12 June 2010

Family Readiness Groups

In January, military blogs reported that the battalion commander of the 2-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Lt. Col. Frank Jenio, was relieved of command, along with his command sergeant major. (Oddly enough, Ink Spots reported that Lt. Col. Jenio's battalion was temporarily serving under the command of Canadian Brigadier General Daniel Menard in Regional Command South. Name sound familiar?)

This sparked quite a bit of controversy and curiosity; after all, it is almost unheard of to simultaneously relieve both a commander and a command sergeant major. While the Ink Spots crew speculated that a failure to adhere to counterinsurgency doctrine might have been the culprit, official sources cited racist pictures in PowerPoint slides as the true cause.

Nevertheless, several responses at Tom Ricks' The Best Defense seemed to tell a different story. In the comment section, a number of respondents, presumably spouses of paratroopers within the 4th Brigade Combat Team, spoke of ulterior motives behind Lt. Col. Jenio's sacking: undue influence from the brigade commander's wife, Dr. Leslie Drinkwine. It started with vague rumors:

If rumors and scuttlebutt have any substance, this situation has as much to do with the wives of the principles (Scaparrotti and Jenio) as it does with anything that may have happened in Afghanistan. It may be that the Army is run as much by its wives as its generals. At any rate, the place to look for answers is Fayetteville, not Kandahar.
--User "Stone"
Of course, rumors are so pervasive that Stars and Stripes has a regular section dedicated to debunking them. However, users with screen names such as "BEALLCANB" and "WITTYENOUGH" began to post, vehemently hurling insults at one another, with "BEALLCANB" making some startling accusations about the command climate within the 4th BCT, most of which revolved around Dr. Drinkwine, who served as the brigade's Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader.

Of course, this was all chatter on a message board. Yet, there appears to have been some truth to the matter. One poster noted an impending investigation into the activities of Dr. Drinkwine, a professor at Fayetteville's Campbell University. The results have just now hit the press, and they aren't pretty at all. Suffice to say that this isn't what a Family Readiness Group should be about:

Excerpts from the Fayetteville Observer (cross-posted at Military.com):
The commander of Fort Bragg has barred the wife of an 82nd Airborne Division colonel from nearly all interaction with her husband's brigade and the unit's families after an investigation found her influence "detrimental to the morale and well-being of both."

Sworn statements from the investigation, ordered in January by Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, accuse Col. Brian Drinkwine's wife, Leslie Drinkwine, of using her husband's position as leverage to repeatedly harass and threaten soldiers and their families...

...In an interview in May, Helmick said his decision to bar Leslie Drinkwine was based on the investigator's recommendations and Helmick's own 34 years of experience in the Army.

"It was just a dysfunctional situation," Helmick said. "That is not a good thing to have when you have soldiers deployed fighting...

...[The investigator's] findings hold Col. Drinkwine partially responsible for his wife's behavior at Fort Bragg.

[The investigator] calls Col. Drinkwine the "key enabler" of his wife's actions because he failed to dispel the perception that she had a level of authority similar to his own...

...Retired Col. Douglas Macgregor said it was typical 40 or 50 years ago for commanders' wives to have tremendous power.

"You did not cross a commander's wife," he said.

Macgregor said some people still hold onto those "outdated" traditionalist values.

Col. Drinkwine appointed his wife to lead the brigade's official support organization, known as a Family Readiness Group, or FRG.

A Family Readiness Group is made up largely of soldiers' spouses; leadership positions often mirror those of the soldiers. During a unit's deployment, the FRG serves as a network of communication between the unit's families and its commanders.

Helmick said there are no expectations for spouses in the Army. Their participation is strictly voluntary, he said.

Macgregor said that's not exactly true.

"There's the expectation that the commanding officer, whether he's a captain, colonel or general, that his wife will set an example by doing things consistent with her husband's responsibilities," Macgregor said. "Wives are under enormous pressure."...

...The report shows that one morning...Dr. Drinkwine visited Lt. Col. Mike Wawrzyniak's wife, Pam, while her husband was at work. Col. Drinkwine sat outside in his car, according to a sworn statement by Pam Wawrzyniak.

