Adm. Mullen: Local groups need to take lead on services for military families

Local communities nationwide, not Washington, must take the lead on providing a strong network of support for service members and their families, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during an event Tuesday.

Adm. Mike Mullen, who is retiring in October, told an audience of service members and military advocates that public and private organizations at the grass-roots level rather than the federal government are in a better position to understand the stresses of military families and help provide the type of mental health care necessary to cope with the strain of a decade of war. "There's no way the Pentagon, or the [Veterans Affairs Department] can do it in a comprehensive way," Mullen said. He spoke at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial during an event sponsored by Give an Hour, an organization that provides free mental health services across the country to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.

Mullen praised the Defense Department for expanding and investing in critical services for military families during the past decade, and for integrating families into programs that are fundamental to the military's readiness. He emphasized, however, that the federal government needs to share best practices and lend support to local communities that are on the ground caring for service members, veterans and their loved ones. "It can't be done from Washington," said Mullen. "It can be supported [from Washington], but not led."

Mullen's wife, Deborah, an advocate for military families, joined her husband and several other speakers, at the event. Deborah Mullen said the government cannot keep operating ineffective and duplicative programs that don't help military families, though she did not specify which ones. "We don't kill programs, and we need to do that," she said.

During the event, leaders from Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation announced grants to support Community Blueprint, an initiative designed by Give an Hour to help localities address the needs of vets and military families. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation awarded the group a $2 million grant to fund the program in Norfolk, Va., and Fayetteville, N.C. -- two areas with a large military presence. The Wal-Mart Foundation committed $144,000 to the initiative in those cities. Give an Hour will allocate the grant money to local organizations that provide services to military members and their families.

"These grants will help us to evaluate vital services and highlight innovative examples, ensuring they are available and easily accessible to military men and women and families, wherever they live," said Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour.

Jennifer Crane, a young combat veteran of Afghanistan, talked about her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and re-integrating into society when she returned from war. "I no longer knew how to fit into my life," said Crane, who sought help from Give an Hour and is now a spokeswoman for the organization. "My community did not have the tools to help me when I came home."

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