Commentary

Expanding the definition of ‘People First’ to address EMFP concerns

The Army Chief of Staff (CSA), Gen. James McConville, defines people as our No. 1 priority with his mantra, “People First.” If the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is any indicator of how the Army defines “People First,” then Inigo Montoya’s infamous line, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” from “The Princess Bride” applies to the Army. The CSA knows what he means; it is the EFMP system that requires a better understanding of his intent.

General McConville’s memorandum to the force on Aug. 13, 2020, stated, “People are always my No. 1 priority…Our Army’s people are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system…We must take care of our people and treat each other with dignity and respect. It is our people who will deliver on our readiness, modernization, and reform efforts.” He is making good on that promise, leading a cultural change regarding talent management, diversity, and balancing operational needs with demands on personnel and their families. The CSA’s emphasis also includes addressing critical aspects of the EFMP.

EFMP, created in the early 1980s, to be a “comprehensive, coordinated, multi-agency program that provides community support, housing, medical, educational, and personnel services to military families with exceptional family members” requires modifications in four areas to align with the CSA’s “People First” emphasis.

First, it applies to talent management and the frequent moves associated with standard career progression. Our people move, on average, every two and a half years. For officers and non-commissioned officers, this frequency increases. With each relocation, the family changes where they live, go to school, and receive essential medical and behavioral health support. The service member also goes through the process of proving himself or herself within a new organization with corresponding professional demands and concerns.

For families with EFMP concerns, the stress of moving is exponentially higher due to concerns such as, “Will my child regress as a result of this move?” “Will we find a school willing to support his or her development in the least restrictive manner?” “Are the supports my child requires reasonably available at this location or is there a 12-18 month waiting list?”

Although Section 563 of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act required each service to develop a four-year minimum move plan for EFMP families, the Army has not done so due to indifference by personnel managers and inflexible career progression pressure. My own family has moved nine times in less than 14 years, and in many of these locations, our EFMP child has not received the appropriate care. The experience for many families has been “Industrial Process First” rather than “People First.”

The Army needs to relook oversight of the assignments process.

Secondly, “People First” also applies to assistance navigating managed health care in the military. This presents two challenges. First, the system can be overwhelming and disjointed across regions frustrating anyone arranging support, requesting referrals, and requesting medical support from providers unfamiliar with the EFMP process or a family member’s specific needs. Secondly, Army Community Services and Medical Treatment Facilities sometimes do not adequately train their personnel on the system, resulting in ineffective support. For example, when requesting information about available services, coordinators sometimes confirm the availability of service and send a screenshot of the website anyone can access without indication of waiting lists, previous performance, or offer to link the family with a volunteer at that location with similar needs. For junior soldiers, this bureaucratic system might appear even more overwhelming, and many often do not get the service they need.

They usually do not have enough experience to push back and get the services they need, and they are wary of creating even the appearance of being a leadership challenge to their commands. The Army requires an enterprise-wide EFMP medical system with trained EFMP ombudsmen at each location.

Third, it applies to support and assistance negotiating, implementing, and modifying individualized education plans (IEPs) for children enrolled in local schools. Each move creates potential competition with schools for resources to support the least restrictive method of education. Schools often wait-out transient military families by denying support or unilaterally modifying IEPs, leaving parents with no options to acquire the support their children need. Lack of legal advisement or access to funds to support legal action renders service members powerless. As ambassadors to each community, soldiers are reticent to create challenges at a school while struggling to ensure their children’s well-being and academic development.

Soldiers should not have to struggle and need legal experts at each installation knowledgeable and available to advise and support EFMP enrolled families.

Lastly, and most importantly, it applies to leader involvement, investment, and commitment. Leaders must be engaged in knowing their people and committed to leveraging every asset at their disposal to support each service member and their family. Leaders must balance individual and operational demands and create a climate where family care and EFMP needs are a priority and not hindrances to job performance. Any suggestion otherwise should be viewed as poor leadership and addressed accordingly.

Garrison commanders should be empowered and expected to conduct regular town halls for EFMP families with a cross-disciplinary team networked to cut through stovepipes and bureaucratic tape so the service members and families can access the care they need and deserve. The senior commander at each installation should actively monitor this process and facilitate comprehensive support for EFMP-enrolled families, demonstrating that “People First” is “Leadership Always.”

As an Army, if we can address these four items for soldiers with EFMP-enrolled family members, then people are genuinely first, and Inigo Montoya’s critique is rendered irrelevant. General McConville’s message is heartening to many families across the Army and is long overdue. As Army leaders, we need to keep saying it to help people understand what we think it means. When family systems and support structures fall in line with this priority, it will become a reality.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Chaplain (Col.) Geoff Bailey is a U.S. Army War College student with multiple combat tours and enterprise-wide experience from squad level to the Pentagon’s halls. He is also the proud parent of an EFMP-enrolled dependent and has almost 30 years’ service as an enlisted soldier and chaplain.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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