NC National Guard works to better support families
Nearly half of North Carolina's National Guard troops are currently deployed overseas. That includes the state's largest guard unit- the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team - which is on its second tour overseas. Back in January, we met some of those soldiers and their families at a send-off ceremony in Monroe. "B" Battalion Captain Bryan Grey was saying goodbye to his wife and two young children. "The way I view it the families have the hardest job, because they have to hold up the homefront," said Captain Grey. While he and thousands of other North Carolina soldiers continue serving their second deployment in Iraq, the state has a second chance to prove it can do right by their families back home. Michelle Lisk didn't plan on life as a military wife. She married a North Carolina National Guardsman who typically spent just a few days away from home on drill each month. Then, in 2002, he was called up for a year in Iraq and Lisk was left at home, completely lost. "There were a million questions," recalls Lisk. "Like gosh, where do I go to the doctor? How do I get my I.D.? How do I make sure that we've got the benefits that we need? Because living away from a military installation, you don't have the access to just walk on base and ask somebody and them be able to tell you what's going on." She got online, instead, and spent hours searching for answers. But the internet couldn't solve the trouble her three-year old was having. "He couldn't express how it bothered him or how upset he was," says Lisk. "So he would hit his head on the floor and hit his head on the walls and he would cry you know 'I want my dada, I want my dada.'" If she lived on base, it might have been easier for Lisk to get help for her son. Or at least talk to other families going through something similar. But the Lisks were the only ones in their Greensboro neighborhood with a soldier at war. And there were no Guard Services readily-available to help her. Diane Coffill fully admits that. "I don't think any of us were truly aware of all of the ramifications and how difficult it would be to say good bye to your loved one for a year," says Coffill, who runs family support programs for the North Carolina National Guard. That may sound obvious now. But until the Iraq War started, long deployments were rare in the National Guard. Then, in 2002, half of North Carolina's 12,000 guard soldiers were sent to Iraq. "What we didn't know then - what we do know now - is families need the support and assistance throughout the deployment cycle and beyond," says Coffill. "There is nothing like being in rural North Carolina- or any state in the nation- and feeling like you are the only one who is doing this and no one truly understands." So now those same soldiers are back in Iraq and North Carolina has a plan to do more for their families. It was one of the first states to put money - one and a half million dollars in this case - into beefing up half of its six family assistance centers. "This is our kid section, for when families with children come in," says Coffill, giving a tour of one of the new-and-improved centers. The Department of Defense started funding Family Assistance Centers around the country in 2003, but they're typically pretty bare-bones: one person in a tiny room with a handful of pamphlets - usually in a guard armory that resembles a public high school circa 1970. "Armories are great for military members," says Coffill. "They're not family friendly sometimes. It is not like this." This is one of North Carolina's three super family assistance centers. It's a trailer in the parking lot of the National Guard Armory in Greensboro. There are three small offices, a waiting area, some computers so families can chat with their soldiers, and little extras like a diaper changing table. "We wanted to make sure there was something for those kids, and you can see we even have things for little ones to do," says Coffill. The doorbell rings. It's Marica Shorr and her six-year-old Joshua. He makes a beeline for his favorite toy - a miniature piano. His mom says the toy area makes it easier for her to check in at the center. Her husband is in Iraq. She lets Joshua play while a family assistance specialist helps her with insurance or finance issues. But mostly, she just comes to talk. "Sometimes it's like, I can tell my breakdown point, so you know, that's what they're here for," says Shorr. "Don't just take it all on your own shoulders. Come here, if you just need someone to talk to." The Department of Defense has taken note of these expanded family support centers in North Carolina and will launch a pilot program next month to see if they might work nationwide. But of the nearly 5,000 soldiers currently deployed from North Carolina's national guard, less than 10 percent of their families have visited one of these centers in the last year. Many say they don't know the centers exist, or they're embarrassed to ask for help. So, National Guard staff have divvied up the list and they're reaching out. "I have over 300 families I call once a month," says Renee Brotherton. She's a family assistance specialist assigned to the center in Charlotte. Those monthly phone calls are one of her main duties. "Sometimes it's just 'Hey, how are you? We care about you. Let us know if you need anything,'" says Brotherton. "And sometimes they're saying, 'Well I'm glad you called, because. . .'" A call like that might lead Brotherton to contact a soldier's commander in Iraq to find out why he hasn't been calling home - or maybe to let the chaplain know about a family issue that might be on the soldier's mind. Brotherton can even arrange a meeting with one of 12 therapists recently hired to help North Carolina guard families. And those monthly calls will continue for several months after the soldier returns, because Diane Coffill says coming home can be as hard as leaving. "Finding your spot again - figuring out how the family is going to operate again - is a big challenge for these folks," she says. Many will also be dealing with injuries and post traumatic stress. Suicide is a growing concern in the Army and National Guard. That's the main reason North Carolina State Representative Cullie Tarleton pushed for extra state money to support guard families: "The 1451st in Boone, North Carolina was deployed to Iraq for 15 months. Since they have returned, we have had three suicides," says Tarleton. "The reason is because we do a lousy job providing counseling for those returning men and women. That, that's just one example of what we can do better. And we've got to do better. They deserve better." The real test will be next summer when the bulk of North Carolina's National Guard soldiers come home.