Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for nearly 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.
Written by Shelley Kimball.
Linda Kapral Papp, like many military spouses, was not completely sure what she was getting into when she became a Coast Guard spouse.
Her view of Coast Guard life came mainly from her experience as the daughter of a faculty member at the United States Coast Guard Academy.
“From the age of five on up, we were stationed in the New London area,” she said. “I’ve got to tell you, I thought that was the Coast Guard.”
When her fiancé was about to get orders at the academy’s billet night, she expected he’d come home with news that they were going to Boston or New York. However, when he came home from the event, he was carrying his billet and a book under his arm.
“He said, ‘It’s Adak.’ I said, ‘Is that Massachusetts or New York?’”
What he had under his arm was an atlas – he pulled it out to show her Adak was not only in Alaska, but at the end of the Aleutian Island chain.
She got over her initial shock, and after they married, she arrived in Alaska. The day she arrived, her new husband showed her their new duplex and how to get to the commissary. Within an hour or so, he was on his way back to his ship. She drove to the commissary, and on the way back, realized she didn’t have house keys, and she wasn’t exactly sure where she lived.
She drove around the neighborhood looking for a rock she had used as a visual marker to distinguish her house. She found the rock, found her way home and found her keys waiting for her inside. She quelled her panic as she realized she was alone in an unfamiliar place.
“I can sit here and cry and feel sorry for myself, or I can step up and try and do something,” she said.
That was the beginning of her journey as a military spouse. Now 37 years later, Mrs. Papp is the Coast Guard ombudsman-at-large, and her husband is the commandant of the Coast Guard.
After reading a previous From the Homefront column about concerns Coast Guard families expressed about family life, Mrs. Papp agreed to have a conversation about the issues brought forward. She used her years of experience as well as the knowledge gained as the ombudsman-at-large to respond to everything on the list.
Shutdown and sequestration: Families said they were worried about the unpredictability of the shutdown and the current sequestration. Mrs. Papp responded by saying that unfortunately this is nothing new. In every administration there are issues – it is a series of cycles. However, with the signing of the Pay Our Military Act, active duty Coast Guardsmen don’t have to worry about missing paychecks. The best way to handle the uncertainty is to learn to deal with the obstacles ahead, she said.
“My husband always says, and I agree, ‘You can’t change the weather, you have to learn to deal with it.’” Mrs. Papp said. “We have to teach all of our families how better to deal with weather changes, you have to deal with storms that come your way.”
Effects of PCS-ing: Families said they are concerned about the effects of PCS-ing on their children. Mrs. Papp recommended making use of the resources available to military families to help their children adjust. She said some of the most helpful resources are using the Coast Guard Support website, working with Child Development Center specialists and DoD school liaison officers, as well as downloading the Coast Guard Health, Safety and Work-Life mobile app.
Another asset Mrs. Papp recommended using is the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which was put in place to ease the strain on military kids when transferring from school to school. However, she said the bottom line is that parents be on the front lines of ensuring that their children adjust in their new schools.
“We’re making people aware, all around, there are strengths and limitations in every school district you go to, but you have to be an advocate for your child,” she said.
Support for families: Families said they want more communication and morale events to help them adjust to duty stations. The priority here, Mrs. Papp said, is to make sure family members are connecting with their ombudsmen. She said she also found, in her experience, that they key to feeling supported as a Coast Guard family was to get involved with other families.
She is a proponent of spouses clubs to encourage camaraderie and support, especially spouses clubs that are inclusive of both officers’ families and enlisted member’s families. The combined clubs offer a richness of experience that resonates with members, she said. The National Council of Coast Guard Spouses Clubs offers a directory of spouses clubs by duty station.
“I want everyone to come because we are all in the same boat,” she said.
Support for Coast Guard: Families said they wish the Coast Guard garnered the same respect and support given to other branches of the military. Mrs. Papp said the Department of Defense has been active in learning about the needs of Coast Guard families. She said she agreed that a lot of people don’t completely understand how the Coast Guard works. She said the Coast Guard is working constantly in communities, but they tend to be quiet about it.
“We are quietly there, always there,” she said.
She said she would love to see Coast Guard families step up and carry the message about what their lives are like, share their stories and show their communities that they are there.
“If more of us got out and talked about the Coast Guard, I think more people would embrace us,” Mrs. Papp said. “When they know about us, they love us.”
COLA/BAH/Housing: Families said that the high cost of living in some of the seaside towns may not meet the COLA and BAH provided, and they were worried about being mandated to live in housing. This is an issue Mrs. Papp said she addresses often in her visits to duty stations. When families discuss their experiences with her, she carries the stories back to headquarters for discussion.
“What they say does not get pushed under a rug,” Mrs. Papp said. “What they say means a lot. We review everything.”
She said it is important that families understand that the housing allowances are not based upon what is available, but on what adequate housing should cost if it is available, she said. Additionally, she said it seems as if landlords are getting savvy about military housing allowances and potentially overcharging. Each area of the Coast Guard regularly analyzes and discusses the issues families are having with housing.
When the Coast Guard offers housing, the mandatory assignment process is put in place to ensure families have an adequate place to live. In areas that have seasonal residents, in which it may be difficult to find a home, Coast Guard housing can ensure families do not have to worry about the fluctuations of cost and availability in those areas, she said. However, the Coast Guard can’t afford to pay both for BAH and housing at the same time, she said. There are exceptions for families, she said, especially if a location in housing is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a member of the family has special needs that cannot be met. But, otherwise, it is essential that families take the housing that is offered.
