A Watchful Eye

By James Kitfield

December 1, 1996

As soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division were trudging through the mud of the Bosnian countryside dodging minefields in the last year, relatively few of them worried about the families they had left behind in Baumholder, Germany. They knew that their spouses and children were enjoying block parties and barbecues. At one recent festival, there were food, games and baby-strollers galore in the crowd of about 1,300 dependents, most of them women and children. There were also smiles on the faces of the party's hosts, the soldiers of the 3/12th Infantry Battalion who had been left behind at Baumholder to keep the home fires burning as the 1st Armored Division's "rear-area" detachment.

"I was pretty proud of my soldiers, because we had just spent more than two months on a training exercise learning how to kill people, and here they were throwing a street party for the ladies; setting up tables and chairs, spreading out tablecloths and emptying garbage cans," says Lt. Col. Gene C. Kamena, rear-area detachment commander for the 1st Armored Division, the bulk of which is participating in Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia. "I've even found my soldiers fixing the cars of the wives and families that have been left behind."

As members of an unusually large rear-area detachment unit, Kamena and his staff are part of an experiment the U.S. Army, Europe (USAEUR) is conducting in an attempt to adjust to the changing face of the modern Army. Indeed, the From Here to Eternity Army of an earlier era is apparently gone forever. No longer does all Army life center around the barracks. No more are soldiers informed by their sergeants that if the Army had wanted them to have a wife it would have issued them one. In the old days, Army bases became virtual ghost towns during deployments. The 1st Armored Division's home base in Baumholder, however, remains a bustling community, albeit devoid of many of its men for most of the last year.

The changes reflect a simple fact: Today's Army is older, more likely to be married and more mobile than at any time in history. During the Vietnam War era, for instance, the average age of soldiers (mostly draftees) was just 19, today the average is 27.5 years old. More than 335,000 (65.4 percent) of the Army's active duty soldiers are now married, 257,200 (50.2 percent) have children, and nearly 20,000 are single parents.

Since the end of the Cold War, the rate at which Army troops have deployed for contingency operations, such as the peace-keeping mission in Bosnia, has increased by 300 percent. USAEUR alone has sent its soldiers on more than 45 separate deployments since 1991.

In an effort to cope with these dramatic changes, USAEUR officials have taken a hard look at the support structures left behind to take care of families during deployments, a task that in the past was largely left to informal volunteer organizations coordinated by officers' wives.

"On the Bosnian deployment, the decision was made to leave a robust organization behind, fully manned and staffed, just to take care of families," says Kamena. "That's a quantum leap over what we did as recently as Desert Storm, when the rear-area detachment was usually the guy who couldn't deploy because he was hurt."

USAREUR's experiment with bolstering family support has attracted the attention of the Army's most senior leadership, who see it as a possible model for a new era of frequent deployments. "Leaving behind key people and better training the people who typically take care of our families, such as the Red Cross and Army Community Service, were good ideas," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer said in an interview. "One of the terribly important lessons we've learned in recent years is that if you don't adequately cover the home front, our soldiers won't perform well."

Given USAEUR's position as a forward staging base for deployments on Europe's periphery, Kamena and his men quickly learned how important it was to offer support to young spouses and dependents living in a strange land and suddenly deprived of their military sponsors. Even though 1st Armored Division soldiers are required to keep their family affairs in relatively good order as part of a "soldier readiness program," the strains and unexpected complications of a lengthy deployment produced a host of unforeseen crises on the home front.

"Every day for the first month I had a new lady sitting in my office crying," said Kamena. "Maybe her husband hadn't left enough money, or she lost her I.D. or ration card, or perhaps her car had broken down. Whatever the problem was, I figured out pretty quickly that I couldn't solve them all by myself, or without a system."

Kamena assigned his top sergeant the task of establishing a 24-hour information and crisis action center. Any spouse coming through the door with a problem gets a sympathetic ear and a case number, and within 24 hours a proposed solution. Rear-detachment personnel have located spouses in Bosnia who haven't written or called, replaced lost I.D. and rations cards, provided transportation to stranded families, and arranged for emergency Military Airlift Command flights back to the United States.

