Key Spouses members offer emotional backing to families of 911th Airlift Wing
As families spent their last hour with members of the 911th Airlift Wing who were deploying to southwest Asia and the Middle East earlier this month, volunteers in purple shirts stood close by, ready to offer words of comfort, hold a baby while parents shared a hug or mind a table stacked with doughnuts, candy, books and tiny American flags.
The women from the Air Force Reserve unit's Key Spouses program support families of deployed reservists, standing by to help as they depart. Afterward, volunteers check in regularly with 911th family members and organize a joint welcome-home ceremony when reservists return, according to Cynthia Lum, coordinator for the program, who attended the deployment in Moon.
“We're here to support the people who support the airmen,” said Lum, 55, of Carnegie. “In order to complete their mission unencumbered, they can't be worried about things at home.”
At least once every 30 days, one of about a dozen trained volunteers will call families of deployed service members to ask how they're doing, offer emotional support and help them troubleshoot problems at home, Lum said.
Sometimes it can be helping find a lawn-mowing service offering military discounts, or arranging to get important paperwork to and from family serving overseas. Sometimes it's referring spouses to counseling or to officers who can help them with more serious problems.
Other times, it's offering a sympathetic ear that' attuned to the stresses of having a family member deployed and who are versed in vocabulary and rules of the military.
“That's the difference between us and, say, talking to a neighbor,” said Lum, who is the mother of an airman. “We're not counselors, though. We find out what's going on, and we have our own chain of command.”
The 911th Airlift Wing, with about 1,220 Air Force Reserve members and eight C-130H “Hercules” transport planes, helps move troops and supplies to places around the world. The Air Force targeted the 911th for closure to cut about $354 million in spending over five years, but the Department of Defense in July ordered officials to hold off on a decision for at least another year.
Key Spouses, which began in May, is what's called a ”commander's program,” meaning it's up to the base's commander whether to have one. Volunteers get training in the Key Spouses' roles and responsibilities, what can and can't be discussed and how to handle different types of issues and complaints, said Cathie Peters, wife of 911th Commander Col. Craig Peters.
Last month, Peters and the group set up a Halloween event for more than 100 children of 911th members, she said.
“It was such a success, people are already asking if we'll do it again. We're already planning next year,” Peters said.
“They're so busy, they're so caring, and they really want to take care of the kids,” said Lynne Frankenbery, 50, of Hopewell, whose husband, Lt. Col. Ken Frankenbery, was among the airmen deployed this week. “They were all over me today, saying ‘Don't worry, we'll be here, call if you need anything.'”
As about 20 members of the 911th departed from Pittsburgh International Airport, Peters and her husband stood outside the C-130 to say goodbye to each man and woman as they boarded, while Lum and two other Key Spouses stood with family members at the side of the tarmac. After taxiing to the end of the runway and lifting off, the pilots dipped the plane's wings in a salute to the families on the ground.
“We've all been through deployments, at one time or another,” Peters said. “We know exactly what they're going through.”
Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.