Dr. Drinkwine yelled at Mrs. Wawrzyniak for about half an hour, reducing her to tears, the report says.

Eventually, Mrs. Wawrzyniak said in the report, the colonel came into the house, tried unsuccessfully to calm his wife, and they left.

The investigation also shows that the top paid staff member for the FRG resigned in December 2008, citing a hostile work environment that made it impossible for her to do her job.

In sworn interviews or written statements submitted to Spillman, one former battalion commander, two currently serving battalion commanders and the brigade's rear commander said Dr. Drinkwine told them "that either their careers, or the careers of others, could be adversely impacted by her." [emphasis added]...

...In March of last year, before the brigade deployed, all six battalion commanders serving under Col. Drinkwine's command went to his office together to talk to him about his wife.

At that meeting, according to their sworn statements, Col. Drinkwine dismissed their complaints and
told them that the relationship between his wife and their wives was a senior-to-subordinate relationship. [emphasis added] He reiterated that his wife speaks for him...

...[The investigator] said Col. Drinkwine not only failed to dispel that perception in the March meeting with his battalion commanders but he "in fact worsened it."

Col. Drinkwine refused an interview request for this report.

In his written sworn statement from Afghanistan, Col. Drinkwine attributes the problems in his FRG to "an inability of a few ladies being able to work professionally with one another."

In his report, [the investigator] calls the remark "disingenuous." [emphasis added]...

Dr. Drinkwine and Jenio's wife, Sherri, were often at odds, according to multiple statements [Ed. note: Is it possible that "BEALLCANBE" and "WITTYENOUGH" at Tom Ricks' blog are Sherri Jenio and Dr. Drinkwine? Read further and decide for yourself.]

Dr. Drinkwine sometimes used a pseudonym on the website Fortbragglife.com. She told Spillman she "lurked" on the site to get a pulse of the issues and to benefit the brigade.

Once, she became an online friend of a soldier's wife who worried that her husband was cheating on her, according to the report.

Dr. Drinkwine found out the woman's name, as well as the soldier's name and unit, which turned out to be Jenio's.

She then passed along the name to her husband. Col. Drinkwine directed Jenio to order counseling for the soldier, according to multiple sworn statements.

In the same e-mail, [a fellow battalion commander, Lt. Col.] Oclander wrote that since Jenio's dismissal, "I feel as though I have been indirectly threatened 2-3 times to keep me quiet or my command will be in jeopardy next."

[Lt. General] Helmick said Jenio's relief of command has nothing to do with Dr. Drinkwine.

"There is no link between that and this. None whatsoever. Not even close," said Helmick, whose investigation began the week after Jenio's dismissal.

Lt. Col. Kelly Ivanoff, who was the brigade's deputy commanding officer from June 2008 to June 2009, said the problems came from the bottom up, not the top down. "The resistance put forth by some of the battalions is nearly equivalent to a mutiny," Ivanoff wrote in a sworn statement.

Helmick, in a letter addressed to Dr. Drinkwine, wrote, "even though (Lt. Gen. Austin) and (Maj. Gen. Scaparrotti) have discussed the command climate within the 4th Brigade Combat Team with your husband, the actions that he took have not been sufficient."

Helmick's order bans Dr. Drinkwine from holding any leadership position, directly or indirectly, in the 4th Brigade or its FRG; participation in any activity or function of the 4th BCT or its FRG, except for attendance at memorial services; being present in any 4th BCT building, including barracks and headquarters buildings; and contacting any member of the 4th BCT leadership or FRG leadership except contact with her husband.

The order remains in effect until Col. Drinkwine no longer commands the 4th BCT or until the Drinkwines leave Fort Bragg, whichever happens later.

"Sometimes, you've got to do things that are in the best interest of the organization, not in the best interest of the person, and that's what I did," Helmick said. "As a commander, you've got to make those decisions."

When the article hit the blogosphere, reaction was little short of ecstatic. At Fortbragglife.com, where Dr. Drinkwine was said to "lurk", one poster commented:

Quite a few of you have commented on how other wives feel they have their husbands "rank and authority". Most especially connected to the FRG. I know this myself, all too well. I've been dealing with it, longer than most of you have been Army wives.

