SOF Leader Resources: The UW Auxiliary at Home
By Jodi Breckenridge Petit, Ph. D.
Originally published in the October-December 2011 edition of Special Warfare
Unconventional warfare: What can it teach us about our own families? Plenty.
A strong family network — like a developed auxiliary1 — is a foundational asset that strengthens the Soldier, the unit and the mission. The "family as auxiliary" association is useful to prompt leaders of special-operations forces, or SOF, to fully recognize the powerful volunteer resources resident within their organizations. Using those resources, SOF leaders can mobilize the talents and time of a family auxiliary to build cohesive and effective family-unit teams.
Guerrilla forces derive their security and support from their developed auxiliary and underground networks. That allows the guerrillas themselves to focus on combat actions. Similarly, a SOF leader can preserve his combat focus by investing in and utilizing a family-support network. A developed family-support network, like an auxiliary, provides units with the instinctive confidence that the "home front" is organized and prepared to contend with whatever comes its way.
The development of a unit's family program — family readiness group, or FRG, family readiness support assistants, or FRSA, and families — can be viewed as similar to the development of an auxiliary. Though a family network serves a distinctly different purpose from a wartime auxiliary, the governing principle is the same: Support and develop those who will sustain and secure you.
This article discusses the three main components of a family auxiliary: the FRG volunteer cadre, the FRSA and each Soldier's family. Recognizing that family-network building can be complex, it addresses specific methods for developing cohesive family-unit teams and their advantages. Finally, family-team building will present unpredictable conundrums and inevitable pitfalls. Thus, the article raises several cautions and caveats about engaging with volunteers and families.
Just as local cells and elements must organize in UW, a family auxiliary needs volunteer leadership and organization.2 The FRG is that cadre. The Army has an elaborate definition and purpose for the FRG.3 For the sake of this article, an FRG is an organization of volunteer spouses who represent team/platoon, company and battalion spouses and serve as support and communication conduits.
An effective FRG has a representative from each team/platoon, two company co-leaders, a battalion-level leader and adviser-team and other delegates as needed (secretary/treasurer, welcome-committee delegates, social chair, event planners, etc.). The volunteer pool includes anyone willing to serve. Because the FRG is a commander's responsibility, commanders' wives are often default leaders, qualifications notwithstanding.4 The most effective volunteer cadres contain spouses who have institutional knowledge and continuity, rank immaterial. That continuity can often be found in the senior NCO and warrant-officer spouses. Wherever that talent lies in the unit, there is always a place for volunteers who are positive, mature and willing to freely invest their time.
To properly mobilize the volunteer cadre, SOF leaders need to articulate clear expectations. To adequately function at the basic level, a battalion commander needs to convey to company commanders that he expects the company to have FRG delegates (preferably two, a leader and co-leader). A company commander also needs to convey to team/platoon leaders that he expects a team/platoon to have an FRG delegate. Be firm on those expectations; without those delegates, the family-unit team will not function smoothly.
In selecting volunteers, SOF leaders should be personally involved, including directly asking spouses to volunteer. It is a bad assumption that spouses — based on competence, seniority or familiarity — will volunteer. Make it a priority to engage and recruit volunteers. Some will decline, some will be thrilled, some simply aren't sure about it until they are directly engaged and asked to help.
Once the cadre is identified and in place, direction and development must follow. Precise discussions referencing social events, deployment training, procedures for handling family issues and SOF leader-to-FRG volunteer communication will create a healthy relationship. Discussions prevent erroneous reports and harmful speculations from spreading. Clear goals and broadly understood principles from unit leaders are critical guideposts that should steer the military and family representatives alike.
Building and maintaining a cohesive team takes the time and effort of SOF leaders and volunteers. When volunteers become vested in the unit, they will take pride in unit successes and be more supportive of their Soldiers' membership in the unit.5
Maintaining a positive volunteer base has one critical requirement: Respect a volunteer's time. Quickly return volunteer calls and e-mails. That demonstrates respect to someone who is volunteering their time and talents. Also, asking volunteers for advice and guidance is essential. It is a courtesy that breeds trust. Volunteers become informed of the needs of the unit, and the SOF leader gains insight into his extended unit family.
A final key ingredient in developing the family auxiliary is volunteer recognition. Volunteer-recognition events are wonderful forums for showing appreciation. However, recognition need not be event-driven. Recognition can be simple public praise among peer groups or larger venues, such as hail and farewells. Simple notes of appreciation are helpful. At times, respecting and listening to a volunteer is a wonderful form of recognition.
