Families receive more support as military adjusts to changing demographics

America is fighting its biggest war in decades with the most-married military in its modern history.

In contrast to past conflicts waged by young, single draftees, just more than half of today's forces (active and reserve) are married, and more than 40 percent have children.

So the 250,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world have left behind more than 100,000 families, who must manage all the daily trials of sick kids, overdue bills, burst pipes, loneliness, and constant news coverage of the killed and maimed.

And home-front problems can undermine the battle front if soldiers stressed out about their families decide not to re-enlist, or, worse, make fatal errors in the field. It is a human and policy problem of which the Pentagon is painfully aware. The silver lining is that, in the face of extraordinary stress, the military's family support system is showing extraordinary innovation.

Today's changes continue a long and painful evolution. As late as Vietnam, "there was no real effort on the part of the Army" to help families, recalled Sylvia Kidd, the daughter and wife of Army soldiers, who is now head of family programs at the nonprofit Association of the United States Army.

Then, wives got support from each other and their parents -- or they got no help at all. But after the draft ended in 1973, the need to keep older, mostly married troops happy enough to re-enlist meant that military wives became too numerous and too vocal to ignore.

The 1980s saw the creation of an on-base infrastructure to provide child care, employment services, financial aid, and more. Then, prodded by deployments to the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, the military in the 1990s began formally training families in how to manage military pay, benefits, and emergencies while their service member was gone. The military also introduced mutual-support networks -- "Family Readiness Groups" in Armyspeak -- in ever more units. But unpaid volunteers, who almost always are wives with children and with deployed husbands of their own, still run these groups. Today, as 30 years ago, it is up to the families left behind to help each other.

So it was a real revolution when, in spring 2004, the Army started hiring paid, full-time "family readiness assistants" for the deploying units.

"As a volunteer, you can only go so far; it's a major burnout," said Evelyn Livermore, an Army wife who used to volunteer more than 20 hours a week -- on top of taking care of three kids and holding a part-time job -- but who now works full-time in family readiness at Fort Benning, Ga. The nearly 300 professionals like Livermore can hardly replace the thousands of volunteers, but they can be a resource amid an often-bewildering bureaucracy. "The [volunteer] FRG leaders don't have to run around getting information," said Livermore. "They can just come and see me."

The National Guard also uses paid personnel to staff more than 400 "family assistance centers" around the country, extending its reach beyond active-duty bases into the far-flung communities where Guard troops live. Just one Guard brigade, the 39th, has 47 armories scattered across Arkansas, plus attached units from nine other states. When the 39th deployed to Iraq last March, the Arkansas Guard quintupled its family support program, from four paid staff covering the entire state to 20. Like the family readiness assistants, many of these Guard personnel are former volunteers who go beyond 9-to-5 professionalism. By contract, "they can only get paid for 40 hours a week, but they sometimes work 80," said Penny Baker, the Arkansas office's deputy director, a Guard wife herself. "I do the same."

This program represents another departure: Although funded by the Guard, it now has its staff take calls from active-duty troops as well, and it has the information to help them. This seemingly simple shift results from a massive assault on the bureaucratic barriers traditionally dividing regulars from reservists, soldiers from sailors, airmen from marines. Families from any part of the military can now call into a nationwide "OneSource" hotline or log on to MilitaryOneSource.com: The information they get is tailored to their branch of service and area of the country, but it all comes from a single staff using a common, all-service database of resources. This "Military OneSource" program, launched as a pilot project only two years ago, is now "the cornerstone of how we plan to deliver services," said John Molino, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for military community and family policy. "We are trying to break down those stovepipes."

In fact, OneSource's Web sites and staff not only refer families to resources throughout the Defense Department; they link people to other government agencies and private organizations as well. Civilian charities and veterans' groups have long played a role in supporting military families. But given the extraordinary demands of the war on terrorism, they are stepping up their efforts, and their coordination with the military, to a new level. The American Legion's national hotline took about 1,300 calls from distressed military families in 2004, but that doesn't include all of the requests that went directly to local Legion posts. And Veterans of Foreign Wars posts nationwide are being set up as "Family Support Posts" with military-approved training to complement the official system.

The Legion gave more than $400,000 in grants to more than 400 distressed military families last year, covering everything from food to temporary housing after a fire. VFW programs have given out more than $235,000 since last June, and both groups have channeled countless in-kind donations, from free home repairs to food banks. There also is the unmeasured gift of volunteers' time. "We do a lot of little things -- mowing grass, painting, fixing baths or sinks or drains," said Jerry Howard, the Legion's child and youth program chairman for Virginia, who himself joined a half-dozen other legionnaires to trim a military family's hedges while the husband was deployed and the wife, with several kids, was overwhelmed.

Members of veterans' groups, church groups, and just plain private citizens are helping countless families, especially Guard and Reserve families isolated from official aid agencies on base. One Arkansas Guard wife, with two children, had her car break down, her boss fire her, and a tree limb smash into her house last fall, recalled Penny Baker. A local law firm repaired her roof, fixed her car, and donated presents for Christmas. Said Baker, choking up, "The response is overwhelming."

But the sheer variety of potential helpers can be overwhelming, too. In a recent study of family support by the National Military Family Association, the primary advocacy group for military families, "The first thing that grabbed us was how very ingenious a lot of people in a lot of different places were in finding different ways to help military families," said co-author Susan Evers. "But getting the programs known to all the military families seemed, in a lot of cases, to be missing."

Charitable groups and military agencies do coordinate ad hoc. "There's a VFW post not far from us," said Don Gotta of the Norfolk, Va., American Legion: "If they need help, we give them a call; and if we need help, we give them a call. If we don't have it, by God, we can find it somewhere." Gotta has even had on-base agencies refer families to him when regulations restricted how much help the formal system could provide.

But the networking is now becoming less ad hoc and more deliberate, with the exchange of information eased, above all, by the Internet. Military OneSource, Molino said, "was not technically feasible a decade ago." Such public-private networking to support military families "mirrors things that happen in cities or rural communities every day, whether it's in affordable housing or drug rehabilitation," said William Eggers of Deloitte Research, the co-author of Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector. Such complex social problems, he argued, "can't be solved through narrow bureaucratic silos. They require the active involvement of the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and government."

Military family support is riding this trend into the Information Age. But its backbone remains, as always, the hard work of volunteers, mostly military wives, who are operating under unprecedented stress. And therein lies the system's weakness. "What we learned from Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Kosovo," said Delores Johnson, of the Army Community and Family Support Center, "is that after about six months, the volunteer system becomes taxed." The typical Army unit's tour in Iraq lasts a year -- and many troops are going back a second time.

"I am amazed and impressed at the resiliency of these family members," Molino said. "Nonetheless, you can only do so much on adrenaline. To what degree are we risking burnout of some of these volunteers, and what can we do to help?"

A long global war may require more support than the military, or nonprofits, can provide. "I keep thinking back to World War II," said the Family Association's Evers. "Maybe the country as a whole needs to be educated about how to help military families. Maybe it has to be a country-wide effort."