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Bass tournaments support families of Air National Guard members

September 11, 2011 at 07:34 AM

The State Journal-Register

Like a lot of people, Joe Ward has a picture of his family on his desk.

But Ward’s family picture shows his Air National Guard unit taken before he retired in 2008 and assumed his new role as the “Family Guy,” the Airman and Family Readiness Program manager of the 183rd Fighter Wing at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield.

Today, his job is to connect service members and their families with the resources they need before, during and after deployment. He’s been deployed himself, serving in Balad, Iraq in 2006.

Originally, the job entailed mostly looking after families.

“But it has migrated to taking care of everybody,” he said. “It is my job to find resources for them.”

By readiness, the military means resiliency, says Ward, who began his Guard service in 1975.

“I try to teach people, ‘I am here to help you become stronger, more resilient and to stand on your own two feet,’” he said.

Ward’s job has changed, and so has the role of the Guard. Changes were occurring before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the Air National Guard started rotating into active duty patrolling no-fly zones, for example.

But few people realized until the terrorist attacks 10 years ago today that the Guard was taking on some of the same duties of the regular armed forces, said Steve Parker, a master sergeant with 31 years of experience in the Air Guard.

“They didn’t realize the National Guard was playing a much bigger role,” he said. “At that time there was really no support system for the families. The regular Army, Air Force and Marines had a support system in place already.

“So, my goal was to give the Guard a little bit of awareness and help.”

‘Every little bit helps’

Two weeks before the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, more than 30 boats took to Lake Jacksonville for an afternoon of friendly competition — and to make life a little easier here at home for members of the Illinois Air National Guard.

Parker created bass fishing tournaments to raise money and awareness of the challenges Guard families face when a loved one serves overseas for extended periods.

The fundraising tournaments generate on average just over $1,000 each to help support the work of the Airman and Family Readiness Program.

Ward said proceeds from the fishing tournaments help him put on the special events and more.

“He is my lifeline,” Ward said of Parker. “I use his funding for our family programs. He is amazing. I couldn’t do it without him.”

The bass fishing tournaments bring in about $800 each in entry fees plus $200 or more in cash sponsors.

“I know it’s not a lot of money, but every little bit helps,” Parker said. “It’s for the special events and whatever else families need. If they need resources, that money is there.”

During a deployment, with a household divided in two, money can get tight.

“I had friends who were suffering,” Parker said. “Their refrigerator quit and they needed a new one, but they were just scraping to get by because the husband or wife was overseas.

‘I wanted to do my share’

As the role of the Guard has changed, so has the readiness program to meet the needs of families dealing with long deployments and other challenges.

“The Guard went from being a strategic reserve to an operational reserve required to be available 24/7 to augment forces throughout the world,” said Col. Michael Meyer, commander of the 183rd Fighter Wing.

The frequency and lengths of deployments put new stresses on families.

“We ask a lot of them,” Meyer said. “We should be there to support them when they need us.”

When Joe Ward’s phone rings, it can be about anything — from a seemingly insignificant medical problem to thoughts of suicide.

“They call and say, ‘Help me. I’m about to be evicted. They are about to shut my electricity off. I’ve got financial problems, car problems.’”

Families also face traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can manifest itself a few days to several months or even years after a service member returns.

“They’re calling them the ‘invisible wounds,’” Ward said.

And there are proud people reluctant to seek help.

“Service members hate to mention they are hurting,” Ward said. They come in late — after the problems have grown severe.

“I ask, ‘Why did you wait?’” said Ward, who was a technician on a flight line in 2001.

‘They stop what they are doing and help’

The support offered by the family readiness program starts long before a Guard member leaves.

There is a deployment checklist to let families know what services are available. Some members of the 183rd Fighter Wing live outside of Springfield — as far away as St. Louis and Chicago.

“So we help locate family support services in their area,” Meyer said.

Families learn about the role of the Red Cross — the official lines of communication for family emergency notifications.

“There are parallel lines of support,” Meyer said.

When service members return, there is help reintegrating into a normal workweek, and back into a family.

“We tell them, ‘You will have different emotions when you get back,’” Meyer said.

Service members often develop a deep sense of loyalty, trust and respect for the people they serve with. Meyer said they miss the intense relationships that are formed once they are back home.

The military provides support, but it is not a closed system. Churches, schools and neighbors play a key role.

“We in the Guard are of the community,” Meyer said.

Most Guardsmen and women choose to live in one place, rather than move around every few years like members of the active military services. They have kids in school, and have other means of support such as families, churches and friends.

“We don’t try to replace that — we augment that,” he said. “Most of our people are not alone in the community.”

Ward said it is hard to see service members and their families going through difficult times, but it is gratifying to see how organizations and individuals step up to help.

“I didn’t think I would see a time when military members would need to rely on the Salvation Army or food stamps,” he said.

Local organizations and individuals provide assistance without hesitation.

“They stop what they are doing and help,” Ward said.

Meyer said the system is flexible.

“We can be insistent, but we can stand back, too,” he said. “We offer all types of resources — both online and face-to-face.”

Sometimes families get to have a little fun, too. Ward helps organize a kid’s Christmas party and family fun day as part of his work.

One of his favorite jobs is playing the role of Santa Claus.

“I’m getting ready for my growing season,” he said with a laugh, stroking his perfectly trimmed beard.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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