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GI Rights Hotline

April 18, 2009

The day my husband deployed, there was another spouse at the airport who was beyond distraught. When the kids and I got home and our tears dried, the first call I made went to the local ombudsman, asking her to check up on this other woman. “They’re leaving?!” was her incredulous response.

Seriously.

Reservists and members of the National Guard face particular challenges in that we are often spread out, isolated from others experiencing deployment. Our neighbors are not going through the same things we are and many times, they don’t even know what’s happening. Frankly, we are often at the whim of family volunteers who may or may not want and/or be any good at the job, without easy access to other sources of support that may cover those gaps.

I had three numbers taped to my fridge while my husband was gone: USAA, Military One Source and the GI Rights Hotline. I’m sure everyone knows the first two, but the third  is a national network of nonprofit, nongovenmental organizations who provide free and confidential phone counseling. The Hotline is staffed by civilian volunteers who are more often than not veterans themselves, but are also lawyers, therapists and CPAs – all volunteers go through a rigorous initial orientation and are continually engaged in ongoing training. Active Duty or retired members of the military and their families can call for information on everything from

  • discharges
  • grievance procedures
  • sexual assault
  • health care benefits
  • hardship leave
  • civil rights/Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
  • AWOL/UA concerns
  • conscientious objection

The GI Rights Hotline was founded in 1994 as a coalition of 4 organizations and has since grown tremendously. Currently, the  network is composed of 24 organizations and 225 trained couselors in 11 states and Washington, DC.  In 2007, the Hotline received over 40,000 calls, 86% of which were from active duty service men and women.

For more information, see here. The national, toll free number is 1-877-447-4487. Calls are routed to the organization closest to you, so that individual calls can be responded to by locals familiar with bases in their area.

Given my experience, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a hot topic for me. I’m sure there are stories of fantastic ombudsmen and FRG leaders, but I know there are also horror stories. President Obama has called for more support, training and paid support staff for family volunteer groups, but is that enough? Should these positions be filled with paid civilians? Paid military? Paid family members? Volunteerism has long been the purview of milspouses and many them make their service a large part of their identity, but more often than not our lives are filled with many obligations, not to mention many volunteers are coping with deployments themselves. Personally, I think the ombudsman/FRG programs should be scrapped in favor of neutral and paid civilian professionals, but then I’m the one who was stuck with an ombudsman who didn’t actually know when troops were deploying.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. FOW permalink
    April 19, 2009 12:04 am

    As long as the civilians are trained so we don’t have to explain every aspect of our lives to them, maybe a small scale trail basis is worth it. The problem becomes I’m not sure I’d want to be told that on top of a deployment we’re being used to test out a new FRG system. Commands also need to be better at screening FRG’s. You can’t expect a wife with 4 kids who has never dealt with deployment and works to have enough time in her day to handle the situations that come up effectively! By the way that was my last FRG but I don’t completely trust that a civilian would understand what our lives are and whose to say they won’t get caught up in the drama that sometimes surround FRG’s? The system is broken and we need to fix it but I don’t think anyone really knows how. Great post and I know have a new number on my fridge!

  2. April 19, 2009 12:36 am

    I’ve also heard that the Red Cross is doing something similar to that, they are training people to help out military families who (like myself) don’t live near any bases so they can get the help they need. I don’t know if these are civilians or people associated w/the military, but considering my husband’s supposed to be deploying w/a unit 12 hours away, and the closest base is about 2 hours away, I can go to one of the 2 Red Cross centers close to me for help if needed.

  3. April 19, 2009 1:11 am

    I had a young spouse, when our Guard guys got on the plane — in howling floods.. her little girl just sat and patted her face – it was horrible. She had NO FRG, and mine was worse than useless. The leader – well she took off on a jaunt, never told anyone, no information, nada. We finally contacted our spouses, they talked to her husband – oh – yeah… she would be back in a month. She wanted and accepted NO help, threw out those of us who wanted to DO something… yeah – I’m not an FRG fan. I think if anyone is going to man these phones – it must be one of US. or a vet. or someone who understands what the hell an LES is – how difficult it really IS to get Tricare to listen. Not just some civilian with a little training and a big binder with phone numbers.

