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, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 15 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.
Written by Shelley Kimball
It all started with a determined Coast Guard spouse, people within the Coast Guard who listened, some help from the U.S. Navy, and willing volunteers.
Thirty years later, we are celebrating how far the Coast Guard’s ombudsman program has advanced.
The story begins with Wanda Allen-Yearout, a Coast Guard spouse who saw a great need for a formal support program for families as she experienced the struggles of military life among them. But the story starts even earlier than that.
Allen-Yearout was a Coastie kid. Her dad was an enlisted seaman with three kids. Her family moved around a lot in her childhood, and she saw her parents struggle to rebuild their lives in each location. One of Allen-Yearout’s older brothers was hearing impaired, and in those days, there were no Coast Guard support programs in place to help.
“Basically with the Coast Guard at that time, if you have a wife or kids with problems, that was your problem,” she said. “They didn’t really know how to handle it.”
So with each move, her parents were trying to find a place to live, find schools for the kids, find doctors for her brother, as well as lip-reading classes for him.
“They would get there, and they would need something right away,” she said.
Fast forward a few years, and Allen-Yearout’s oldest brother, Thad, had gone on to the Coast Guard Academy. (He eventually became the 23rd commandant of the Coast Guard.) The rest of the family followed him to Connecticut, where Allen-Yearout began working on a college degree. She went to two colleges part time because she could not afford full-time tuition at either school.
After finishing her degree, she married a Coast Guardsman. That first deployment as an official Coast Guard spouse was a rough one. She thought she knew everything about military life from her parents. But being a spouse was a whole new experience.
“But that first deployment, I hit the wall like everybody else did,” she said. “I knew how to pack and move and that kind of stuff, but not the emotional part of it.”
In the years that followed, she had three kids while trying to teach. She had to reapply for her teaching licenses in each new state.
And those were the seeds for the ombudsman program: watching her family try to get support for her brother before the Special Needs Program existed, trying to finish a degree before there was financial assistance for it, getting through deployments alone, and trying to keep her own career on track while moving and raising children. She knew first-hand where families needed help.
Eventually, Allen-Yearout and her family ended up in Alameda, California. She could get in-state tuition, so she decided to work on a masters degree on child development and family relations. She wrote her master’s thesis on active duty Coast Guard wives and how their adjustment affected their children. The degree required extensive research on military families.
She noticed that the San Francisco area was filled with armed forces of all branches. But the U.S. Navy had a heavy presence where she lived. She said that each base in her area had some form of a family service center, but the Coast Guard did not.
“I was really envious of their family service centers, especially their exceptional family program,” she said.
She started to going into those centers to figure out what they were doing. She learned that the Navy had an ombudsman program. She knew it would be a great solution for the Coast Guard, so in 1983 she wrote directly to Adm. James Gracey, the then-commandant of the Coast Guard. He agreed with her.
Gracey’s yes got the ball rolling.
It started small with the development of the Family Advocacy section at Coast Guard headquarters. That became the Family Advocacy Program, in which spouses volunteered to act as ombudsmen and work with senior master chiefs. It caught on well, and eventually became a formal program.
“It started more or less informally, where various commands developed ideas that worked for them. Later we formalized it,” Gracey said in an oral history in 2004.
In the meantime, Allen-Yearout completed her master’s thesis in 1984 and sent a copy of it to Gracey. What started as a look into how spouses adjust evolved into the realization that when families don’t adjust well, it affects the entire family, including the active duty member. Keeping spouses informed and supported was an investment in keeping readiness and retention healthy. And that’s something an ombudsman program could provide.
In the years that followed, Allen-Yearout continued to investigate other branches’ family support programs and test-run ideas to pass up to headquarters.
“One of the things I was doing,” Allen-Yearout said, “I was stealing everything Navy I could think of, trying to sanitize it, and trying to make it Coast Guard.”
She used the Alameda community as a testing ground for her ideas. They made a pocket directory for the unit – one that was small enough to carry. (Remember, these were the days before the Internet.) Then she saw the Navy had a deployment guide for ships that gave spouse’s deployment advice, such as where to go if appliances break or if there was a death in the family. So they made one of those, too. During that same year, 1986, she started an ombudsman kit list to send to Coast Guard headquarters. It recommended getting a big three-ring binder and filling it with pay charts, Work-Life flyers, call sheets, newsletters, and information about Tricare.
