Thank you Subcommittee Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin, Congressman Donnelly, and all other members of the committee. I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences as a spouse of a National Guard member in regard to the transition experience for myself and my family. My name is Dawn McCool and my husband Jim was with F Company, 151st Infantry (Light Anti-Tank) in Afghanistan. This deployment resulted in Jim being gone from May 2003 to July 2005. We have three children, now ages 18, 16, and 12. At the time of Jim’s deployment, they were 14, 12, and 8.
The main source of assistance for the family of deployed members of the guard is the family readiness group, commonly called a FRG. I first became involved in the family readiness group on May 4, 2004, the day my husband left from South Bend for Camp Atterbury. The wives were standing in a group when Laura Williams, who was in charge of the FRG, told us about the meetings on the third Monday of each month. I went to the first meeting and she asked if I would be the secretary and treasurer and whatever else needed. The community created from the FRG resulted in me meeting one of my best friends. We still talk and get together today, more than four years later. Unfortunately with our FRG getting started in 2004 things did not go smoothly. The level of involvement with a lot of the other moms, wives, girlfriends and extended families was low. We tried to involve the spouses and families but it was difficult because of the intense emotions involved after a loved one first deploys.
The core of the family readiness group was comprised of only three people. The money was not there; however we tried to make up for it with effort. We were in touch with Col. Warrick and held a pretty successful family day at Culver Military Academy with soldiers that had previously deployed, spouses, girlfriends, and families. This event was probably the primary success of the FRG during the deployment.
Overall, though, my experience with the FRG did not result in the level of support I had hoped for during what was a very tough experience when Jim was gone. We were supposed to be each others’ support system but it frequently did not happen that way. There were two ladies that I could talk to, and they were great. But we felt walked on because no matter what we did or tried to do, we could not count on participation. One example is a large outing we organized at the zoo. We got a call list of all the soldiers’ spouses or families and contacted all of them for a large outing to the zoo. We received a lot of “yes” responses but the turnout was terrible turnout. After pouring in a lot of work and spending the money to put on the program, the involvement was not there.
In general, that symbolized the difficulty of involvement with the other spouses and families. We let them know that if they needed anything, they could call my number or Laura’s number. My phone was constantly ringing. Everyone seemed like they wanted to be involved, but no one would put forth the effort to actually do anything. By the time the soldiers returned, the FRG had pretty much fallen apart. There was not enough organization to get the word out to the spouses and families. When F Company deployed again last year, I was asked to lead the FRG, but I still had negative feelings from all the difficulties that arose during the first deployment and turned it down.
One resource that was provided on a broader scale to promote the success of the FRGs was a conference at Stout Field in Indianapolis that I attended. There was a binder with information on making the family readiness groups stronger from the conference. It was clear that most of the successes came from increased involvement, but given that there were only three of us and we were struggling with involvement in the first place, it was not clear how to drive that. The conference also did not mention at all the transition back home for the soldiers, which would have been helpful.
Jim returned to the U.S. in July of 2005 and came home for good in August 2005. Once we knew they were coming home, there were new emotions. You want them home but you are used to doing everything by yourself. One story about the transition afterwards is when I was mowing the yard soon after his return. Something was wrong with the mower blade. My husband was standing there while I went inside, got the hammer, and fixed it myself. Initially, he felt like he was not needed around the house. I worked hard to change those feelings. With our three children, I put on strong front for them while he was gone and I continued that strong front when he returned.
Jim had around five months off for the time he spent overseas, so he did not have to go back to his civilian job right away. He was able to do a lot of work around the house and get to know the kids and me again. I think this time was essential for his transition. A year and a half does not seem like a long time, but people change a lot in that time. When he came back, it was almost like we were strangers again and it was a major adjustment to re-integrate him into the family. But it was mostly great to have him home.
Before he was deployed, he worked for Shindler elevator, doing construction and repairs on elevators and escalators. He returned to that job after five months of vacation. His unit was eventually sent to Iraq after the return from Afghanistan; however he stayed back as the Rear Detachment Commander. He spends time every day at the armory in South Bend. If any of the soldiers had problems they could call. He also tried to help the wives and families as much as he could because he knew about my experiences. His unit returned to the U.S. from deployment to Iraq two weeks ago.
I would also like to offer special thanks to my employee. I work at AM General, where we build military Humvees. I take a lot of pride in my work. It makes a difference when you know someone who is over there. I become upset when someone says, “Oh, someone else will do it,” at work because it affects the men and women overseas. My husband’s service is one of the reasons that I went into Humvee repair. I know what they need, so I worked a lot of overtime when he was gone.
AM General was great when Jim was in Afghanistan, especially if I needed time off when my kids were sick. The human resources department was very flexible and understanding. AM General offers an employee assistance program that I used. I suffered from depression during the experience and I was able to go to counseling and take my children so we could all talk about it.
I wish there was some way to help families make the transition easier. One way would be more involvement in the FRGs. I am not sure how to do it, but the families need to know that there is someone to turn to, that there is help available. The soldiers see a lot of things overseas. There are still many things that Jim does not talk about, that he cannot talk about with me yet. They need to know that it is okay for them to go to counseling. This is healthy either with or without their spouse, although many are embarrassed to admit that they need that counseling.
I believe it is very important that these families know that there is help, that there are resources. If the National Guard or another FRG could make a book or pamphlet details about what the soldiers are entitled to upon return and what the spouses are entitled to, it would be a wonderful resource. Help is there, the spouses simply need to be aware of it. We all could take better advantage of the help that is available, Jim included. It seems that people are afraid to ask for help even when the resources are there.
Looking back, though, what I think that I wish I would have had more than anything else is being able to communicate with the soldiers to a greater extent, although it seems that it might not be possible. The men that stayed behind at the local unit helped us a great deal. If we needed anything, they were there in a heartbeat to help us. A deployment is something I wish never had to happen. I wish the guys never had to go, but I know they are serving their country.
The best way to summarize my experience is in a poem that I received from someone when Jim was in Afghanistan titled, “The Silent Ranks.” I believe that every military spouse needs to read it because it talks about the fact that your spouse wears the uniform so they stand out, while you are in the background. No one sees that the wives or children go through. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience.