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Focus on Service

FRG Puts Family First: Spouses band together during deployment

For Sailors in today's Navy, deploying is a way of life, and even if a Sailor isn't deployed, duty can mean long days, physically demanding work and training evolutions -- all to get ready for deployment. At the same time, while life at sea may be business as usual for Sailors, their families are often the ones who feel the sting of deployment most once the ship leaves the pier.

In fact, 40 percent of military members have experienced six or more months of separation from their families in the last 18 months, according to the Blue Star Families 2017 annual survey. Forty-six percent of respondents said time away from family due to military service is their top concern.

As a spouse experiencing a Navy deployment for the first time, it's a concern Heather McCarthy understands. Heather is married to Information System Technician Second Class Ryan McCarthy, assigned to amphibious transport dock USS New York (LPD 21).

"My least favorite aspect of military life is Ryan being gone. I hate that he's gone," she said. "He missed [our daughter's] first smile, her first giggle, and I hate that he's not here for that, but I understand that he has to do his job. It was a decision that we made."

The two met while he was stationed in Washington, D.C., on shore duty. After they married, McCarthy received orders to USS New York. Formerly an intelligence analyst with a job she was passionate about, it took time for Heather to adjust from a career in the nation's capital to life as a mom with a deployed significant other.

"There was a lot that changed when we moved here to Jacksonville," Florida, she explained. "I went from having a full-time job to being a stay-at-home wife and now mom. It was a big change. I lost a lot of myself losing my old job because that really was what defined me. I would be there 13 to 18 hours a day if I had to be, and moving down here, I really had to redefine myself."

With her experience leading meetings and managing personnel, she was asked to revamp the ship's defunct family readiness group (FRG), a vital support team created to provide coordinated services to Sailors and their families during deployments.

"Growing up, my dad was in the Air Force, so I was used to the moving around, but it took time to get used the part where it's your significant other leaving. That's the biggest obstacle," said Heather, explaining she was fortunate to have family nearby as she switched from career woman to military spouse and mother. Heather believes having them to turn to for help made her transition easier. But she recognizes that not all military spouses have a built-in support system, which is where the FRG fits in.

When she accepted the position in September 2017, the FRG hadn't conducted regular meetings in two years, which, Heather explained, made it tough to keep the lines of communication open between families and the command. To close the gap, she organized new elections, and reinstated monthly meetings with board members and public meetings with families to share information about the ship ahead of its deployment. She knew it was important; she just didn't imagine the impact it would have on her own life.

"The FRG is important because I really think it helps to have a place to bounce ideas off of, to go to for support, especially right now when we can't necessarily always talk to our husbands or our significant others," she explained. "It's great to have somebody else who you can email or call and go to their house and talk to."

For some parents, it can also be easy to get caught up in busy schedules and the increased responsibilities that occur when a loved one deploys, Heather explained, but she added remembering to take time for themselves and interact with other families can make life easier. She also believes keeping a positive outlook and talking with others who can relate to the challenges of military life are what make the FRG an important service for families.

As a result, the FRG hosts social functions like picnics and arts and crafts activities to help to break up the monotony and get families ready for the return of loved ones.

"We have a lot of young wives and young families in the command who may be experiencing deployment without a spouse for the very first time, which can be rough," said Heather. "Even if we're getting together to make cards for Father's Day or signs to celebrate the halfway mark of deployment, it really helps to take our minds off of the situation."

"Whether we're making care packages, doing a picnic, or just making phone calls to check on each other, the FRG is really a great lifeline for the families to have," she continued. "I've made some really great friends, who, if I say, 'Oh my God I need help,' they would jump and be here."

Another service the group provides has special importance to families experiencing deployment during hurricane season. During May's meeting, for example, attendees watched a presentation about hurricane preparedness, learned about evacuation and received information about animal shelters in the Jacksonville area from a Red Cross representative.

"After an especially active hurricane season the previous year, everyone had questions and wanted to know what they could do to get ready," said Heather. "I really wanted to make sure everyone is safe, has a plan for this year and knows where to go if they need help."

For more information about the Navy's Family Readiness programs click here.