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Soldiers and families of the Army’s 1st Armored Division are participating in a study that could be used to improve how the military services support family needs of deployed troops.

Researchers at the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in Indiana have started a counseling pilot program “with the idea being to be able to create an infusion of resources for a unit that was very challenged,” said Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the MFRI, and a professor of child development and family issues at Purdue.

“We want to reach out to families wherever they are and help them deal with the things they’re dealing with right at that moment,” she said.

The Pentagon selected the 1st AD for the study because of hardships troops and families went through when nearly 18,000 1st AD soldiers got word in April their deployments to Iraq were being extended beyond their once-promised 12 months “boots on ground.” Orders were to be extended by 90 days, and possibly up to 120 days with demobilization, as the Army worked to respond to an increasing number of attacks by anti-coalition forces.

The news added disappointment to already-existing stress for both soldiers living and working in a combat zone, and families back home anxiously awaiting their return, MacDermid said.

This summer, the first group of 22 counselors visited six installations in Germany.

“From the get-go, the job was to be out and about talking with families, looking for the need and working to fill it,” MacDermid said.

Since the study still is in its infancy, it is too early to determine what families’ and soldiers’ top needs are, but early results indicate most just needed someone to whom they could vent, she said.

“And families really just wanted someone to tell them that it was OK to feel what they were feeling, and to acknowledge the challenges they were facing,” MacDermid explained.

A second group of counselors is slated to return this fall. Eventually, MacDermid expects the research will lead to better ways to prepare troops and their families for tough deployments before loved ones ship off to war zones or for long periods away from family, she said.

“Resources need to be infused at installations that have a high need,” such as those with deploying troops, she said. “This is something the operations side might do, and it makes sense to do it on the family-support side, too.”

The study with the 1st AD is not the only one underway at the MFRI, a research program at Purdue University funded by the Pentagon’s Office of Military Community and Family Policy. The institute’s mission is to conduct interdisciplinary, multilevel research that provides insight into the impact of quality of life factors on military members and their families.

“We’re jointly studying ways to assist children transitioning between schools, looking how to make child care more affordable, determining what elements would make up a world-class reunion program for servicemembers returning from deployment,” said Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, rattling off projects for members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension, which held a hearing Wednesday on military family issues.

“We’re working with an Indiana National Guard unit studying the affects of mobilization and deployment on families, and we have a special project with Purdue University to assist the families of the 1st Armored Division, which was extended in Iraq beyond its 12 months,” he added.

Eventually, researchers plan to reach out to other military services, MacDermid said.

“We’re now using the work with the Army, getting the pilot data, and plan to present a larger proposal … to be presented this fall seek in partnership with the DOD, and hope to be in the field in early ’05” to study other service’s units, he said.

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