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Kristy Kaufmann- Speech to the Legion

August 26, 2009

Those of you who read Kristy Kaufmann’s piece in the Washington Post back in May (“Army Families Under Fire”) may remember it caused “quite a stir” (to put it mildly). Since then, she’s been a busy busy woman! She was recently invited to speak at the American Legion’s National Convention. Now that’s big enough, but she said “It was exciting, but a bit daunting to address over 5,000 people…especially when three of the other speakers were Admiral Mullen, Gen. Petraeus, and Gen. Shinseki. ” Yeah, hard acts to follow or precede! I asked her permission to put this on here, in its entirety.

I wanted a picture of her speaking – but this is what she sent me. Definitely different!

Kristy firing saw

Speech to the General Assembly of the American Legion
Kristina Kaufmann
8/25/09

Thank you Commander, for the kind introduction, and opportunity to speak on behalf of today’s military families, who serve right beside their soldiers.

I am an unlikely Army wife…I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley…possibly the most liberal school in the country, and my husband went to West Point. People often ask how we met…Vegas; we met in Las Vegas…the only place that could possibly happen! Apparently, what happens in Vegas, doesn’t always stay there…because I ended up in the Army. Fort Sill, OK to be exact, the home of the field artillery…HOOAH!

We were married in June of 2001, so pretty much the only Army I’ve ever known has been an Army at war. As you all know, military spouses have a long standing and proud tradition of volunteerism. We take care of our soldiers, and we take care of each other. I stand in awe of the care, compassion and resiliency our military families continue to show under extremely difficult circumstances. But, we are tired. And as we approach eight years of war, too many military families are quietly coming apart at the seams.

My husband did his command at Fort Bragg from 2006 to 2008 (Airborne!). Our unit was deployed, in some capacity, the entire two years. And in my role as the battalion’s volunteer Family Readiness Group Leader – supporting over 600 soldiers and families – I saw first hand, the impact multiple deployments have, not only on the soldiers, but their families as well.

To quote one Army wife, “Life is unbelievable when he is deployed. The long nights without sleep. The days without knowing your husband is alive from the last patrol they went on. The pit in your stomach every time you round the bend to your house, praying there is not a chaplain sedan parked out front. Then, when you should be happy ’cause they have made it home, the nightmare, as hard as it is to imagine, gets worse.”

While our command experience was incredibly rewarding and we were both honored to be serving, it was also stressful, difficult and extremely frustrating. Bottom line, there were not nearly enough resources available, and although I did everything in my power to help, I felt like I left a trail of broken and damaged families in our wake.

The old saying is, “If the Army had wanted you to have a family, they would have issued one.” Although DoD has made a concerted effort in the past couple of years, to address some of the challenges we face, they are way behind the power curve when it comes to assessing and dealing with the impact on families, particularly when it comes to mental health. Many well-meaning initiatives are trying to address various facets of the problem, however, the fact is, they are not working very well. Why? Well, for one thing, the military has been measuring success based on effort expended – the amount of money spent and programs created – as opposed to how effective these efforts have actually been. This has led to a significant disconnect between military leadership and those of us “in the trenches” so to speak. Too many soldiers and their families perceive these efforts to be little more than lip service.

To quote another Army wife, “I hear all the time how the military is doing so much for the family, but I’m constantly in the dark. I hate canned responses of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t answer that but I can refer you to someone who can’, only to find that person will have me stuck in voice mail purgatory for all of eternity.”

I believe our top military leaders are sincere in their desire to support military families, but good intentions, covenants and proclamations are not enough. We need to fully fund and professionalize the Family Readiness Groups, place qualified social workers and/or mental health professionals at unit level, incorporate family support training into the educational curriculum across the board and then hold NCOs and officers accountable by including an assessment of how well they do on family support, in their evaluation reports.

I’m thrilled, that the American Legion has proposed a resolution incorporating these recommendations to modernize the Family Readiness Groups.

No soldier returns from a deployment unchanged – even those with no physical or psychological wounds. And that means, no family is ever the same. Reunions are wonderful, but it’s not easy putting a family back together after a long deployment, and just when you feel like you’ve hit your stride, your soldier is back in the field and training for his next deployment.