    We just talked about military spouses who can’t get jobs. So let’s get them training, let’s get them phone/computer hookup. Let’s get that spirit of “family” the “we are in this together” and then lets pay them a living wage to do it. Could solve a couple of problems… I don’t mean just one per unit. Let’s get this internet/hooked up world fired up, and hire dozens of spouses – we’d need multilingual as well, we’d need people to be “on the clock” from home, or maybe on post, 24/7. If you can’t reach someone where you are, you will get a PERSON, (she/he maybe in Stuttgart!) but you will get someone, with training, with empathy, and who has BEEN THERE, done that, got too many damned coffee cups/hats and Tshirts.

    Just a thought.

    • April 19, 2009 1:30 am

      Thanks for reminding me, silver star – the Red Cross’ contact number is 888-737-4306 and they can be invaluable as well.

      LAW, I love your idea of harnessing the power of the Internet to fill some of these roles!

      And FOW – I agree. Commands need to do more than pay lip service to setting up support situations. It’s not enough to make sure that check in the box is filled – they need to follow through. For what it’s worth, when my husband returned, I wrote a letter to the CO making clear the ombudsman had been one big fat fail.

  4. April 19, 2009 2:53 am

    Iam FRG Leader right now. I c an just say that you have to go through a training, all AFTB classes and you have to do your Care Team classes too.
    Most of all its a team effort. My idea of a well-functioning FRG is information. Not cupcake-fundraisers or fancy coffee…pur, quick relevant information.
    Works pretty well thanks to a commander with the same goal.

    • April 19, 2009 3:56 pm

      issuedwifetwo, can you tell us more? Are you Active Duty? How much contact are you having w/ command? Did they have Internet networking training in your classes? Do you work with other women? Have you done this before? Is there any drama and how do you keep yourself out of it if there is?

      I’m curious b/c this really is an important issue for me. I was approached to be the unit ombudsman and I said “No way!” for the simple reason that I had never been through a deployment before and I thought that made me ridiculously unqualified. In hind sight I would have done a hugely better job and I know there were families that suffered because the ombudsman we had sucked. I know she went through all the classes, but at the end of the day, her husband wasn’t even deployed with the unit – he had retired and she was completely checked out. And the unit had a change of command mid way and it all just slipped through the cracks.

      LAW’s idea about using the Internet really has struck a chord with me – especially for families who are spread out – the NM National Guard is sending aboout 500 troops ove rthis week and none of those people live anywhere near each other. But setting up a Ning site or a listserv for them would be a GREAT idea!

  5. April 19, 2009 4:28 pm

    I have never done it before. The Commander asked me to do it mainly of my biblical age of 36 and being a Moderator of a german-spouses board since years I have a lot of army-knowledge.
    I went through the classes, I made also sure that everyone knows aout the AFTB online classes. This are classes that teach you the military asics, from how to read a LES to your rights and your duties.I recommend the page http://www.myarmyonesource.com/skins/aos2/display.aspx?ModuleID=c56c2c3c-d8ff-46a5-a0a0-52e6ad9de6fe&action=rpc_launch_plugin

    also to the family members that had nothing to do with the military before like parents or grandparents.
    All FRG Leaders in our Battalion have a meeting once a month where we get new informations, I am also in constant email contact with our Company Commander and 1 SGT and get bi-weekly calls.
    A lot of information are also on the armyfrg.com page…its a secure place to post classified informations and there are all contact numbers for Rear D and important places on.
    Once a months I do a phone tree activation, meaning I have 3 ladies that call each 15 families ( they most have agreed on this before the deployment so we can call them) to forward infos ut mostly to hear if they are questions or concerns. While we are in beautiful Colorado we have a lot of parents from the very young soldiers living on the East Coast which are really thankful for the calls.
    Oh before I forget it..the Unit is Active Duty and iam a volunteer. But we also have a FRSA from Battalion that helps mostly with all the paperwork and supplies .

    • April 19, 2009 5:17 pm

      issuedwifetwo – I think I speak for anyone that’s ever had a sucky volunteer leader when I say I really wish you had been my ombudsman. Thanks for your feedback.

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