Marine base offers family services to take care of its own

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

* A woman living near Boston, whose Marine husband serves overseas, suffers a rent hike that puts her present home beyond her financial means. A frantic search turns up nothing in her price range, and she fears eviction or financial ruin. Where can she live?

* The benefits due to a recently retired Marine are hopelessly mired in red tape. To whom does he turn?

* An officer serving at the Marine Corps base here returns from sick leave to find his specific illness recorded in a log book that remains open to public scrutiny. How can he retain his privacy?

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These are all cases handled during the first fledgling year of Quantico's Family Service Center -- a one-room, four-desk operation designed as an information and referral service for handling problems of Marine families.

One of 16 such centers initially set up at Marine bases around the country, it reflects an armed services-wide acknowledgement of the importance of families. While active and retired military personnel are also encouraged to bring their problems here, the primary focus of these Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine centers is on the 2.9 million husbands, wives, children, and parents dependent on the military life.

"The old saying, 'If we wanted you to have a wife, we would have issued you a wife,' just doesn't hold up anymore," says Lt. Steve Darnell, head of Quantico's Family Service Center. Wives and children are very much in the limelight right now, because "if a Marine knows his family is being taken care of, that frees his mind to concentrate on his job," says Lieutenant Darnell.

It also weighs in the decision to reenlist, or so the armed services believe. At the White House Conference on Families last year, Navy Vice-Adm. Robert B. Baldwin said: "There is increasingly strong evidence that family considerations significantly influence the service member's decision on whether or not to reenlist," a decision the vice-admiral admits will "severely affect the Navy's ability to fully execute its role in the national defense."

"Family considerations" have weighed in our country's defense since George Washington first gave food allotments to Revolutionary War camp followers. But the "perks" of military life -- the PX, commissary, housing and medical benefits -- no longer balance what many families see as the "burden" of military life -- the transfers, the separations, the uncertainties of war, and the low pay.

It is this last item that sits squarely at the root of almost all dissatisfactions with the military way of life, observers say. "Economics are the botton line," says Lieutenant Darnell. "Even in crisis intervention, economic problems are there at the heart."

Lieutenant Darnell is a youngish military man with a close-cropped haircut, a square jaw, and a firm look that melts to sympathetic smiles as he describes a typical case. "An enlisted man will come in, someone who just had a raise in rank and didn't know how to handle the extra money.

"He bought something -- a stereo, maybe, or a little fancier car -- but he couldn't keep up the payments. Now the creditors are on his back, and he doesn't know where to turn."

Lieutenant Darnell, who mentions three times in one interview that "we are not setting up another welfare agency here," says he would probably refer the soldier to the Navy's relief program for financial counseling and "perhaps an interest-free loan or outright grant of money" to see the man through.

Navy Relief is just one of a handful of agencies the center taps into to solve on-base problems. Working with the Red Cross, United Way, and local government programs, Lieutenant Darnell's team serves "about one family per day" in everything from enrolling the family in a food stamp program to obtaining counseling for an alcoholic family member.

Once a month, agents from the different helping groups come together with representatives from the base's wives clubs, each of the base divisions, the family service personnel, and the base commandant to thrash out problems. The public meetings, dubbed the Family Advisory Assistance Council (FAAC), are designed to "cut the action and response time on complaints down to practically zero," according to Maj. Nelson Paler, public affairs officer for the base.

It was during an FAAC meeting that the question of medical privacy came up from an "officer who didn't want the nature of his illness known to the whole camp," Lieutenant Darnell says. Immediate action was taken to remove the sick-leave logbook from public view.

Lieutenant Darnell's center is set up to meet the needs of a much larger personnel target than the people at Quantico. The center houses a toll-free hot line for active and retired Marines and their dependents who are not presently living on or near a military base.

The center's files bulge with information on various military and civilian programs, and plans are now under way to develop a computer-based data bank listing resources available for the Eastern half of the US. A similar system is under way in California to cover the Western half.

It was through this number that Quantico's center heard from both the retired Marine with the snarled red tape and the Boston housewife without a home. Unraveling the first took a few phone calls, but the second shows the lengths to which the Marines are willing to go.

"We called around and found a program of subsized housing for her -- she needed a three-bedroom house. Then we helped her go through all the appropriate forms to qualify for the project and to get her family moved," says Capt. Travis Jardon, head of Quantico's Human Resources Division.

Captain Jardon is a moustached man with a regulation olive-drab sweater and a vision about the family service centers. "With the data bank," he says with an anticipatory grin, "we hope to be able to say, 'Hold on, and I'll have an answer for you in 30 seconds,' instead of 'I'll call you back in a couple of hours.'

"It's so hard for many of these people to call us in the first place, and hearing that it's going to take two hours even to startm to help them just makes it worse," he says.

One of the essential resources Captain Jardon's data bank will hold is the numbers of other Marine family service centers around the world. "We shouldn't have details on all the little agencies around Camp Leeune crowding up our files ," he says."Instead, we should be able just to refer these people onto the family service center at their next assignment."

As an example, he cites the case of a family with a handicapped child needing special education. "If they get reassigned, we're set up to tell them what kind of schooling will be available for their child at their next post.

"But when the centers are standard at each base," he envisions, "we would be able to routinely send their request on. Then, when the family arrives at their new post, they can just walk around the corner to the family service center and find everything already set up for the youngster."

A family service center at every Marine base would mirror the Army's Community Service program, a largely volunteer support service offering information and referral, financial planning, relocation services, and assistance for "exceptional" children at each of the Army's 162 posts.

The Navy, meanwhile, has eight family service centers already set up -- two with computerized data banks -- with plans to expand to 60. The Air Force is creating Family Support Centers this year, one each in Europe, the Pacific, and the US mainland.

Asked if this has had a significant effect on reinlistment, Lieutenant Darnell says, "We just don't know -- we haven't had our first 10,000 cases yet. Every case is different; everything is still new."

The question is academic to Navy Rear Adm. Fran McKee, assistant chief of naval personnel for human resources management. "I don't view our family programs only as an aid to retention, but also as philosophically something that should be done," she says.

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