"In one case where two women had gotten into a fight in a stairwell, we even gathered the whole stairwell [of neighbors] together and found out the real problem was about a $160 loan and a borrowed TV," says Kamena. "So we arranged a meeting with the JAG's [Judge Advocate General] office for both of them, so they knew their legal rights. The point is, they might not always like the answers we come up with, but we try and do what's right."

Doing what they felt was right led members of the rear-area detachment into missions not covered in any Army training or doctrine manuals. After more and more spouses were left stranded by broken cars, for instance, mechanics in the 3/12th's motor pool began offering free inspections.

"We discovered that in many families the husbands were normally responsible for looking after these ladies' cars, and since they weren't around our mechanics decided to give free maintenance inspections," says Kamena. "We can't fix cars for them, but we can make sure they're safe, and offer second opinions about price when repairs are required."

Given the Army's numerous deployments in recent years, officials decided they couldn't afford to suspend the regular personnel rotation schedule for the Bosnian operation. The rear-area detachment has thus been responsible for receiving new soldiers, preparing them for deployment for Bosnia and finding temporary quarters for their families. "The Army discovered during Desert Storm that when you suspend personnel rotations, it sends a shock wave through the entire Army for years," says Kamena, noting that peace-keeping deployments such as Joint Endeavor are now practically considered business as usual. "And if we didn't square away these soldiers' families so they don't end up on the street, we'd have to pull the soldier right back out of Bosnia to come home and do it himself."

Lt. Col. Kamena and his men also keep dependents abreast of the whereabouts and welfare of their spouses in Bosnia. Each month, the detachment hosts a meeting to update families on the operations of the 1st Armored Division. Videotapes of the division's work in Bosnia are flown in for the occasion. Sometimes just catching a video glimpse of a spouse unseen for nearly a year is worth a handful of hurried phone calls. Afterward an inexpensive meal is served. Attendance is generally standing room only.

"It breaks the monotony," says Kamena, who also uses the gatherings to dispel rumors that circulate on the military base .

"I'm constantly confronted with this or that rumor, and asked if it's true, so I've come up with a list of the Top 10 rumors for these meetings," he says. "They may have heard that their husbands are coming home next month, or that they've been killed in a terrible fight, and I try and put a stop to all that."

Unfortunately, not all bad news that reaches Baumholder can be classified as rumor. In an era of rapid-fire communications, news of accidents or casualties can reach spouses via the informal grapevine before it has a chance to filter through the official chain of command. In those cases, Kamena's job as casualty notification officer is to confirm the worst. Kamena believes his job has just begun after notification as opposed to past practice, when wives might be left alone after a visit by a chaplain.

"People don't like to talk about it, but I was up front with our ladies from the very beginning: 'If your husband is shot or killed, I'm going to be the guy that is standing on your doorstep telling you the news. And then we're going to do what's right by you,'" says Kamena.

Since the beginning of the Bosnian deployment, four 1st Armored Division soldiers have been killed in Bosnia. One soldier picked up a land mine; another was killed when a truck rolled over on him; an MP died of burns; and one soldier died of a heart attack. Many others have suffered various degrees of injury, from bumps and bruises to broken arms and legs.

"I've had to knock on doors to tell someone their husband's been shot or stepped on a land mine, but after delivering the bad news I focus every resource I have to make sure she's taken care of," says Kamena. Assistance can range from putting dependents in contact with surgeons in Bosnia who've operated on their spouses, to driving dependents to Ramstein Air Base to greet their injured spouses and accompany them to a hospital in Germany.

"When soldiers have been killed, I've personally gone to Ramstein to meet the bodies, and have made sure to handle all the memorial services for the wives. The point is to bring as much closure to the situation as you can," says Kamena. "Now closure is not always completely possible, and we haven't been trained to do this, but we are trying to do what is right."

Though Kamena and his men have been trained as warriors-and would like nothing better than orders to deploy to Bosnia-they realize that the work required of a rear-area detachment is increasingly vital in a modern Army that is as married as it is mobile. "Even though every soldier here would rather have deployed, our morale is pretty good. My soldiers know that they're doing something important," says Kamena. "I don't know of any other army that would take care of its families like we have, and that's smart, because families impact our combat power. If a soldier in Bosnia is worried about his wife, then he's not focused on doing his job."

By James Kitfield

December 1, 1996