The real meaning of 'family' in the Year of the Air Force Family

  • Published
  • By Capt. Geoff Buteau
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
There's been some buzz of late on Hanscom about the Year of the Air Force Family. With November being National Military Family Appreciation Month, it's pretty apparent that this is an important month for the Air Force to give back to the family: a vital support network for any Airman -- civilian or military.

This is not only a Hanscom initiative, either. According to Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz in a July 17 memo, the Year of the Air Force Family is an effort by the entire Air Force to evolve and expand the family services to meet the changing needs and expectations of Airmen, families, and the larger Air Force Family.

By highlighting programs that contribute to this sense of community -- including health and wellness events and facilities; Airman and family support classes; education, development and employment opportunities; and Airman and family housing -- Air Force leadership hopes to instill more of this sense of community and family into the Air Force culture while giving back to their most important resource: the people.

I don't think anyone can argue with the myriad of services offered to Air Force members and their families. For one, I'm a reservist who spent some years on the outside working at public relations firms where we were on our own for fitness centers. I've still seen no staff or facility better than that of an Air Force fitness center.

But here's the thing. As a single member of the Air Force, along with more than 200,000 other Total Force Airmen, I sometimes struggle to find my place in what seems to be a family-oriented lineup of programs and a family-focused culture.

While I'm part of a really awesome family -- though charmingly dysfunctional at times -- I'm not at the point yet where I've formed my own. It's this meaning of "family" in the Year of the Air Force Family that I wanted to further define. So I did some digging.

In a speech to the Air Force Sergeant's Association Professional Airmen's Conference Aug. 19 in Atlanta, Secretary Donley said, "While Air Force families face several hardships, we must also remember that over 40 percent of our force is single and face their own special challenges. Many are still teenagers, with close ties to hometown friends and worried parents."

In the July 17 memo, the Secretary and the Chief of Staff said the Air Force Family includes "Active Duty, Reserve and Guard component members; officer and enlisted, civilians, spouses and children. It also extends to parents, friends and community partners."

Okay, so one big Air Force family of community events and symbiotic support. It's really everything that you want any community to be, right?

But what is a single Airmen to do when many of the events designed to foster that overall, all-inclusive family atmosphere really are catered to those servicemembers with spouses and children, and that Airman would, without a doubt, feel out of place or uncomfortable?

Russell Jackson, the point of contact for all things Year of the Air Force Family and the community program and project manager for the 66th Force Support Squadron, understands that a lot of the programs already in place are geared toward servicemembers with families, but he's been meeting with groups on base to determine how to better cater to others.

It's been his job to create, plan and implement programs, events and activities related to Year of the Air Force Family. He said the intended impact on the people in the Air Force is to give back for the sacrifices they make on a daily basis, and that the Air Force leadership doesn't want these efforts to go unrecognized.

To make sure the efforts of single Airmen aren't going unrecognized, he spoke to Airman 1st Class Jolene Johnson, president of the Hanscom dormitories, for her feedback. As someone with the thumb on the pulse of the younger Air Force without families at this point in life, her perspective on the Year of the Air Force Family was important.

She acknowledged that when activities are advertised as "family" events, she says to herself, "Oh, well that's just for people and their families." She said a lot of her fellow Airmen in the dorms have the same view.

Some events are for the unaccompanied Airman, she said, like Open Mic Night at the Minuteman Club that Airman Johnson and about 12 of her colleagues and friends attended (and enjoyed) Oct. 21, but the bulk of the opportunities still favor the accompanied.

While she views a family in the traditional nuclear sense, one with any combination of father, mother, and children -- and feels she and her fellow Airmen would stand out at family-oriented events -- she did say something that gets right at the heart of what the Year of the Air Force Family is trying to get across:

"But for me, the people in the dorms are my Air Force family."

She thought back to her tour in Korea. "The people that kept me going there were the Air Force people there with me."

She considers her colleagues in Korea and the Airmen in the dorms with her now as family because they are there for her 24/7.

"That's why I like the dorms because there are 40 other people that have different personalities, just like a family," she said.

"And just like a family, I'd know exactly who to go to if I need something," she said, "so I guess they really are my family in that sense."

Airman Johnson made it clear that the Year of the Air Force Family wasn't just about enjoyable programs to attend for people in specific times in their lives, but a mindset of community, an endless network of support and a recognition that as our mission evolves, so must the programs for family support (and that's "family" in the overall Air Force sense).

But to tie it all together more eloquently, one of the organizations that lives community support every day -- the Air Force Chaplain Corps -- took the floor.

"We are not just a collection of individuals or families in isolation," said Rev. Lawrence Smith, Catholic priest at the Hanscom Chapel. "Along with the medical and social agencies of the base we strive to work together as a team and yes, community, to nourish all of our families and the whole person."

Chaplain programs, he said -- including dorm dinners, unit visits and holiday events -- can help to remind families that they are not alone, but are part of a supportive and supporting community.

So as Air Force Family Week kicks off Nov. 1 with many events, from open bowling to fitness night and story time to movie night, don't just consider attending them as events for you and your family to have a good time, but as a critical member of a vibrant community the Air Force is trying to improve.

And if these events don't drum up your interest, Mr. Jackson, as implementer of all events Year of the Air Force Family, said he is taking suggestions throughout the year for events that cater to and include as many people as possible.