In remote lands, SOF leaders work to establish rapport with guerrilla leaders. Demonstrating an understanding of, a confidence in and a concern for local leaders in engagement areas aids in reaching mission goals.6 Those same UW skill sets can be used to great effect with unit families.
In addition to FRG volunteers, each SOF battalion has a paid civilian staff member to aid in family resiliency. The FRSA's broad mission statement includes providing continuity, administrative support, stability and outreach for the unit and its volunteers.7 Within that mission statement, there is specific support in three areas: rosters, relationships and resources.
Initially, and most importantly, the battalion FRSA can maintain the spouse/family roster for every level of a unit — squad, team, platoon, company and battalion. Family data should be captured during in-processing. By delegating that responsibility to the FRSA, a SOF leader increases the likelihood that the rosters will be complete, frees FRG volunteers to address the needs of the unit families and allows Army leaders to focus on other tasks. Roster management sounds like a simple task; however, it is the top crisis-prevention measure. Furthermore, a routine roster scrub brings greater familiarity with names and important family transitions (births, marriages, divorces) that may influence Soldier readiness.
Establish an administrative pattern with the FRSA to update the unit roster and contact information. The S1 staff can be a part of that pattern. Form the habit of apprising the FRSA of changes and expect subordinate leaders to do so, as well. The pattern can include a monthly or weekly meeting, or it can be established electronically.
Secondly, unit leaders should develop a positive working relationship with their FRSA. In addition to having the FRSA lead roster management, know and visit their office, invite them to any family events and include them on any electronic communication to families. SOF personnel build rapport with guerrillas based largely on mutual trust, confidence and understanding.8 The basic leader tenet of developing productive personal relationships will establish a loyalty that will pay dividends during periods of duress and mission execution.9
Finally, take a small amount of time to learn about the resources the FRSA is connected to and understands. There may be money available through community grants and the military post. The FRSA also has contacts to family assistance, such as counseling and financial aid. They can also help promote free camps, school supplies and holiday gifts for junior Soldiers' families. An FRSA should be knowledgeable of offices that might be more appropriate for handling certain issues: chaplains, physicians, judge advocates or other resources. Direct Soldiers and family members to the FRSA. The resourceful SOF leader plans early and utilizes the battalion FRSA to aid in family support, education and mission readiness.
The third and final unconventional resource for a SOF leader is a Soldier's family, defined here as spouses, children, girlfriends and parents. The latter two can be included or removed in the unit communication process per the Soldier's direction. Girlfriends lack legal recognition but do require consideration, especially in times of crisis. Veterans, friends of the unit, community businesses and military associations can also be a part of a unit's family auxiliary.
An effective SOF leader can develop healthy unit-to-family relationships by focusing on three areas: communicating, developing personal relationships and establishing clear Soldier and spouse expectations.
Effective communication — paper, verbal and electronic — is imperative. While the unit is in garrison, a quarterly newsletter published at the battalion level, with detailed sections from company-level commanders, promotes a positive pattern of communication. The volunteer who creates the newsletter is always looking for appropriate unit-level stories and photos. Send them unit news and promote unit families. Additionally, stand-alone, paper correspondence mailed to the families from any level of command serves two purposes. It verifies that mailing addresses are accurate and, more importantly, serves as positive communication between leader and family.
As a deployment nears, electronic communication should increase. Correspondence can present broadly set expectations, reassure spouses of block leave and promote marriage retreats and pre-deployment briefs. Once Soldiers are deployed, it is imperative to continue sending appropriate unit updates to the extended unit family. Create a system in which spouses recognize and read your e-mails. Create a pattern of communication. A reliable communication system gives the unit confidence that news of casualties, extensions or concerns is disseminated thoroughly.10
Social media and rapid-communication means, such as texting and mass calling, are providing new methods for enhancing the unit communication chain. However the unit commander chooses to disseminate information, the medium should be known and practiced as part of routine communication.
Creating personal relationships between SOF leaders and family members is a wise venture. Recognize and acknowledge positive life events in the unit's families. Sending welcome letters or certificates to new babies is an example of a small effort that demonstrates that a leader is connected and concerned with a Soldier and his family. Utilize the battalion FRSA and lead volunteers to create and disseminate those letters. If a spouse or child graduates from a school or acquires a new job, a simple e-mail, note or verbal comment can show leader interest and commitment. Certainly, building rapport is a difficult and complicated process,11 but it is an essential task for investment in a family auxiliary.
