By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT MEADE, Md., Aug. 18, 2011 - A program launched at the Military Entrance Processing Station here has started the military on a path to welcoming family members into the fold before their loved ones ever ship off for entry-level training.
the station's commander, Army Lt. Col. Christopher Beveridge, said.
The program began when the previous station commander, at his wife's suggestion, reached out to the neighboring Meade Community Readiness Center for a plan to engage families of men and women as they processed into the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, Beveridge explained.
The Baltimore MEPS is the last stop for recruits from Maryland, the District of Columbia and parts of Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia before they travel on to basic training or boot camp.
During a day that begins at "0-dark-30," recruits take their last flurry of tests to ensure they're physically, mentally and morally fit for duty. As the final step before moving out to buses or airports, they sign their military contracts, raise their right hands and take the oath of enlistment.
Thanks to the new orientation program, family members are no longer isolated from the process, Beveridge explained. They're formally invited to attend what amounts to an hour-long "Military 101" class, then to participate in their loved ones' swearing-in.
"The intent is to get at families right at the door, and ensure they understand that as their loved ones are coming into the profession of arms, that we have programs in place for them as well as their families."
Earlier this week, Beveridge kicked off a session in the station's cafeteria welcoming families into the extended military family.
"This is a huge, huge day for your loved ones," he told them, noting that they are among less than 1 percent of all Americans who volunteer to serve in uniform.
"You can take pride in that," he added. "It speaks volumes about them and their character."
Beveridge emphasized the importance families play in their loved ones' success in initial military training and a military career. "Without family support, none of it is possible, and folks don't succeed to the level possible," he says.
Army Community Services employees Pia Morales and Melodie Menke, who came up with the program content, understand what it means to watch a loved one leave for military service.
"This is a life-changing experience they are departing on," Morales, an Army spouse herself, told the families. But just as it's a first day for recruits launching their military careers, "it's also a first day for their families," she said.
So the orientation program walks family members -- many with no previous exposure to the military -- through the basics, beginning with what's ahead for their loved ones.
Menke, a former Navy corpsman, explained where the services conduct their initial training, and how long the training runs.
Soldiers, the largest group processed through the station, go to basic training at Forts Leonard Wood, Mo.; Benning, Ga.; Jackson, S.C.; Knox, Ky.; or Sill, Okla. Sailors all go to boot camp at Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Ill. Marine recruits from the station go to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Airmen go to the Basic Military Training course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Coast Guardsmen, the smallest group to process through the MEPS station, go to Training Center Cape May, N.J.
Once the recruits arrive at their training site, families can expect one short phone call, Menke said, but shouldn't worry if they don't hear much more for a while. The trainees will be busy with classroom studies, physical conditioning, leadership training and team-building, she explained.
Short notes from home and care packages, once trainees notify their families that it's OK, she added, go a long way to boost the trainees' morale.
"Encourage, encourage, encourage, because they are going through a lot," Menke told the families.
The orientation program includes some nice-to-know military factoids: when service members get paid, what basic benefits they're entitled to and a snapshot of the myriad programs to support them and their families.
When the session wraps up just in time for the swearing-in ceremony in an adjoining room, families take along information packets with addresses of websites they can go to for more information and direct points of contact for information or help.
Then the families look on as their loved ones, standing in formation, raise their right hands and take their oaths of enlistment.
"What we're doing here is an important step in introducing families to the military," Beveridge said. "We recognize that while we recruit the soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine and [Coast] Guardian, we retain families."
Feedback about the orientation has been so positive that classes often are standing-room-only, and other MEPS are introducing similar programs, he said. More than 4,000 family members have attended the Baltimore MEPS' training so far, the vast majority during the past 12 months.
"Word has gotten out," Beveridge said. "This is something that really resonates with families."
Greg and Tonya George, both former soldiers whose daughter Alicia is entering the Air Force, marveled at the way the military is reaching out to military families.
"When we were in, you basically went in in the dark and left in the dark," joked Tonya.
Greg, turning serious, called the program "really beneficial."
"I wish my parents had had access to something like this when I went in," he said. "Back then, if you didn't ask questions, you didn't get answers. So it's great to know that this information is available."
Charles Robinson, whose son, Joe, was joining the Navy, welcomed the insights offered through the family program.
"It gives me more education about what he'll be going through," he said. "This is great."