Support Groups for Soldiers' Families Struggle

Family readiness groups, or FRGs, as they're known in the military, were created to support the loved ones of soldiers at war. But across the country, those groups are getting mixed reviews at best. Many FRGs have been fractured or destroyed by bickering — and critics say military leaders haven't done enough to cool the tensions and provide adequate financial and moral support. It's a problem that easily spills over onto the battlefield as families at home share their problems with soldiers in Iraq.

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It is no secret that the husbands, wives and children of soldiers serving in Iraq face stress at home. The military has tried to help by creating special Family Readiness Groups or FRGs. But some of those organizations are falling apart under the strain of lengthy deployments.

NPR's John McChesney has the story of what happened to one group of National Guard families.

JOHN McCHESNEY: The unraveling began with decorations at a children's Christmas party in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The wife in charge of the event used red, white and blue for decorations. Others objected and got into the party room and on their own, redecorated with traditional Christmas colors. Volleys of flame mail began to scorch the wives of the 875th Engineering Brigade's Alpha Company. Shannen Smithsen(ph) is a member of the Family Readiness Group.

Ms. SHANNEN SMITHSEN (Member, Family Readiness Group): Everybody, sort of, get their feelings hurt. There were phone calls behind people's back, you got real caddy and backstabbing. And the women just, kind of, turned on each other and they did the exact opposite of supporting each other.

McCHESNEY: I met the former president of the FRG, Rachel Robert(ph), at the IHOP in Jonesboro. In the wake of the Christmas party, one woman wrote to her, you are immature, self-centered and totally two-faced and would do the entire group a favor if you step down as president. Rachel did resign saying, my family is more important than all of this drama.

This must have been very, personally painful for you.

Ms. RACHEL ROBERT (Former President, Family Readiness Group): It was extremely painful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERT: Yes. It was.

McCHESNEY: You're laughing now.

Ms. ROBERT: Well, yeah. I guess I'm not used people, you know, talking to me the way that people talked to me. I do love people and I felt that I could do it.

McCHESNEY: Like many FRG leaders, Rachel had volunteered for the job and she was elected to head a group with roughly 50 members.

Ms. ROBERT: It's been very hectic trying to raise two children, be a wife of a deployed soldier, a nursing student and the president of a Family Readiness Group. It's just - it's a big task. There's really not very much support from the military. You're handed a book and you do the best you can.

McCHESNEY: Rachel says that manual she was handed was inadequate for the task, and when an FRG comes unstuck like this one, it can spill over to the troops in Iraq. Again, Shannen Smithsen.

Ms. SMITHSEN: I know that probably all the husbands know exactly what's going on back here. All of the members of 875th are well aware of what is going on with FRG.

McCHESNEY: Quarrels amongst wives can create tensions amongst husbands in the ranks. Coordination with the FRG is left up to the commander of what's called the rear detachment, that part of the unit that isn't deployed. In this case, that's Captain Brian Mason(ph). I interviewed him in the Jonesboro Post Office as he took a break from shipping care packages to the troops in Iraq.

Captain BRIAN MASON (Rear Detachment, 875th Engineering Brigade): For some reason or another, a lot of these ladies have too great of an emotional investment in the FRGs and what takes place.

McCHESNEY: Women we spoke with said the Capt. Mason talked down to them and wasn't very helpful. For his part, Capt. Mason is quite candid about his lack of preparation for dealing with a group of 50 anxious wives. He says he's used to dealing with green-suited soldiers.

Capt. MASON: I've been called a number of things by some of the ladies who are happy, you know, pompous, arrogant, uncaring, and they're probably right. Sometimes, I send out e-mails and I probably don't put the kind of feeling or thoughtfulness into making sure that their feelings are massaged.

McCHESNEY: There are no reliable data on how well or how poorly these vital organizations perform according to Shelley MacDermid. She's the co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. The good news, she says, is that a lot of people volunteered to do this work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Dr. SHELLEY MacDERMID (Co-director, Military Family Research Institute, Purdue University): The bad news is that it doesn't always work well and it's very thinly resourced and it's a really big job. Fifty incredibly anxious people in a room with somebody who's not all that skilled at managing interpersonal dynamics, you know, it's a recipe for disaster.

McCHESNEY: Thinly resourced may be an understatement. Most FRGs have to resort to bake sales, car washes and the like to pay for their events. Shelley MacDermid says the Jonesboro National Guard FRG raises hard questions that the military should be looking at during this time of repeated deployments. And the good news for Alpha Company's FRG is that it's now slowly coming back together due to the diligent work of a few women who refused to let it die.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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