As the ombudsman program began to grow at headquarters, Allen-Yearout continued to PCS to new units and find ways to work with families. She kept her connection to headquarters and continued to pass her ideas on. Through the next 20+ years, she remained active in meeting with ombudsmen, helping to train them, and assisting in developing and revising manuals.
The ombudsman program began to evolve from a program inspired by the Navy to a program specifically Coast Guard between the years of 2005 and 2010, according to Rodney Whaley, who was the program manager for spouses, transition, relocation, and the ombudsman program at that time.
“When I took it over, it was basically a lot of the Navy Program,” Whaley said. “We sent people to Navy trainings, we based it off Navy policies.”
Allen-Yearout came in with past ombudsman, current ombudsmen, and Coast Guard employees to help develop a new policy, program and training that was specific to the service, he said.
“We started making it more of ours,” he said. “More Coast Guard.”
During his tenure, he saw ombudsmen respond to families during Hurricane Katrina. The emergency response system they developed in reaction to families in the line of the storm became the foundation for the current system.
“The main part for me as the program manager was families’ safety and security,” he said. “We had a lot of families who were there in New Orleans. The ombudsmen helped track who was there.”
Whaley said that during his years they also began to increase the presence of the ombudsmen-at-large by helping them visit units and speak with families.
“I think the ombudsman program is important because of the connection that families have to the Coast Guard,” Whaley said. “It gives comfort to the Coast Guard member to know that the family is being taken care of, and it gives families resilience.”
Whaley passed the baton in 2011 to Chris Degraw, the first dedicated program manager for the ombudsman program. Narrowing the position to one program rather than four allowed her to focus specifically on updating and streamlining the program. First order of business? Finding all the ombudsmen.
“When came on board, I could not tell anyone, and no one could tell me, how many ombudsmen were out there,” she said.
At the time, the communication process for ombudsmen went from headquarters, to an ombudsman coordinator, to an ombudsman, to families. By the time her information reached the families, it would be outdated.
“I had to stop that,” she said.
She developed the ombudsman registry, which tracks which units have ombudsmen, who they are, and allows Degraw to contact them quickly. Ombudsmen can use the registry within their ranks to speak to each other on a message board. The registry also allows families to find their ombudsmen.
For the record, there are now 400 ombudsmen at 506 units. (Some ombudsmen represent more than one unit.)
Another improvement has been the training process, Degraw said. Gone are the days of the think binders and handwritten lists. Now, most everything is online. For example, instead of a huge pile of papers to get started, ombudsman can access the training guide; SeaLegs, a guide for families new to the Coast Guard; Coast Guard Support, a website that provides information and support for resilience; and the Health, Safety and Work-Life app, with just a few click of a mouse.
“We’ve gone electronic,” Degraw said. “The Internet has been a beautiful thing.”
The ombudsmen attend a standardized training over a weekend during which they learn about how the program works, ethical standards, how to represent the command, communicating with families, crisis response, and resources and referrals. The go over scenarios and exercises to help ombudsman prepare for the real experiences they may face while assisting families. They also certify ombudsman to become trainers themselves. Eventually, Degraw said, she hopes to develop online training.
The program is all about connections. It provides the link between families and the command, Degraw said.
“It boosts morale,” she said. “With commands that deploy, we want our service members concentrating o the mission. We don’t want them worrying about what is going on at home. He wants them focus on that work, on that task, on that mission, and that’s important.”
“It is that helping hand, that listening voice, that person that anybody can turn to and ask questions, share joys, share fears,” Degraw said. “I just couldn’t imagine a military not having an ombudsman.”
How has the ombudsman program helped you? Tell us your story below!
Ombudsman of the Year Award: There is still time to recognize an ombudsman for exceptional work. District command master chiefs are accepting nomination packets until March 1, 2016.
Ombudsman Registry: Find your ombudsman by using the link at the bottom right of the page — scroll all the way to the bottom.
Ombudsman Training Manual: This manual is a wealth of information, whether or not you want to become an ombudsman.
Ombudsman program: The main link to the program provides an overview, information about how to apply, and information for command leadership.
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.