We military families are a practical and self-sufficient group of people. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about “what ifs”. We do what we have to do to cope with what has become our, “new normal”. When civilian friends ask, “How we do it”, we say, “What choice do we have?” The “can do” attitude of the military, actually means – can do without. It’s a badge of honor soldiers and their families have been proud to bear. But, after eight years of war, with no end in sight, this badge is wearing very thin.

Legionnaires, I know I am preaching to the choir when I say, we, as a nation, have a solemn obligation to care for those who fight and defend our way of life. When a soldier takes the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, the fact is that his or her family – spouse, children, parent, brother and sister – willingly or not, takes that oath too. Behind every soldier in uniform today, is a family struggling with the stresses of war.

But this is not just a moral imperative…this is about national security. A fact the American Legion’s outstanding leadership is fully aware. If you have a broken family, you are going to have a broken solider…and then you are not going to have an Army, and since only one percent of American population is fighting these wars, this poses a very real problem. If we don’t take action now, to recover and sustain our military families, we will loose a generation of them.

Volunteer wives cannot handle the serious issues facing military families alone…suicide, battery, divorce, depression of spouses and children, PTSD, death and economic peril. We are truly, at the end of our ropes. And what is happening with the children of these soldiers serving multiple tours, is truly heartbreaking.

So, what’s the good news? Well the good news is, we don’t have to do it ourselves. We have people like you and organizations, like the American Legion, who are ready, willing and able to help. The problem is, the majority of soldiers and their families know very little about the Legion and other veterans’ and military service organizations. If I had known the Legion could help our soldiers and their families, I would have asked for help.

Those of us living on installations, often feel very isolated from the rest of the country…and our National Guard and Reserve families have it even tougher, feeling isolated from both the civilian community in which they live, and the active duty military community.

After meeting with Commander Rehbein and the Legion’s national leadership, I am convinced they have a solid plan to improve their outreach to today’s military members and their families. In fact, some Legion outposts are already functioning as defacto Soldier and Family Assistance Centers for our Reserve and Guard families living far from military installations. DoD, for its part, must do a better job of allowing VSO’s, and other non-profit organizations, to connect with us. Because, to be perfectly honest…we don’t care where the help comes from, we just need help.

So, what can you do? Well, here’s one little old Army wife’s call to action: when you go back to your home states…tell your fellow legionnaires what I’ve shared with you today. Reach out to us, let us know you are there and that you want to help. Sometimes, just having someone volunteer to help with the lawn, or fix a leaky faucet, or invite us to a BBQ when we’re 10 months into a 15 month deployment, is enough to keep us going for a while.

Adopt a single soldier, when he or she returns from a deployment. So instead of spending the first two weeks before leave in the barracks…which is usually just a few blocks from the class six. That soldier is with spending time with you, a fellow veteran, a person who understands without having to ask.

The challenges we face are complex and difficult, and the solutions will not be easy our free. But we must begin a campaign to truly support our military families, not just in word but in deed. We must harness and focus the energy and resources of the military, military service organizations, the administration, our legislatures and the American people to deliver real results.

We are proud to serve, and we don’t expect, or want people to feel sorry for us. But, we do want you to know that we are here, and we are hurting. And because most soldiers and families cannot or will not ask for help…I am asking on their behalf.

Finally, I want to thank the Commander, Phil, Joe, Alex and the rest of the Legion’s national leadership. And to all of you, in this room, thank you for your service. We truly do, stand on the shoulders of those who have served before us.

HOOAH!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2009 10:00 am

    Excellent, EXCELLENT speech. This is so true on so many levels. Kudo’s to her.

  2. August 27, 2009 11:18 pm

    Excellent indeed. Hooah!

  3. householdzes permalink
    August 29, 2009 4:28 pm

    I somewhat agree and disagree. Our FRG is doing pretty good. Never really stumbled upon any problems yet, and is well run.
    But I do agree that a helping hand would be welcome.

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