EFMP Advocacy Network: Airmen helping Airmen

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. --

(Part 3 of 3: EFMP Ft. Meade series) In early 2016, an Airman assigned to 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing was given orders to move away from his family for three years. This immediately caused stress for the Airman’s family, who had a young child enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). Because there were no capable treatment facilities for the Airman’s child in Hawaii, then he would have been forced to leave his family behind. This raised concern for others in the EFMP community. A solution was needed and guidance heavily questioned whom could help. 

A bond of understanding

Within weeks of assessing the Airman’s situation, 70th ISRW leadership and EFMP Airmen gathered, looking for a solution. They needed a way to bridge the gap between families needing help and those who could potentially assist. The EFMP processes can sometimes be lengthy with permanent change of stations, finding appropriate care and even receiving medications. Sometimes knowing someone who’s been there can benefit and assist families.

“Being in the military with a family can be stressful,” said Tech. Sgt. Ariel Dehogues, 707th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group. “When any of those members requires extra attention, as those who are in the EFMP do, it can become all encompassing. Navigating alone through Air Force regulations, medical insurance policies and state assistance programs is a daunting endeavor for even the strongest of wills. It takes a team to get to a successful answer.”

Dehogues is the mother of two, one of whom was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. The EFMP was something new for the family. They were in new territory and wanted to learn more about the EFMP process for support. Dehogues and her family were in luck. Several Fort Meade, Maryland, Airmen had begun a support group. They met during lunch, for playdates or for coffee, and sometimes just one-on-one just to speak to someone and seek mentorship or guidance.

“When I learned that there was an all-Air Force advocates group forming to help guide one another within EFMP, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it,” said Dehogues. “Through constant contact, meetings, emails and social media, we support each other in order to keep focused on the mission while knowing our loved ones are being taken care of.”

It’s an AF family affair

The EFMP Advocates group is comprised of Airmen of all ranks and echelons stationed at Fort Meade. A memorandum requesting approval for the group was routed and signed by the wing commander and the group was officially created and mobilized. It was the first advocate program for EFMP families in Maryland.

“For myself, the EFMP started nine years ago when my wife was diagnosed with liver failure and we had to get a humanitarian PCS [permanent change of station] from Hawaii,” said Chief MSgt David Vasser, superintendent, 34th Intelligence Squadron. “The kids were fairly young, and it was a traumatic experience because I was told my wife was going to pass away. We then received a humanitarian PCS to Omaha, Nebraska.”

The Vassers’ introduction into the EFMP was slightly different from most families. During the time of his wife’s diagnosis, she would spend a significant amount of time in the hospital. On top of working and taking care of his wife, Vasser said he also came home to help the kids with school work, cook and clean.

This environment would test the mental strength and resiliency of anyone. Luckily for the Vassers, they were surrounded by friends and an Air Force family who would jump right in to lend a hand where needed. Vasser said there are three names he will never forget: Tech. Sgt. Roy Hartman, Maj. Veronica Cower and Chief Master Sgt. Adam Watson.

“After I took my wife to the hospital, I called them and explained what was going on,” he said. “They came and saw me at the hospital and asked ‘What do you need?’ I told them, and it just got done. I had to turn my back to my children because my wife needed me, and the Air Force family stepped up big.”

Vasser was overwhelmed with his new responsibilities, he said. Thankfully, the EFMP team assisted with the paperwork needed to help his wife. They even flew in family for support. They would rotate shifts, ensuring the children were taken care of, the grass was cut, the vehicle was maintenance and provided any other assistance he needed to make sure he focused on his wife’s health, he said. Vasser said Chief Watson even took timeout of his schedule to sign Vasser’s mother onto base to help care for the children.

“There are so many stories in there,” Vasser said. “Maj. Cower shipping my car, Tech. Sgt. Hartman shipping my house. It really taught me so much about what it meant to be an airmen and be a Wingman.”

To Vasser, his comrades’ support was not something he would’ve imagined was possible, and he is very grateful to them, he said. He has reflected on the support he was given, and also thinks of the other Airmen of the 70th ISRW who are currently entering a new phase in their life with the EFMP.

“The more people in the EFMP I meet, I keep hearing the same stories,” Vasser said. “I think that’s one of the things we don’t talk about enough, the Airmen spirit. We can do so much with just a little bit of caring and little bit of time. That is why I like the EFMP Advocates, it’s Airmen helping Airmen.”

From the ground up

This newly formed, one of a kind program, the EFMP Advocates, will give Airmen the chance to reach out and mentor one another. If one Airmen has a situation that is concerning, he or she can relay that to someone who has gone through a similar instance, which could create a dialog, conversation and bond that could build trust, said Vasser.

What started as a small group, joining together for events like coffee breaks and family gatherings, is growing into something bigger and better.

In the first nine months of its existence, the Airmen are looking to spread the EFMP Advocates’ reach to bases in California, Nevada, Florida, Arizona, and possibly more, said Vasser. In October 2016, the program received the attention of Deborah L. James, Secretary of the Air Force, which led to Master Sgt. Stephanie Graham, 707th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, being invited to speak on behalf of the EFMP Advocates during the 2016 Air Force Spouses and Family Forum.

Graham spoke about the 70th ISRW commander and vice commander’s support for the group.

“With the broad scope of DoD's EFMP, our leadership team knew that getting anything changed formally would require extensive coordination and time,” Col. Gregory Gillinger, vice commander, 70 ISRW, said. “We felt that to move forward quickly we'd need to go the informal route and enlist the help of our first sergeants to get the word out and make the right connections for those people who wanted EFMP assistance. Thankfully, we have several EFMP members here at Fort Meade with extensive experience navigating the program and willing to share their expertise.”

Gillinger said the wing was able to lend a hand by hiring an EFMP specialist to join the Army EFMP support team as well.

“I've been very impressed with what our Airmen have been able to accomplish and the positive impact they've had,” Gillinger said. “Just by sharing their experiences and offering advice, they've improved the lives of a number of our families. I'm most encouraged by the growth in the number of EFMP advocates.  To me, this is a sign of the program's value and its ability to provide assistance even after we lose our founding members to PCS.”

The Advocacy groups’ focus is not to take away from the EFMP coordinators. Their goal is to assist those who need a person or persons to reach out to for guidance, mentorship or just a friend.

The road ahead

In the next few months, the EFMP at Fort Meade will continue to grow and advance, assisting all Airmen in the local area, and hopefully soon, across the globe, as a network of blue families.

Speaking of the programs horizon, Gillinger said, “I'm hopeful that we'll see the formation of a "virtuous cycle" over the coming year. As we grow our number of EFMP advocates, we'll be able to provide more tailored support to incoming families. This will, in turn, generate additional EFMP advocates from those incoming families and strengthen the program. As our EFMP members PCS to other locations throughout our Wing, I believe they will be able to start their own local chapters, further strengthening our EFMP advocate network.”

For more information regarding the EFMP Advocacy group please contact them at 70isrw.EFMP.EFMP@us.af.mil.