed, she says.
“It’s not that the programs aren’t there on paper. The problem is in the implementation. Too often they don’t work or families don’t understand how to access or navigate them.
Kaufmann is now drafting a list of recommendations at Chiarelli’s request. She’s also struck by what this means about where things stand.
“While I’m honored to have been asked by the vice chief of staff to provide specific recommendations on how we can more holistically integrate family support throughout the Army, I think it’s emblematic of the situation, that after nine years of war, this task – at least in part – has fallen to a volunteer,” Kaufmann says. “Unless we harness everybody in this, we will lose a generation of our servicemembers and our families. I would think after our Vietnam experience, we’re smart enough not to do that.”
Kristy Kaufmann’s story is part of the special report “Behind the Blue Star” about how military families are faring after nine years of war. The special report, written by Ken Olsen, was featured in the September 2010 issue of The American Legion Magazine).