Missouri National Guard shifts duties for Family Assistance Centers

Monday, January 16, 2006

Guard unit members will take up task of providing help to family members.

The Missouri National Guard will no longer employ full-time staffers to handle family assistance and support at any of its 62 armories statewide.

The Cape Girardeau armory is currently home to one of the six family assistance centers in Missouri. Each of these centers is manned by a civilian contract employee.

Steve Engelmann has headed the center at the armory at 2626 Independence St. since August of 2004. His duties range from paycheck inquiries to relaying information through the Red Cross about family illnesses to making sure deployed soldiers can always get in touch with family members back home.

Beginning Feb. 1, tasks like these will be distributed among the 13 full-time staff members, all of whom are members of the guard unit. Officials said the main reason for the change is the recent draw-down of guardsmen serving overseas which has made some of the support staff unnecessary.

But for some military families this is not an even trade-off.

Diane Kohm was the family readiness group coordinator for Company B during the fourteen months her husband, Sgt. Paul Kohm Jr., was deployed in Iraq with the 1140th Engineering Battalion. The 1140th returned from Iraq in May of 2005 and were later deployed to New Orleans as part of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

"It was nice to know you had a spot to go to if you had a problem," she said. "I'd get calls from wives and a lot of the time they really needed help now, with things like how does their insurance work or some were having really serious emotional breakdowns, and if it was a situation where I didn't have the right answers, I'd pick up the phone and Steve was there to answer those questions and connect me with the right people. It was more work than what one person could do, and now they think they can do it with no one."

The national guard's family assistance centers are located at armories in St. Louis, Kansas City, Macon, Springfield, and Jefferson City in addition to the one in Cape Girardeau.

Capt. Tamara Spicer said families will not see a drastic change. "[The staff at the armory] will be providing the same service they've always provided," she said. "We want to make sure that there will always be full-timers available in the armory, so we're going back to having these services taken care of at the unit level with the family readiness groups."

Kohm, however, said family readiness groups can only do so much.

"Downsizing is one thing, but to take [the Family Assistance Centers] completely out of the system doesn't make sense," Kohm said. "The number of volunteer hours it would take from the coordinator would really be too much. Steve was a big help, it seems like if they felt they needed to make a cut, why not make it from full-time down to part-time?"

Kohm also said that the move will be difficult for local families with soldiers deployed in units from other areas of the state, she said many of these people cannot go to places like Kansas City just to be part of support groups. Family assistance centers, she said, filled an important role for them.

The Missouri National Guard currently has just under 1,600 soldiers mobilized both stateside and abroad.

Engelmann, who is employed by a private contractor, said that he was hired on a temporary basis and is not surprised by the move. "They're not going to neglect the families of the troops currently deployed," he said. "[The families] will be provided points of contact, there is full-time unit support here and a full-time administration officer. They will be able to get assistance for them if they have any questions. This is a cost-effective mechanism based on troop levels, but it will not change the service provided."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently lowered troop levels in Iraq from 160,000 to 138,000. This represents a draw-down of 14 percent.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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