Forty years ago, at a Family Awareness Conference in Norfolk, Va., attendees worried about the welfare and future of U.S. Navy sailors. To encourage sailors to re-enlist, something needed to be done to support military families. The Navy listened and, under leadership of Rear Admiral Richard E. Nicholson, an organization called Family Service Center was founded.
From that first small group of one or two paid staff, a few volunteers, and a couple of active duty personnel, the organization grew to what is now a network of 57 Fleet & Family Service Centers (FFSC) around the world, at almost every Navy installation.
In September 2019, Fleet & Family Service Center at Naval Submarine Base New London held a celebration of that 40 years of service to military members and their families, with a great deal of excitement and satisfaction over a job well done.
Barbara J. Ross serves as Installation Program Director and has been with FFSC for 27 years. “I started with a job and worked my way up,” she says. “I saw spectacular passion and compassion in the people who worked here. You can teach skills, how to present and interview, but you can’t teach someone how to be passionate about military life and living.”
Having compassion toward those who are serving, sacrificing, and meeting challenges is another way to help military families. Public Affairs Officer Christopher Zendan elaborated: “Because we’re here on base, we’re Navy focused with a team of 24, but FFSC supports military members and veterans across the state, and even farther, who come to the base for different things. This includes our local Coast Guard and National Guard.”
As times change and society changes, FFSC has also changed. Ross mentioned some major areas. “As more spouses decide they want careers, we’ve developed a family employment program,” she says. “As the military became more sensitive to sexual assault, there was a huge push to bring online a major sexual assault awareness and prevention program.
“When veterans had difficulty getting a job, a congressionally-mandated program was developed to transition all service members into the workforce — prepared to do that, and competitive with other job seekers,” says Ross.
Fleet & Family Service Centers offer so much to military families. Along with information and referrals, programs available include Clinical Counseling, Financial Education, Deployment Support, Individual Augmentee Support, Relocation Services, Transition Support, Family Employment, Family Advocacy, New Parent Support, Life Skills Education, Domestic Violence Victim Services, Ombudsman Training/Support, Crisis Intervention, Command Support, and Navy Gold Star Family Support.
Military and, specifically, submarine deployment are very different from civilian deployments. For one thing, a deployment creates more stress. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t see on television and the internet where areas of conflict were and what was happening. Spouses of deployed members are going to be very anxious, especially for submarine deployments. Communication is meager, and information equally difficult to obtain. Six months is a long time to be out of touch with a spouse.
“We have to be very proactive in what we do so we can build the resiliency of our family members,” says Ross.
Clinical counseling and financial education are important functions at FFSC. Dennis Goguen is the Counseling Advocacy Program Supervisor and explains that there are different levels of clinical care. “The medical model is managed through the branch clinic. They provide treatment services for medical conditions like depression, anxiety, medication management, and the like. And those services are free.”
He continues, “With our counseling, it’s nonmedical. Members can self-refer, and it’s short term. We call it solution-focused because we are looking for basic intervention and solutions.”
Counseling can include marital counseling and child counseling, but the center must also manage difficult issues like family violence. All the providers are licensed and credentialed in such a way that they can provide the highest level of clinical care.
The New Parents Aboard Program is a great family resource, but also important for the prevention of family violence. New parents are under a lot of duress, particularly those who are away from home, or never had a lot of parenting education. “This is a great program with a base curriculum with a good focus on how parents think about discipline and nurturing,” says Goguen. “We want to make sure new parents have all the skills they need so that children are not only being well cared for and nurtured, but are not at risk for maltreatment.”
Goguen points out that many of the unique stressors in the military community have to do with money. “That’s a big driver and there are lots of reasons,” he says, “but certainly starting young families, or being away from home and not having family support in the area are factors. Learning to budget, and manage money is critical, especially living here in Southeastern Connecticut on the pay of a junior sailor.”
Work & Family Life Supervisor Lisa Dain oversees many of the educational programs, including the Exceptional Family Member Program. “This is for a member who has any learning, medical, or mental health needs,” she says. “Typically, it’s a situation of six months or longer, such as gestational diabetes, or even depression or anxiety on the mental health side. Medical issues could be as serious as cancer, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or learning disabilities such as dyslexia.”
For instances like these, it can be difficult to navigate what resources are available—whether civilian or military—or find the specialist needed. EFMP is specifically designed to help the sailor and the detailer (who will determine a sailor’s next duty station) make sure the right support services are available.
“We also offer life skills,” says Dain. “Communication is an important one; recognizing the difference between good communication techniques and poor ones. Stress management—what works well for different personalities. Resiliency in general—how to build it so that no matter what life challenges are thrown at them, they’ll be able to deal with it.”
Emergency preparedness is a high priority for FFSC. Dain says, “It’s not a matter of if Murphy strikes, it’s when. We can support our members so they can handle things. We even have Ready Navy programs for hurricane preparedness, and now a get-ready-for-winter program.”
There is an international database of 19 different categories, ranked in severity of need. A member can check in and select what they need; emergency case managers are available to support those families worldwide.
Many of the staff at FFSC are, or have been, spouses of military members. “That’s important,” says Ross, “because when a young spouse comes in with a crying baby, a 2-year-old in hand, she’s having financial trouble, is in tears and doesn’t know where to turn, those staff members who’ve lived the life understand. They’ve been there and know what it’s like to go through a deployment by themselves. They have the compassion.”
The Fleet & Family Services Program and all they do is about taking care of our sailors and families, providing self-resilience programs, making sure the military family is strong, and supporting mission readiness. Citizens and members of the community can know that their military members and families are in good hands because of centers like this.