I'm sure most of you know why she was "lurking" here, and under an assumed name. It had nothing to do with benefiting the unit. She was looking for "whiners". Then looking in thier profiles to see if there was a picture of the husband in uniform, with a flash that matched her husbands.
Among the 131 comments so far posted on the article at "U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments", there is a popular sentiment that issues such as these drive soldiers and their families away from the FRGs.

FRGs grew out of informal clubs, such as officers' wives clubs. Officers' wives in the "Old Army" of the 19th Century wielded considerable power, according to Morris Janowitz' excellent book on military organizational culture, The Professional Solder. Often isolated on remote posts on the frontier, Army officers--often from a higher social class than their subordinates--reigned almost supreme. The commander's spouse, likewise, was akin to a queen, and held a "commanding" position among the spouses of the organization. Even military "brats" adhered to an informal rank structure. In fact, Janowitz notes, a young officer might improve his career prospects by marrying the daughter of a higher-ranking officer, as if the military were European royalty.

Of course, that was a far different era, when a woman's status was equivalent to that of her husband. With women increasingly entering the work force, and the changing family demographics within the Army--including Army husbands, single parents, and dual-military couples--the structure and focus of the FRG must change as well, from a social club to an information-sharing organization.

For starters, FRGs are for anyone who has an emotional interest in a soldier's well-being. The traditional "Army wife" structure sometimes overlooks parents and other family members, who often reside thousands of miles away from the base, and may have minimal knowledge of or interaction with the military. Simply identifying a soldier's unit might be a challenge for a parent or interested friend.

Since my family was often cut out of the loop in information-sharing, I started a mailing list and e-mailed all sorts of useful information to parents: what unit their soldier was assigned to, how to send a Red Cross message, how to contact their soldier in an emergency, and how casualty notification works. For me, the FRG's primary role should be that of information dissemination, and the commander and FRG leader work hand-in-hand to make sure it works.

As the security features of the Army's Virtual FRG's--the official websites for family members--often intimidate immediate family members, and restrict access to all but the closest relatives, most Army units have begun to adopt Facebook pages, and release information, pictures, and news articles through Facebook.

A contributing factor to the all-too-common complaint that FRG leaders "wear their husband's rank" is that, in most organizations, a commander's spouse serves as the FRG leader. However, this does not always need to be the case. Being a single person, I picked an amazing Army wife to serve as my FRG leader. The wife of a sergeant, she raised two children over two combat deployments, volunteered in he community, and worked part-time. I couldn't have asked for a better FRG leader.

There are several great family members throughout our ranks, and the wife of a specialist might be even better qualified than a captain's wife. I've even heard of men leading the FRGs. Who cares who the FRG leader is, so long as the families--parents, friends, spouses, and children--are well-informed? An informed family member tends to worry less, because there are fewer unknowns, and it's the unknown that's the most frightening.

In the end, it's just like Paul, one of my regular readers, noted: it's all about the types of people you have in your FRG. I was fortunate to work with outstanding soldiers and family members, and I'd like to think most of the Army is the same way.

Focus: How can we improve family readiness groups? How have they changed in the 21st Century, both as a result of changing social structures, and as a result of nearly a decade of war?

1 comment:

Andy Kravetz said...

Hey, FRGs have always been a dysfunctional system as they pit the Army's paranoia vs. the families unrelenting questions and need to know. Here in the boonies, FRGs are all families have as we have no active duty base. Central Illinois is all reserves and Guard. As such, our FRGs are quite strong and often stretch over several counties and miles.

That said, I have been close to some and not so close to others. The FRGs tend to work best when the commander believes in them and communicates directly with the FRG in a secure way. That said, we had a big blow up here when a truck convoy was attacked on 9 April 2004. Remember the one where the KBR guy was captured and escaped. Remember Matt Maupin, that was our reserve unit.

The families knew everything from their soldiers and commander before the Army wanted it out. As such, brass tried to threatened the wives until the press and others stepped in. (I had been on the mailing list).

So nothing like the scope of what you are reporting but the Army has a ways to go in some areas.

Enjoy Germany. How long are you there.