Programs Help Prepare, Support Families Through Deployments

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 28, 2006 - As members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit here make last-minute preparations for their upcoming deployment, Staff Sgt. Danny Sava and his family are getting their own affairs in order so they're ready for another long separation.

The Sava family - Danny, a seven-year Marine, his wife of two years, Julia, and their children, Anthony, 10, and Alyssa, 18 months - offer insights into what a "typical" military family faces during deployments and the importance of the services the military provides to help them.

Less than three weeks before Danny and 2,300 fellow Marines leave here for six months of duty as U.S. Central Command's theater reserve, the Savas told American Forces Press Service they've got a handle on their family affairs.

Sava, the 15th MEU's data chief, is drawing up a list of details and contact information for Julia. The family bill-payer, he set up automatic online payments and is making sure she knows where to find his will, power of attorney, Social Security card and other important documents. "We're trying our best to get everything together and get squared away," Julia said.

The Savas already have endured one deployment as a family - when Danny was in Iraq and Julia was experiencing a difficult pregnancy until Alyssa's birth two months before her daddy's homecoming. The family lived off base during the last deployment, and Julia's doctor warned her not to drive. Fortunately, her parents didn't live far away and were able to pitch in when she needed it. "That's what kept me going," she said.

Danny made his presence felt at home the best he could by calling whenever possible, sending frequent e-mails and photos and picking up souvenirs for Anthony during port calls. "Frequent communication let me know he was OK and gave me peace of mind," Julia said. "It made a big difference."

Now that they have one deployment under their belts, the Savas say this time they pretty much know what to expect.

With the family now living on base and Julia serving as a key volunteer for the 15th MEU's family support network, they're hoping the deployment will go a bit easier than the last one. In her volunteer role, Julia will serve as a conduit between the unit and other Marine spouses, keeping the information channels open and helping steer families to any help they might need during the deployment. "We pass information to them and let them know what's going on," she said.

A vast volunteer network is just one part of the array of resources and services Camp Pendleton offers its 18,000 families to help them cope during deployments, explained Veronica Largent, assistant branch manager for the base's Family Team Building and Community Support effort.

The program has grown by leaps and bounds since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the launch of the war on terror and the corresponding acceleration in the Marines' deployment cycles.

The program's offerings span the full deployment cycle, from pre-deployment briefings to prepare families for what's ahead to support groups during the deployment to a Warrior Transition Briefing that helps redeploying Marines transition back to their roles at home, Largent explained.

In addition to committing more resources to family support, the Marines are fine-tuning their support network to make it more proactive to families' needs, she said.

For example, "family readiness officer" was once an additional duty that rotated between Marines as they came and went. Now the base has hired full-time civilian employees, such as Bill Bonney, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's family readiness officer, to bring experience and continuity to the job.

The base also established task-organized response teams, made up of professional counselors and other family experts, to bring families together and assist them through bumpy spots during deployments. "It was an opportunity to bring spouses together and allow them to vent and express their concerns, with counselors able to take that discussion and steer it in a constructive way," said Lisa Stehle, team leader for the base's LINKS program.

The program, better known for its acronym than its full name -- Lifestyle Insights, Networking, Knowledge and Skills program -- has proved to be invaluable in bringing Marine families into the fold of the base support program, officials said. They describe LINKS as "Marine Corps 101," an eight-hour workshop that teaches families about the Marine Corps, how it's organized and what services it provides. "It's the single most important program we have," said Bonney, noting that this knowledge empowers family members to tap into programs offered to help them.

Like many family support programs here, LINKS is run by volunteers who shoulder the largest share of the load in taking care of families. Last year alone, this network of Marines, spouses, military retirees, base civilian employees and members of the local community, clocked 180,000 volunteer hours, said Emily McKinley, the volunteer program coordinator.

In addition to steering families toward the resources and services offered to help them, Camp Pendleton's programs aim to ensure they understand the family dynamics that take place before, during and after a deployment, explained Deborah Smith-Porter, a readiness support coordinator and key volunteer trainer.

"There's an emotional cycle of deployment, and a lot of times spouses don't realize that," said Smith-Porter, a Marine wife who's held down the homestead during her husband's three deployments. "They might fight a lot just before the deployments and have doubts about their marriage. They might go through a stage where they are mad at their Marine and mad at the whole Corps. We teach them about this cycle and let them know that this is all perfectly normal."

As spouses of deployed Marines support each other, they form bonds that officials said many simply can't find outside the base network. Frequently families like the Savas, who counted on their extended family for support during the deployment, begin seeking that support from their Marine Corps family, Smith-Porter said.

"At home with your parents, the same support system of understanding just isn't there," she said. "Military spouses are a special breed who understand what you're experiencing. The Marine Corps family is a very small family, but we are very supportive of each other."

"We are spouses, and we are in this together," agreed Stehle. "So we circle the wagons and take care of each other."

Rebecca Rider, a family member employment assistance specialist and Marine wife, said he's proud of Camp Pendleton's programs and the support it offers families. "If spouses grab hold of these programs, they won't be disappointed," she said.

As the base's family support program has evolved, a new level of cooperation has developed between the base's operational side and its support side. "We're working more closely together and understand each other better," Largent said. "We're synchronizing our efforts and, as a result, ensuring we are providing the services needed."

"It's really part of taking care of our own," said Lloyd Thorne, supervisor for Marine Family Team Building and a retired Marine. And that, he said, ultimately boils down to supporting the Marine Corps mission. "It's so they can do their job and keep their head in the game," Thorne said. "That's what it ultimately comes down to."

Col. Brian Beaudreault, the 15th MEU commander, praised the support services being offered to his Marines and their families. He noted with pride that on his past deployment, he didn't have to send a single Marine home to take care of a family problem. "There wasn't an issue that arose that my key volunteers couldn't handle," he said. "I have total confidence in them."

As Beaudreault's unit prepares to deploy in early September, he said he's counting on the family support network to look out for his Marines' families. "A commander can't do this alone," he said. "We count on them and the support they offer."

As the Savas prepare for the MEU's deployment, Julia said she knows she has to be extra strong once again - not just for her children, but also for her husband, who's counting on her so he can focus on his mission. It won't be easy, she acknowledged, particularly knowing that he'll be gone over Christmas and for both of his children's birthdays.

But Julia said she's determined to make the deployment a success. "We'll make it," she said. "We'll be OK."

For now, little Alyssa toddles around base with an infectious ear-to-ear grin, blissfully unaware that her father will soon be leaving. Ten-year-old Anthony understands all too well what's ahead, keeping a brave face as he promises to be a big help to his mother while his Marine father is deployed. "I get used to it," Anthony said of Danny's absence, "but I kind of miss him."

As he utters the words with a brave smile on his face, a tear forms in his left eye and slowly rolls down his cheek.

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