In addition to communicating with spouses and recognizing familial accomplishments, a commander should aim to be clear in disclosing goals and needs for each unit spouse and Soldier.12 It is fair and appropriate to request that a spouse read unit e-mails, knows the FRG point of contact and, during deployments and training, informs the unit when they are traveling from home and how they can be reached in an emergency. Those are basic expectations. While a spouse in corporate America might find them invasive, the spouses of SOF Soldiers should understand that national-defense requirements do not adhere to neat timelines, and in this high-risk profession, crises will occur that require contact with family members.
A leader can also continually encourage spouses to have a more vested relationship with the FRG and unit. Spouses can attend unit family events, become an FRG member, mentor new spouses and informally check on other unit spouses. Military marriages have adapted to increased combat demands.13 Articulating coherent expectations to spouses aids in that adaptation.
Communicating clearly to spouses is effective only if the same expectations are also presented to Soldiers. A team leader needs to explain to team members that all spouses should be linked electronically to the FRG and unit, should know the team contact information and should communicate travel contact information to the FRG. A Soldier needs to understand that his spouse does not have to attend unit functions or volunteer, but he also needs to know that connected, informed spouses directly improve unit readiness and home stability. Ultimately, Soldiers should recognize that a spouse who is informed and involved is more inclined to understand the demands of the Soldier's profession and the sacrifices it requires.14
Training and engaging the family auxiliary is an investment that can provide advantages. Done early and often, the efforts improve combat readiness, improve rear-detachment preparedness for adversity and enhance combat focus.
Combat readiness. Combat readiness prior to a deployment is a unit's top priority. However, that readiness goes beyond field skills. An established pattern of communication with spouses prior to deployment will provide necessary psychological and informational preparation. If a leader invests the effort in volunteer cadre and spouses, then families will better understand their role within the unit during the train-up for a deployment. Also, an educated spouse will serve less as a stressor for the Soldier and family prior to deployment15 and more as a stable foundation.
Rear-detachment preparedness. The second advantage of investing in volunteers and families is that it prepares the rear-detachment for adversity during deployment. Just as an UW auxiliary enables a guerrilla force to survive and function16 away from formal support, a family auxiliary enables the SOF unit to function and excel while deployed. Prepared spouses and families can solve the majority of their problems rather than turning immediately to the rear detachment. When a problem does arise that a spouse cannot solve, they will understand that the FRG and FRSA are viable and useful resources. Prepared spouses can turn to the FRG with questions or for assistance. With a developed network of unit peers or friends, spouses can help each other with meals, doctor appointments, health issues and life's frustrations. The rear detachment can also forward requests, questions and issues that they receive from spouses to the FRG team. That is a practical force multiplier and a smart use of an auxiliary.
An oft-overlooked advantage of a strong volunteer force is the conduit that it can provide for information flow — both from and to the SOF leader. With a unit's mental focus forward, volunteers are perfectly positioned to interrupt rumors and clarify data.
SOF leaders can also take advantage of the physical labor and time that FRSAs and FRG leaders can give to the unit. Volunteers can serve as a communication venue — electronic, phone and in-person — to send timeline changes, improve morale and provide support following KIA/WIA/MIA notifications. The unit FRSA and volunteers truly can serve as part of an extended team of informed advocates.
Combat forward focus. A functional family auxiliary also allows for a healthy climate in combat zones. Today's demands on SOF units require Soldier focus. An unprepared spouse at home is a stressor for a Soldier in combat.17 A spouse with clear expectations understands how spouse conversations, correspondence and conduct can affect safety and effectiveness.
In the event of a combat casualty, the forward unit will be focused on many things, including the next mission. During this intense and trying time, a commander can find comfort in knowing that a strong volunteer auxiliary in the rear will provide relief and aid to the affected spouse/family and the extended unit family. A volunteer personnel team now includes spouses who can assist with memorial arrangements. They can greet and console other unit spouses and, if requested, the widow. They can channel the auxiliary talents effectively. They can synthesize unit care teams if needed. And they can provide follow-through and long-term links to unit gold-star spouses. In short, look to trusted volunteers as a resource during those times of intense need.
Caveats and cautions
Volunteers are not under your command. They do not get paid for their work. Volunteer relationships require additional skill, patience and nuance. A gentler touch is required. Persuasion and appreciation are paramount.
