'Virtual Installation' Brings Support to Military Families

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Army Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz credited his wife, Laura, for coming up with the concept of a "virtual installation" for families who live too far away to tap into the kind of information, services and support provided at large military bases.

Laura Stultz has experienced firsthand the challenges of holding down the home front far from the nearest military installation, when her soldier deploys. She recalled her husband's deployments to the Persian Gulf and the Balkans in the 1990s, when she had four young children at home and couldn't make the two-hour drive to a family readiness group meeting for help and support.

So when Stultz became the Army Reserve chief three years ago, she began pressing for a "virtual installation" to better serve and connect with military families.

"She said, 'We have got to do more. ... You have to bring the installation to the family,'" the general said at the Sept. 12 ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Because you have Fort Bragg, [N.C.], and you have Fort Drum, [N.Y.], but you don't have Fort Rochester. So what will military families do there when their soldiers leave? How will they get the support that you would expect to receive if you lived on Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y.?"

The answer is tucked away in a cheery corner of the Rochester Army Reserve Center. Brightly colored toys, shelves of books and a cozy seating area beckon visitors inside. Strategically positioned display racks bulge with brochures about services available and how to take advantage of them.

But the heart of the center rests in what Stultz conceded can't be delivered online or through a toll-free call-in center: caring staffers and volunteers who families can talk to face to face to get the information they need.

Michelle Zelaya, one of two full-time staffers at the center, said families come with a full range of questions or concerns.

Many of the 800 Army Reserve families that live within 50 miles of Rochester have had little or no contact with the military in the past, she said. Fort Drum, the nearest large Army post, is 120 miles away, so many of the local families find themselves starting at square one when they begin learning what benefits and services are available and how to tap into them.

Others families who come to the center are geographically isolated, hundreds or thousands of miles from where their spouse deployed from, and unaware of local resources to help them.

Some come with specific questions, needing a new military identification card or help with the Tricare military health care system. Others worry that their children are the only ones in their school classes with a deployed parent, and need a way to connect with other kids in the same situation.

The staff and volunteers at the Army Strong Community Center answer their questions, help them network with each other for support, and refer them for services they need "not just with a phone number, but with a warm hand-off," Zelaya said.

"The biggest thing they take away is that they are not alone," she said. "We want them to know that while you are standing tall, we are standing behind you."

That message has big implications for the Army Reserve in terms of readiness, as well as for recruiting and retention, her husband said.

Deployed Army reservists can focus on their mission, knowing that if there's a problem at home, the staff at the Army Strong Community Center will take care of the family, Stultz said. Soldiers whose families are helped through the center appreciate that the Army Reserve cares about them and their families -- and as a result, decide to continue serving.

And when the community starts recognizing "this great support structure that is down there for the military," Stultz said, he expects more people to say, "I want to be a part of that" and join the military.

The Army Strong Community Center appears to be catching on in Rochester. Since opening its doors in early December, the staff has received 650 requests.

And just as Laura Stultz had predicted, the center is helping to fill a gap for the many active-duty families who leave their post for their hometowns during their loved one's deployment. Almost one-third of the requests so far have come from active-duty families, including Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force families.

"This is for anybody in any branch of the service to come and get the referrals they need," she said.

"For those of you in the other services, you can call it Rochester Air Base or Navy Base or Coast Guard Station, but we are going to call it Fort Rochester," her husband joked at today's ceremony.

If Laura Stultz has her way, the "Fort Rochester" concept will become as commonplace in American communities as the local post office. "I hope this is the start of a big expansion of the centers," she said.

"There is a lot of interest out there," her husband said, with communities around the country offering to partner with the Army to open new centers. Others are saying, "We'd like this in our community. We see the need and the community wants to help," he said.

The next center, possibly in the Midwest or Western part of the country, will probably be out in the community rather than in a reserve center.

Laura Stultz admitted she was wary of establishing the first center in a facility she feared families might find imposing or shy away from because of security restrictions. And while emphasizing that "they do a great job here" in Rochester, she said she'd like to test out other approaches that are more visible to the community and easier to access.

It could be a kiosk at a local mall or a center set up at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion site. Stultz said he plans to pitch to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, the idea of opening "virtual installations" at some of the VA outreach centers that dot the country.

"We have a lot of ideas," Laura Stultz said. "We hope that everything, we learn a little bit, we try new things to make it better for our families."

Army Master Sgt. Dennis Frink, a 98th Division's supply noncommissioned officer, said he sees the new centers as a way to ensure military families have better, more convenient access to support than his own family experienced when he deployed from 2006 to 2008.

"This is good outreach, and brings an awareness of what's available," he said. "For the reserve community, this really brings it all together."

"It's fabulous," echoed Army Master Sgt. Victoria Ferris, the division medical noncommissioned officer. She contrasted what's being offered to Army Reserve families today, particularly through the new Army Strong Community Center and other family-support programs, to what was available when she deployed to Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

"Families left at home had no support and no idea where to go for what they needed," she said. "I am so glad for the programs we have now."

All military families -- whether they're active-duty, reservists or National Guardsmen, and regardless of whether they're Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps -- deserve the same level of services and support when their loved ones deploy into harm's way, Laura Stultz said.

The new center, she said, represents a big step in the right direction. "This is our attempt to make it equal throughout the military," she said.

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