Monday, August 31, 2009

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old!

PHOTO: Our children with their good friends who moved away last summer. We were so happy to be together and catch up on each other's lives.

I think that the old saying, "Make new friends, but keep the old ... One is silver and the other gold ..." has a profound significance in Army Families. First of all, you generally have no choice but to make new friends. You're either constantly moving to a new place where meeting new people is essential or you're the one left behind while good friends move away, making the task of making new friends equally important.

For my children, making friends has become somewhat of a life skill, polished by years of practice. I am amazed by their resilience and ability to strike up conversations with just about anyone, just about anywhere. In fact, the traditional safety lessons about "Stranger Danger" just don't work with our kids. To them, there is no such thing as a stranger ... what we would call "strangers" are, in their eyes, simply new friends just waiting to be made.

This past weekend, we had the joyful opportunity to spend time with some "old" Army friends. The husband is a college classmate of my husband's; the wife and I met at their wedding and became fast friends years ago when we prepared for and supported each other through our first year-long deployment. Our children are close in age and consider each other pseudo-siblings. We were all-but heartbroken when they had to move away over a year ago, but knew that, in the way the Army works, that we'd be sure to see each other again.

Our friends were able to make us a stop on their summer vacation last week and we were thrilled. One night while they were here, we gathered with some other Army friends, all anxious to see our visitors again. We all brought our children and sat outside at a lakefront restaurant, visiting, reminiscing, and solving all the world’s problems together. It occurred to me as we enjoyed the evening, laughing and remembering fun times, that this was a true joy of the Army, fast friendships with those who understand and love and live the same life you do.

So thank you, Army friends, old and new, for making this life such an enjoyable one!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Autumn in the Army

I absolutely love Autumn. It's my favorite season ... even in Texas where there is no dazzling display of leaves changing color. I love the cooler air after months of oppressive heat and humidity, the crisp smell of outdoor barbeques, the enthusiastic sounds of football teams and cheering crowds, and the many delicious flavors of Fall … pumpkin spice lattes topping the list. We decorate for Halloween, carve (or paint!) pumpkins, adore Trick-or-Treating, and enjoy a season of thanksgiving with family and friends. What’s not to love?

This Fall, I was happy to participate in a brand-new event for me. Because my husband will be taking a battalion command in the Spring, he is currently going through a series of courses to prepare him for this adventure. One part of the training includes spouses and I was able to spend an entire week with my husband at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, attending classes and getting to know others preparing for command. I was excited for a million reasons … a week with my husband, no kids, meeting new friends, and revisiting a favorite installation were but a few.

After lots of preparation (planning for two school-age boys and two sets of grandparents traveling to help out is no easy feat!), my husband and I flew to Kansas, back to place we loved being just a few short years ago. We enjoyed dinner at a favorite restaurant and reminisced on the drive to post. It felt a little like summer camp as we checked into Hoge Barracks and prepared for our week.

The week flew by but was a wonderful time of meeting great people, talking about supporting our amazing Soldiers and Families, and listening to some of the Army’s top leaders give us the latest in Army progress and guidance for the time in command. I loved hearing about initiatives designed to help our Soldiers like the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, Strong Bonds retreats, and Army Safety. I also heard a lot about the importance of Families, including promises like the Army Family Covenant, programs like the Family Readiness Support Assistants (FRSAs), and tools like the virtual Family Readiness Group (vFRG). I took a ton of notes and came home with a binder full of information to review and digest before our day comes.

I had never thought about how battalion commanders prepared for their jobs before. I’m still learning about this process, but I’m happy to report that there is a great deal of importance placed on preparation and your commanders were selected and trained to be leaders of Soldiers and Families. I really felt like I learned a lot and left feeling better prepared (though no less nervous!) for this incredible experience that awaits us. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it goes!

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Open Letter to Teachers of Military Kids

PHOTO: My military kid heading off to his first day of school.

Dear Professional Educators,

For most kids, Back to School means school supplies, new shoes, and a reluctant farewell to the lazy days of summer. For military kids, it might be a bit more complicated. If you have military kids in your classroom, this letter is just for you!