Consider historical and cultural barriers when engaging spouses and volunteers. Spouses may have preconceived notions of officer-NCO relations that may not conform to the culture found in many SOF units. Give support and respect to volunteers regardless of rank, and remind them not to wear their Soldier's rank. Be mindful of spouses who are non-native English speakers: They may not understand implied expectations or American customs.
Do not be intimidated by FRG folklore. Any Soldier can tell stories of a difficult spouse or radioactive volunteer who created destructive drama. Certainly, it is important to remember that troubled and debilitating volunteers do exist.18 However, a leader looks forward, sets clear guidelines, encourages spouses to improve upon the past and learns from negative experiences.
Finally, expect gaps in volunteer support if you have not invested upfront. It is often ineffective to try developing relationships during a crisis. Employ a strategy that conducts deliberate relationship-building and nurturing prior to the need for volunteer crisis assistance. As in unconventional warfare, such relationships are rarely accomplished overnight.19
How will a SOF leader know if he has an able volunteer corps and stable families? A successful auxiliary will crystallize during a deployment. Soldiers will be mission-focused, the rear detachment will manage Soldier issues, and families will be capable of managing stressors as they arise.20
It is the uninformed spouse and the ailing FRG that will create problems for the unit and its command team. It is the unguided and unvested FRSA who will distract the unit from its mission. It is unclear expectations that allow misinformation to proliferate.
SOF leaders are in the business of people. They understand that developing an auxiliary requires proficiency at developing relationships and taking a long-term outlook.21 SOF leaders can find an incredible unit resource in volunteers, the unit FRSA and informed spouses. With thoughtful and persistent efforts, the SOF leadership team can employ UW cultural skills to develop a family auxiliary. With that reliable auxiliary on hand, a unit can increase combat readiness, mitigate deployment stressors and provide essential support during tragedies.22 Look beyond seeing the unit family program as a responsibility, burden or obligation. Create a family auxiliary, and consider it an asset.
Jodi Breckenridge Petit, Ph.D, has been a SOF spouse for 15 years. She has volunteered in many roles within the SOF FRG community. She was the 2010 Joint Base Lewis-McChord Volunteer of the Year in recognition of her work for the 1st Special Forces Group FRG, scouting, the Lakewood school district and breast-cancer advocacy. She is a technical writer at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Her past employment includes educational counseling and Army personnel testing. She received her doctorate in leadership in 1997.
1. FM 3-05.130, Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, September 2008), 4-6.
2. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
3. DA PAM 608-47, A Guide to Establishing Family Support Groups (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1993), 2.
4. DA PAM 608-47, 2.
5. Gary L. Bowen, "Leader Positive/Personal Relationship with Family Helps Perception Effects of Leader Support in the Work Unit on the Relationship Between Work Spillover and Family Adaptation," Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 19 (1988).
6. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
7. Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command with Cornell University's Family Life Development Center, U.S. Army Family Readiness Support Assistant, FRSA Resource Guide (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2007), 7.
8. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
9. Frederick F. Reichheld, Loyalty Rules!: How Today's Leaders Build Lasting Relationships (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2001).
10. Timothy Lester and others, Pre-Crisis Aids in Communication During Crisis: Communication and Organization Crisis (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2003).
11. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
12. Bernard M. Bass and Ruth Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: The Free Press, 2008).
13. John S. Crown and Benjamin R. Karney, "Families Under Stress: An Assessment of Data, Theory and Research on Marriage and Divorce in the Military," [Rand National Defense Research Report] (Santa Monica, Calif.: U.S. Department of Defense, 2007), 165.
14. Todd Woodruff, "Caring Leadership: Preparing Leaders to Care for Soldiers and Families," in Military Missions and their Implications Reconsidered: The Aftermath of September 11th (Contributions to Conflict Management, Peace Economics and Development, ed. Manas Chatterji (Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Group, 2006), 393-402.
15. Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, "The Effects of Multiple Deployments on Army Adolescents," Strategic Studies Institute (Carlisle, Penn.: Army War College, January 2010), 6, <http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB962.pdf> (February 2, 2011)
16. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
17. James Dao, "Staying in Touch With Home For Better or Worse," New York Times, 16 February 2011, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/us/17soldiers.html> (19 February 2011).
18. "O-6 Told to Stay Away from BCT Families," Army Times, 11 June 2010, <http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/06/ap_drinkwine_wife_bragg_bct_061110/> (11 February 2011).
19. FM 3-05.130, 4-8.
20. Wong and Gerras, 35.
21. Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland. "Army Special Operations Forces 2010," Army 60 (2010): 10.
22. Woodruff, 393-402.