Story by Spc. Anthony Hooker
July 31, 2012
MAULDIN, S.C. - With hot dogs and burgers on the grill, soldiers with the Greenville-based Alpha Company, 324th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, joined with family members, friends and well-wishers at Sunset Park, July 14, to celebrate the unit's annual "Family Day." Attendees traveled locally and from as far as Savannah, Ga. and Wilmington, N.C. for a few hours of entertainment, light conversation and the chance to build upon the unit's community of trust.
The "get-together" is the Army Reserve's effort to recognize unit members for more than their job performance. Capt. John Clark, the commander of the 324th ESB's rear detachment, said spending personal time with his troops and their loved ones provides the insight leaders desire when they want to gauge the pulse of their unit. As the commander, Clark said he is charged with providing stability for any personnel or family members back at home.
"I think the Army realized a while ago that the soldier being fit, able and ready for the mission went a whole lot deeper than the on-the-job performance," said Clark, a Greer, S.C. native. "It also is about [their] home life,[their] finances - every situation."
"I appreciate that about the Army;that it is more than about just going to work," Clark continued. "It seems like every aspect of life falls up under my radar."
With many of the unit's soldiers deployed to Afghanistan since April, sharing a moment to meet and greet families of the deployed, as well as recognize troops new to the unit, helped many temporarily push away the stress of separation. Guests were treated to a big spread of food to eat, a chance to pitch horseshoes or receive an archery lesson from a visiting instructor or to simply sit back and enjoy the company of one another. A balloon magician was also hired specifically to entertain younger children.
If anyone wanted a more intense level of health and wellness, Red Cross volunteers were available to anyone interested in the services they offer military families. Representatives from the local Disabled American Veterans, in addition to a spokesperson from Military One Source, took time out to say hello to troops and family members while educating listeners on what services they can provide.
Betsy Clark, the wife of Capt. Clark, believes the event is more important for soldiers' families than the service members.
"Soldiers connect with one another every time they drill," Betsy said. "Army Reserve families don't live in a military community where you see one another daily so making direct contact with someone who is going through the same experience is empowering."
Susan Jacobs just felt she couldn't stay away. The Wilmington, N.C. native traveled nearly 600 miles round-trip with her adult son Kyle to be a part of the experience. Her husband, 1st Sgt. Gregory Jacobs, serves as the lead noncommissioned officer of the 324th's overseas contingent, so not making a determined effort to meet people whom she had not spent any extensive time with would have been understandable. Jacobs, who also has taken on the additional duty of leading the unit's Family Readiness Group (known affectionately as the FRG), said she wanted to give visiting family members the chance to feel included, something she has gotten to experience since her husband left.
"It's like going to a family reunion to meet family members you don't know yet," Jacobs said.
Jacobs said the unit made a big impression on her when they invited her family to a Yellow Ribbon workshop, an seven-part program designed to help service members and their loved ones prepare for the inevitable challenges that arrives when soldiers leave their families and homes. The workshops allowed families members a chance to meet and create relationships among one another. Leaders in the 324th ESB's command, specifically let soldiers and their families know that their place in the unit was important and would be supported throughout the deployment with self-help and outreach programs.
Jacobs said, although her husband had deployed before, she never had an experience similar to the Yellow Ribbon workshop. Just knowing that a stateside group was available locally to assist in any family emergencies was a revelation, said Jacobs.
"I think about the people from the Yellow Ribbon workshop all the time; I communicate with three or four of them on Facebook," she said. "When I decided to make this trip, I wanted to meet some of the soldiers who were in the rear detachment . . . some of the soldiers I meet at Family Day could be preparing for deployment in the near future. As the FRG leader, I wanted them to know that there is a group, besides soldiers, that is here to support them."
Betsy added that the message has filtered down even to the kids.
"Bringing in a balloon magician makes the kids feel like they are being catered to," she said. "What kids learn by these efforts is: 'The Army cares about me' and 'I wasn't forgotten.'"
"[Being remembered] that is what is important, not the balloons," added Cpt. Clark. "The military wants to recognize the psyche of a kid because they experience stress from a deployment when a parent is gone. On a day like today, we want the memory of this time to be that they had fun."
Sgt. Elizabeth Nelson, a satellite and radio system operator, said she did not get to meet all of the family members, but wanted them to know that their presence was appreciated and they are part of the 324th's family.
"I heard that some family members of the deployed soldiers didn't want to be recognized openly, but I want them to know that they don't have to be embarrassed to be pointed out," Nelson said. "We are all out here today for the same purpose and that makes us like family. I want to know who is here in support of us. They deserve our respect and to be recognized."
For Pfc. Caitlyn Wyatt, this was the first time she got to see all of her leaders in something besides an Army uniform. Only a year removed from high school, Wyatt said she was learning a lot about her unit even though the emphasis was on having a good time.
"This is cool . . . I usually have a lot of paperwork to complete when I come to drill normally," said the Pickens, S.C. native. "I've never heard of Military One Source before today. It's nice to have a group I can call whenever."
"It's also been great to see my supervisers and people in their lives outside of work. I didn't really expect this when I joined the Army, but it's nice."