HEAD OF THE FAMILIES

They Called, I Answered. It Got to Me.

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By Kayt Sukel
Sunday, September 21, 2008

BEDESBACH, Germany

When my husband deployed to Iraq for the second time in April, he left me responsible for the following things: our 3-year-old son, our finances and his company-level family readiness group, or FRG.

The last is the Army's reinvention of the old-school military family support group. The informal, potluck-supper and sympathy-casserole model that had prevailed during past conflicts wasn't going to cut it for the long, frequent deployments of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So the Army created the FRG, an official, solidly regulated organization run by family volunteers, with the dual goal of supporting both families and the military mission.

I'd be lying if I said that the idea of leading the FRG hadn't held some initial appeal. During my husband's first sojourn in the Iraqi desert in 2003, I'd thought the organization was poorly managed. So when Nick got his first command a little more than two years ago, I was happy to take the group's helm, as the commander's wife traditionally does. I knew I could do better.

But that was before the telephone calls started.

"You got the president of the United States on the news saying that deployments are now only going to be a year. Why doesn't that apply to us?"

From a distance, it looked simple enough. The FRG leader training class at our small post in Germany clearly laid out my mission. I was to be a referral and information service, to help spouses navigate the Army bureaucracy and let them know what services were available to them. If someone needed a ride to the commissary, I'd provide the post's daily shuttle schedule. If someone had a complaint about her husband's supervisor making him work long hours, I would gently remind her that it was a "green-suit," or Army, issue that her husband would need to take up the chain of command. I was to make it plain that there were appropriate ways to address issues. I wasn't a direct conduit to the top just because I happened to share a bed with the guy in charge.

I was there to help organize bake sales to provide funds for unit T-shirts or holiday events. I was there to help plan kid-friendly trips to the local zoo and barbecues to keep morale up while the soldiers were away. I was there to make sure that new families got the handy-dandy welcome binder and to recruit and direct volunteers. And I was there to activate our phone tree, so that critical information from the commander about events, deployments or, in the worst case, a soldier's injury or death, was respectfully communicated to each and every spouse.

But unmistakably, I was not to get overly involved.

"Think of yourself as the policeman directing traffic at an intersection," the instructor told us. "That policeman doesn't pull or push cars across the crossroads. He doesn't allow the cars to get too close. He merely directs, allowing those cars to move ahead on their own steam." She did not, however, address how to handle situations when the cars ran out of steam, beyond telling us, "Know that it's okay to say, 'This is not an FRG issue' and end it there."

"He didn't come home last night. My friend said she saw him out with another woman at the clubs."


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