Why Families Matter to Military

Tending The Home Front

President Clinton has decided that Air Force MSgt. Stephen Baranek, who supervises aircraft maintenance, will remain on duty in the Persian Gulf until it's proven that Saddam Hussein can keep his word.

So, what does that mean for Mrs. Baranek and the couple's children, Erika, Zachery, and Sarah?

Increasingly, this is a question being asked by the Pentagon brass, who have become ever more aware that, to get the job done overseas, they need to keep the whole military family happy. From help with covering phone bills to free auto safety checks for spouses back home, the military is taking care to help families back home so that its fighting force can stay focused on the job at hand.

Moreover, the military is realizing it doesn't make sense to spend a lot of money training individuals only to see them leave in a few years. "If the family is unhappy, the soldier leaves," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Trying to meet this new "military spec" of keeping the family smiling requires a whole new operating manual for commanders. Here at McGuire Air Force Base in western New Jersey, for example, top brass organized a "town hall" meeting Wednesday so that spouses and family members can get more information about their deployed partners and get help from finance, medical, and public-affairs specialists. In addition, the base has begun a Hearts Apart program that each week gives families 15 free minutes on the phone. Once a month, spouses also get free day care so they can have a night away from their children. And they are guaranteed a free oil change, new filter, and safety check on their cars at the base car-care center.

The Air Force, which has a reputation for "taking care of its own," has added such services in part because its personnel are being deployed four times more often than they were at the end of the Gulf War. Even when the troops return to stateside duty, they are working longer hours because of military downsizing.

The same is true for the other services. "We continue to hear from spouses about the service member not being part of the family. We call it, 'We only sleep here.' It's just a place to get their laundry done," says Sydney Hickey, a spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association in Washington.

Part of this spousal grousing reflects a demographic shift within the military service. In the Air Force, for example, 66 percent of the current force is married. After World War II, only 22 percent was married. This shift is apparent in all the services.

The changing demographic has forced the military's attitude about families to change - especially during the past 15 years. As recently as the Vietnam War, families often complained about the military's cold shoulder. Information about prisoners of war, for example, was handled through the Casualty Affairs Office. "It was considered the dumping ground for the services. The people were often not trained or didn't have the emotional wherewithal," says George Veith, author of the book "Code Name Bright Light," a new account of POW rescue attempts.

University of Maryland's Mr. Segal says the shift started in 1982, when the first American unit was assigned to peace-keeping duties in the Sinai.

"We learned a lot from the Gulf War," says Ann Lukens, director of the Family Support Center at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. "We became a much more active participant and set up an environment so that people can drop in when they are stressed out."

But the centers go even beyond stress. Ms. Lukens recalls getting a call from a woman whose husband was deployed. "She says, 'I have a problem. I have a pair of water moccasins on my doorstep.' I sent some security people right over."

The Navy way

The US Navy says family support has been going on for as long as it has been deploying sailors. At the moment, 19,000 sailors are deployed from Norfolk, Va., with 11,500 of them in the Gulf.

During deployment, every ship and aircraft squadron has an ombudsman, a direct liaison between the families and the commander. In fact, sometimes the ombudsman is the commanding officer's wife.

During the deployments, the Navy encourages spouses to develop "phone trees" between families so that information can get passed along. Spouses socialize and compare notes on raising children. They pass along tips, such as getting husbands to tape- record bedtime stories for children.

The Navy expends a lot of effort trying to get its sailors ready for family life when they return. Representatives from the bases' Family Service Centers will fly to a foreign port and board the ship for the cruise back to the home port. New dads are given baby showers and classes on child care. "We try to make them spouse-sensitive so they don't just walk into the home and grab the checkbook," says Catherine Stokoe, director of the Family Service Center at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.

During the most recent deployment in the Gulf, says Ms. Stokoe, there has been an "explosion" in the use of e-mail. The service center, like others around the country, has set up its own cybercafe so families without computers can still send and receive messages.

"It's distributed on the smaller ships as mail, and it's more sophisticated on the larger ships," she says. But, she adds, "the old-fashioned letter that smells like perfume is still important."

Coping with phone bills

Communications are, in fact, the most difficult issue for military families. Last week, Segal appealed to the Pentagon brass to give greater subsidies for phone calls.

"Ma Bell is everywhere, and the phone bills can run into the hundreds of dollars per month," he says. The Pentagon told Segal it's already planning on helping out more with phone bills.

Stokoe says the Navy warns families about budget problems if they call frequently. She advises sailors to buy phone cards instead of making open-ended collect calls. Even so, it's tempting for the sailors to ring home - some aircraft carriers now have pay phones.

Despite these kinds of accommodations, lack of communication remains one of the most vexing difficulties for the families, according to wives here whose husbands are stationed in the Gulf region.

Robin Skoworn, wife of Staff Sgt. Michael Skoworn, says she needs to talk to her husband about their seven-month-old baby, who has been tested for a major health problem. "It will be hard this week if the tests are bad," she says.

Lydia Norway, three months pregnant, has had only one 5-minute conversation with her husband, Jeffrey, a senior airman. She was out when he called a second time. Unfortunately, his unit does not have a cell phone, so the couple can't participate in the Hearts Apart conversations.

"I really miss him. He's my best friend," she says.

But there's only so much that can be accomplished on the phone. Mrs. Baranek says the hardest part of the day is dinner. "We usually say grace, and then we talk about our day." She says her young son has become somewhat withdrawn since her husband's deployment.

"His daddy is his buddy," she says. "He usually tucks the children in and reads them their stories." But, she adds, "I know Stephen's job is not the easiest, and he's got long days. We're just praying for him."

Military Forces in The Gulf Troops

The US currently has more than 30,000 troops stationed on warships in the Persian Gulf, and on land in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Diego Garcia.

SHIPS

Some of the US warships in the area include:

* Two aircraft carriers with 14 F-14 fighters and 36 F/A-18 fighters

* Two attack submarines with a total of 38 missiles

* Six destroyers, four armed with cruise missiles.

AIRCRAFT

Some of the aircraft include:

* 14 B-52s capable of carrying cruise missiles or conducting nonprecision bombing.

* 12 Stealth F-117s fighter-bombers.

* 76 F-16s precision bombers

OTHER COUNTRIES

Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands have sent forces to the region.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar that allowed the US to stage attacks from their territory in 1991 will not allow it now.

Sources: Department of Defense, wire services

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