On the first day of school, many of our military kids will be attending yet another new school. They will have to learn new rules and procedures, introduce themselves to new friends, and try to find their place in a world that is brand-new to them.

Remember that they may have just moved into the area, leaving behind close friends and familiar surroundings. It could be that they are still living out of boxes since their family’s household goods were delivered the day before. Or they might be the ones who stayed in their home while their closest friends moved on to a new installation in another state. Thank you for providing them a comfortable, safe place at school to learn and grow.

If these military kids have a parent deployed, they are in a special group all to themselves. This group of children may need additional support, extra attention, and a touch of compassion for their unique situation. When a young mind is worried about the safety of their parent, it changes their perspective on life and could affect their school performance.

If one appears uninterested in geography, it may be that he is distracted, thinking about countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where his hero has been and is currently deployed. If another becomes aggressive at recess, consider that she may be acting out on emotions she doesn’t even understand. They miss their Soldier-parents. Thank you for showing them kindness and helping them learn appropriate ways to handle their frustration.

Finally, thank you for taking on the challenge of educating today’s youth. We appreciate your dedication to teaching and encouraging our children. Along with their peers, they need teachers like you, who will care about them, set high standards, and work to ensure their success. We look forward to working with you to determine the best learning possible for our kids and making this a successful school year.

Very Sincerely,

Military Parents

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Operation Purple Summer Camp for Military Kids

PHOTO: My son going through "In-Processing" at Operation Purple Camp this summer. He had a great experience and cannot wait to apply again next year.

"Can I still go if my favorite color is not purple?" This is one of the dozens of questions I answered for my nine-year-old son as we prepared for his FIRST camp experience, his first overnight stay with anyone who was not a blood relative, in fact. He was thrilled; I was worried ... the story of my life as a mom of two active boys.

I had done my research on camps in Texas, where we currently live, and knew there were a lot of great options out there. Our Cub Scout pack as well as our church Children’s Program was taking groups of kids to camp this summer. Dozens of other camps were available, too, from science camps to cooking schools to outdoor field experiences. They all sounded fun, most were reasonably priced, and my son would have enjoyed them all. So how does a mom choose?

Well, I began like I always do when I have lots of options and need to make one choice ... I made a list of Pros/Cons. It's not quite the Military Decision-Making Process, but it's a good start. Pros for Operation Purple camps included cost (can't beat FREE!), activities (swimming, kayaking, archery, riflery, and zip-lines among others), and organization. It may be silly, but I would never send my child to a camp whose initial paperwork is unorganized; it gives me a bad feeling about how they might organize my child during the camp. I envision a late-night phone call: "Mrs. Cook, we're sorry to inform you that we seem to have lost your son. We're sure he's around here somewhere, but we're not exactly sure where ...” But I digress.

So I have a list of pros and cons and Operation Purple is at the top along with a couple of other great choices. The only "cons" I could see to the camp were 1) he would have to leave Mom and spend the night somewhere else (this topped the "cons" list for all camps) and 2) it was a couple of hours away (other camps were in town or nearby). After reading all the materials, though, it became clear to me that Operation Purple was the place for my child this summer.

Unique to the camp? It is designed especially for military kids. The "purple" in "Operation Purple" means that it is all branches of service: Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, so my child would meet other kids from different military backgrounds.

Special events included a "Wall of Honor" where each child placed a photo of their service member, a panel of service members who would talk candidly and answer questions from the campers, and a special "rock" ceremony where each child contributed a rock from their area of Texas to the camp. Best of all, they had lots of discussions about what it's like to be in the military and how to cope with things like deployments and fear.

Once my choice was made, the registration process was simple and, yes, organized. Since Operation Purple is sponsored by the National Military Family Association (NMFA), I registered online at the NMFA website. The subsequent emails I received were timely, informational, and reassuring. After I found out that our application had been accepted and that my son was selected (apparently there is a waiting list each year and applications are reviewed by a committee of some sort), I was sent some paperwork via email to complete. Medical forms, permission to photograph, and emergency contacts topped the list of things I had to return.

