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Plugging In Military Families...There's An App For That


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are continuing our special coverage for Memorial Day with encore conversations. And we talk now about the sacrifices that military families make. Military service these days can come with long and repeated deployments and frequent moves, not to mention the emotional toll of sending a spouse or a parent into dangerous conflicts.

Now, lots of people and groups want to be helpful. According to the National Military Family Association, there are thousands of websites designed to help members of the military and their loved ones find resources like housing, counseling and education. But the sheer amount of information out there can be daunting. So the NMFA is out with a smartphone app called MyMilitaryLife that they hope will help.

I recently spoke with Michelle Joyner - she is the communications director for the NMFA - and Laura Yates (ph), a military spouse in Fort Campell, Ky., who volunteers for the organization. And I began by asking Michelle Joyner what challenges the app was designed to address.

MICHELLE JOYNER: In the 12 years that this war has been going on, we've seen great community swell of support for military families. But when you do a quick Google search, you could get 10,000 results. And that type of information is paralyzing. And so where do you go? Who do you trust? What do you know what's best for you?

We've been in this area supporting military families for over 40 years. And we used to answer these questions by phone, and then they became by email. And so it was like, well, now how can we scale this? And we need an app because people are wondering about - my husband's back from the deployment, but my kids don't know him. My kids don't want to go to him. Is that normal? Is our relationship normal? Are these the things I should be experiencing? And so having a resource or a tool that lets you know what you should expect, what questions you should be asking and where to go for help is what military families need.

MARTIN: In part, is what you're doing curating the information to make sure that it's valid?

JOYNER: Absolutely, and that's what we've been doing for 45 years. And we want to make sure that military families are using legitimate resources for them and that they are not falling through the cracks, that they're being plugged into the support services that were designed to protect them. And so we're taking in that information, we're evaluating where it's coming from and making sure that folks are staying away from those scammers. That's one thing that we definitely know affects our community.

MARTIN: Laure Yates, let's turn to you now. Your husband is a master sergeant in the 104th Airborne Division of the Army. So I want to thank him through you for his service. And I also want to thank you because you are also serving. So thank you.

LAURA YATES: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: It does take the whole family to support these servicemembers. Can you give us an example - I understand that you aren't sure that this is exactly - you're exactly the target audience for this 'cause you kind of have some miles on - right? - in this service. But who do you think would benefit from this kind of thing?

YATES: Well, I think it would benefit all spouses, both new spouses and more seasoned spouses. From the new spouse perspective, I know when I married my husband, I was coming into a world that I really didn't understand. I didn't understand the rank structure of the Army, per say. I didn't understand what services were available to me. So one good thing about the application, they have a section that's geared for new spouses. So you can go on there and learn about, oh, what do these acronyms mean? And what are the different ranks? And then you can learn about resources that are available on your post like classes for new spouses, orientation classes.

I mean, I know a lot of those new spouses don't know that. But also a more seasoned spouse like me, there is information that's relevant on there for me. My husband's actually going through a medical board to be transitioned out of the Army. And there's a section on transition. That's not an area that I'm not - that I'm familiar with. There's information about caregiver support. You know, I may have to support him in the future because of his condition. And so there's information about services available through the VA and then also information about how to take care of myself as a caregiver as I support him.

MARTIN: Let me cosign that. You do need to take care of yourself. So we hope you will do that. Is there - what about that, Michelle? Is there - taking care of yourself, the caregivers being - taking care of themselves, is that part of the service, part of the app?

JOYNER: Absolutely. Caring for the caregivers, definitely an area that we focus on because we know that military families are, oftentimes, those people who are put in the caregiver role. We also recognize that military families are going to go through so many different events in their lifestyle. And so when you join, you need the information on one thing. But then when you have kids or when you move or when you're experiencing a deployment, those all introduce new challenges to the military.

MARTIN: How do you - Michelle, how do you assure yourself that the resources that you're identifying are in fact valid? 'Cause I actually did a little test myself on...


MARTIN: ..To see where - what comes up when I looked up a specific program. And I saw, literally, I - just as you said, I saw, like, 10 different sites. And I think some of them were steering toward, you know, outdated forums and things of that sort. It actually - I could see where that would be quite intimidating, you know, even for somebody like myself. I'm trained to look up information. I still found it kind of scary and overwhelming. So how do you assure yourself and the people who are using the app that the information's current, up-to-date, valid and so forth?

JOYNER: Absolutely, and that's a great question and a concern for us. One of the first things that we go to are definitely the resources that the military provides that are paid for by tax dollars and that we know are targeted to military families. If it's a nonprofit, we're looking at their charity ratings. We're looking to make sure that businesses are, you know, better business examples.

We want to make sure that folks who we recommend have the capacity to serve military families, that there's a lot of goodwill out there. But oftentimes, it's hard to identify with somebody if they don't understand your lifestyle.

MARTIN: Well, in the couple of minutes that I have left, can I just ask you more broadly what are some of the other things that would support, Laura, that would support you? Tell me some things that people, particularly who aren't sharing your burden, can do to help share that burden?

YATES: I think that there needs to be more support groups for soldiers and families going through medical transition. I think the Army has - at least the Army has a great hold on the transition process from what I've seen. But as far as going through a medical transition, that's one thing I haven't really found were as many support groups or support sources for those going through a medical transition.

MARTIN: Michelle, what about you? More broadly, what are some of the other things? I mean, I think it's important to remember we live in a time when a lot of people have no experience with military service anymore. So could you just take this opportunity to tell, you know, everybody else, like, what are some of the things that you think would be helpful...

JOYNER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...If you want to support these families?

JOYNER: Sure thing. Mental health counseling is one of the top items on our list. The nation, at a whole, is short mental health providers, but definitely those that understand military families and the struggles that they face. We need more recognition in communities of who our military families are. Most military families live outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar military installation. And so knowing the kids in your school who are military connected or the kids on your soccer team or the military spouses that you employ are very, very important, and offer those families some flexibility.

MARTIN: That was Michelle Joyner, communications director for the National Military Family Association here in our Washington, D.C., studios. And Laura Yates, a military spouse, joined us from Fort Campbell, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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