GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
The Key Spouse program is only a few years old, but its effects here will be long lasting.
Key Spouses are the quiet volunteers who help make life better for those in need. They are an emotional link to the military spouse, and think of those who feel forgotten. Some describe Key Spouses as friends, mentors and moms.
But what exactly is a Key Spouse? The Secretary of the Air Force described the program as an official communication network designed to enhance readiness and establish a sense of community among unit leaders, Airmen and their families. That is the official definition, but in the eyes of military families, it's much more than that.
The Key Spouse is part of the Command Team, and is an essential link to a healthy Air Force Family. For that reason, the Air Force mandated that every installation have a Key Spouse Program.
At Goodfellow, the Airman and Family Readiness Center is home to the program. It is run by Master Sgt. Brandon O'Neil, AFRC Readiness NCO, who understands the mindset of an active-duty member entering the service.
O'Neil said in some cases, active-duty members may hold back information because they might be unsure, scared or just simply forget to bring the information home.
"Especially for old-schoolers like me, I would tell my wife not to contact my unit or my bosses for any reason," he said. "I didn't want problems I had to affect my job."
O'Neil can laugh at himself today, but he understands how the lines of communication can break down between the spouse and unit. The job of the Key Spouse is to act as a second conduit of information to military spouses.
While the definition of a Key Spouse may be clear, a better question may be why does the Air Force need Key Spouses?
This question really makes us look into the life of a military family. Spouses have a variety of stresses they incur while stationed at a base, and spouses of deployed service members are the most vulnerable. Not only are they separated from their partner, they feel disconnected from the Air Force Family. Sometimes a spouse will go the entire deployment without anyone calling or checking on them. Sicknesses, car accidents, bills or child care are all daunting events even when the family is whole; imagine managing these crisis's alone and without support. They can have a profound impact on a family and marriage. This is why the Key Spouse can make a difference by remembering those who feel lost or forgotten.
The number one responsibility of a Key Spouse is to connect with families of deployed service members. Whether that's planning Mother's Day events for spouses whose husbands are deployed, or sending special gifts to them on Valentine's Day, Key Spouses want them to know they are not forgotten. Sometimes it's just a phone call or meeting for coffee to say hello, but sometimes it could be sitting at the hospital with them or finding financial programs for their family. Key Spouses go to incredible lengths to reach out to family members still at home.
Goodfellow's Senior Key Spouse Mentor, Leisa Willis, said the Key Spouse Program is all about peer to peer contact.
"Prior to 1996, the onus fell upon the command spouse to do everything," Willis said. "In some cases it was a good thing and in other cases it wasn't. Some spouses were not comfortable talking to a commander's spouse or even the commander about a problem in their lives. However, they do feel comfortable talking to a friend or peer."
Willis said the Air Force needs the Key Spouse Program.
"When it comes down to it, we are struggling in the Air Force because of the number of deployments and the increased (operations) tempo," she said. "We are all struggling. Every time the deployments go up, we are more stressed in units and in our families. I think the Key Spouse is one of the best tools to combat stress effectively."
Although working with spouses of deployed service members is their main priority, most Key Spouses have taken on the role of first contact with new spouses. Every Key Spouse is different, but for most the part, the program covers every spouse member of the unit. A Key Spouse now becomes the person they call after a baby is born or someone who sits next to them in the hospital after a serious accident. They are supportive friends during a family tragedy or death. A Key Spouse has become the person to trust with family struggles such as paying the bills or finding money for groceries. In many cases, young spouses are unaware of the programs that are offered to relieve the financial burden. Programs such as providing on-base family housing, free child care, and the Women, Infant and Children Program, called WIC, are available to Air Force families who have that need.
Most Key Spouses take on this role because they recognize a need within their unit. The position is commander-appointed, and a full day of training goes along with it. It's a strictly volunteer position with much of their free time spent calling and checking on other spouses.
So why do they do it? Most will tell you that they had a similar experience as described above; no one called them while their husband was deployed or they felt forgotten at a new base. They have empathy for those who are in similar situations and work hard to prevent them from having the same experience. They have managed to turn a negative experience into a positive one.
Willis said being a Key Spouse is about being trustworthy, dependable and caring about other spouses. She said that a Key Spouse has to be positive in life and the military service. It's also important that they are discreet and refrain from gossip, something that will cripple a unit.
"The program only works if you have the right person in the job." Willis said.
It takes a unique person to volunteer for a job like this. Quoting a plaque her husband has on his wall, "Service awakens the soul," she believes it applies to the person who wants to become a Key Spouse and is willing to open their life to helping others.
Whether a spouse is new to Goodfellow or would like to more involved, contacting a unit Key Spouse is the first step to getting connected. A list of all Key Spouses at Goodfellow are listed below.
Those interested in becoming a Key Spouse, should contact their unit Key Spouse, commander or first sergeant for more information.
17th Training Wing Key Spouses:
- 17 Force Support Squadron: Vacant
- 314 Training Squadron: Tracie Corbett