I received a few emails describing the camp and telling me what my child should bring. I was feeling good about our choice and all the correspondence was friendly and professional. Once the camp dates arrived, my husband and I drove to the camp location to complete the registration process and locate the right 'bunk.' Registration (aka "In-Processing") was a breeze ... we went through military-themed stations that were very organized and quick to maneuver. The TA-50 Field Gear station provided the campers with a backpack and water bottle and the Communication Station allowed us to sign up for a really cool site called "Bunk Notes" where we could send emails and care packages during the week.

We helped load his things into his air-conditioned dorm and met his counselors. After a quick tour of the main buildings, we ended up in the main meeting room where our son was greeted by a counselor and immediately immersed into some camp songs and games. A few quick hugs and a "See you, Mom!" and we were off again, driving home wondering how his week would go.

We got one phone call that week. Our son had borrowed a counselor's phone and called just before bed to say, "I'm having a great time and [hey, GUYS! I'm on the PHONE! SHHH!] and I love you!" It was a quick call and an instant reminder of how grown-up my first-born child had become.

At the end of the week, I arrived at camp in time for the closing ceremonies, including a slide show and awards for things like "Messiest Dorm," which I was pleased to learn my son's group did NOT win. He was genuinely happy to see me and talked non-stop through lunch and the two-hour ride home. At the top of his list? The zip-line ("Mommy, I was scared at first but my counselor just told me to strap-in and jump!") and the camo-relay ("We had to put on a whole combat uniform and do push-ups!"). He had a great time and we left our Operation Purple Camp experience very happy and hoping for another chance to attend next year!

For more information: Operation Purple Camps!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Are Our Soldiers Fairly Compensated?

I took the online Army Well-Being poll recently that asked, “Do you think our Soldiers are fairly compensated for their service?” and immediately answered with a resounding “No!” I got to thinking about that question, and added to one of my Twitter updates, “How could you possibly?” That has been the question on my mind since then. How do you ‘fairly compensate’ a person who willingly puts his/her life on the line out of duty and service to country? What would be enough?

Today’s Army is a challenging career choice. Soldiers sign up and reenlist knowing that long deployments are all-but-guaranteed for them. The dangers are real, the separations are long, and the job is tough. There’s no way around that. Yet our Army Soldiers are maintaining a force unequal in the world. They are consummate professionals, training others around the world to defend themselves and creating independence unknown in many countries. They are extraordinary warriors, training and fighting to defend our own country, and to keep danger from arriving at our own doorstep. They are moms, dads, husbands, wives … our very own Family members, who set aside their own preferences to secure the freedoms that we enjoy here in America. I could not possibly be more proud of each and every one of them.

I once had a family member ask me why Army Families received extra money during deployments, and I was surprised by the question. My husband was deployed at the time in a dangerous area, maintaining equipment valued in the millions, and was directly responsible for over a hundred other Soldiers in his unit. Why on earth would he not receive extra pay for that kind of job description? How do you equate those responsibilities to the civilian sector? If you’re a civilian with over one hundred people reporting to you and have millions of dollars worth of equipment to oversee, would you be ‘compensated’ for that? I am guessing any civilian job with that job description would be paid pretty well. I think what I realized from that conversation is that money could never be the only ‘compensation’ for our Soldiers.

I do understand and believe that the Army works hard at ‘compensating’ its Soldiers and their Families for their service. Regular pay raises, quality benefits, and continuously upgraded support services are only some of the ways that the Army is working for its Soldiers. More than ever before, Army leaders are looking at Families and Family Programs to make whatever improvements are necessary to enhance Army life. I am deeply appreciative of the changes and utilize these programs as often as possible. I love my life as an Army wife and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I simply am not sure what we could possibly do for these amazing Soldiers to fully compensate them for what they do.

Our Army Families have been dealt a lifestyle that a very select few choose to endure, and are largely handling the challenges with strength and resilience. Compensated enough? Never. But honored and appreciated, knowing we could never fully ‘compensate’ for their sacrifices? Always.