“It’s critical because we can’t do both,” Mrs. Papp said. “Where there are houses, families will have to go in.”
Spouse employment: With an unemployment rate much higher than their civilian counterparts, military spouses expressed concerns about finding jobs. Mrs. Papp said she has lived the same experience throughout her years as a Coast Guard spouse. She said she arrived at every new duty station looking for work in education, and she faced many challenges along the way. She tried to be creative about how she found employment.
“I really tried I tried everything you can think of,” she said.
Some of the things that worked best for her were networking and volunteering. She would volunteer in schools to show her willingness to work, so that when a job came open, she was already known at the school. Networking with other spouses also helped her figure out what was available.
She recommends also tapping into the Hiring Our Heroes military spouse job fairs that are popping up all over the country. She recently attended one in Puerto Rico. Another option, she said, is using the transition and relocation manager program that is part of Coast Guard support. The TRMs at the regional practice officers are there to help when spouses can’t find work. They can review resumes and help spouses prepare for interviewing. There are also resources available through the Education and Career Center on the CG SUPRT website.
Try everything because you never know what will work at each new duty station, she said.
“It’s a toolbox,” she said. “Open it up and use those tools.”
Slow Advancements and High Year Tenure: Families expressed frustration about how long it takes to advance. The retention rate in the Coast Guard is high, Mrs. Papp said, and one of the symptoms of that is a slower advancement rate. Also, sometimes Coasties stagnate in their positions and don’t move up. Meanwhile, there are enthusiastic new Coast Guardsman motivated to move forward. Programs like high year tenure are designed to help people move forward in their careers, she said, and it currently does not come into effect until they are retirement eligible.
“Some of these things were designed to keep the flow going,” she said.
Struggles with EMFP: Family member said they feel a stigma for enrolling themselves in the Exceptional Family Member Program, also called the Special Needs Program. Mrs. Papp said she has heard the same sentiment, and it can be frustrating.
“People have to get over the feeling that if they are identified in this way shape or form, that it’s a negative,” she said. “It’s really a positive because, once we know, we can help a family.”
She said she encourages families who have special needs to join the nearly 4,000 family members enrolled in EMFP. She said Coast Guard Support is standing by to help families join the program.
It is worrisome when families do not register with the program, she said, and then they PCS to areas that can’t support their needs. She said she does not want to see Coast Guard families go where they can’t receive the proper care they need.
“That’s whey these programs are in place – to protect our families, not to hurt them,” she said.
Deployment and reintegration: Families said the cycle of repeated deployments wears on them. Being married to a cutterman, Mrs. Papp said she knows exactly how it feels to go through the repeated cycle of deployment and reintegration. She said it took a toll on her family, and she had to find ways to mitigate it.
“I knew his job was important, it was critical, but yet that didn’t help me at home when at midnight I was running to the emergency room with a sick child,” she said.
The best way for her family to manage it was to follow the same routine every time her husband left and came back. He would slowly ease out of parenting before he left, and then equally slowly rejoin the family routine when he returned.
“We did it very slowly, the in and the out. Whether he was gone two weeks, 10 weeks, five months, we did it that way all the time,” Mrs. Papp said.
They worked together to help their three daughters transition through his absences, she said. They would make charts while he was gone, learning about where he was traveling. When he spent summers sailing on the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, they would choose a place to visit him on the way.
Mrs. Papp said that they had to find a way as a family unit to get everyone through the process. In the end, some of those experiences were the best of their daughters’ lives, she said.
“You can take lemons and make that whole container of lemonade,” she said.
The future of healthcare and retirement: Coasties said they are worried about whether healthcare and retirement benefits will remain intact. The Coast Guard National Retiree Council exists to ensure that the needs of the retired are being met, Mrs. Papp said. Each year it meets to inform leadership about issues of concern. As for healthcare, in the context of the Affordable Care Act, Coast Guard families who are enrolled in Tricare meet the minimum essential coverage, she said.
“We’re set. Our families don’t have to worry about that,” Mrs. Papp said.
As for what the future holds, Mrs. Papp said she is confident that President Obama’s Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will protect military families’ interests. She said there are a lot of advocates who understand working hard to do right by military families. The commission’s report is due in May 2014.
“I would say to people, relax a little bit and let’s wait for this commission to do the study,” she said. “But, at this juncture, I wouldn’t be too worried.”
As ombudsman-at-large, Mrs. Papp continues to travel to Coast Guard units all over the world to speak with family members about their experiences. She carries that information back to headquarters to help meet family members’ needs. She has also been involved in explaining Coast Guard family life to Alaska Sen. Mark Begich about a proposed Coast Guard Quality of Life Act.
Mrs. Papp said she has a passion for helping Coast Guard families succeed because she has lived this life, too. She said it has been her passion to assist military families from her beginnings as a military spouse in a small home in Adak, Alaska, to now, as ombudsman-at-large for the entire Coast Guard.
“Years ago,” she said, “I said If I could ever affect change and do something positive for our families, I would.”
Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK(8255) Press 1
Military Child Education Coalition: www.militarychild.org
Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission: www.mic3.net
Coast Guard Retiree Services: www.uscg.mil/retiree/
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.