By Jessica Marie Ryan
San Antonio, Texas — In 1967, Hester Ruth Francis was living with her parents in a dilapidated, three-room cabin in rural Kentucky while her husband, Pvt. Sterling R. Francis, was stationed in South Korea. The cabin did not even have indoor plumbing or central heat.
Money was clearly an issue for the Francis couple — especially with a newborn on the way. Hester already accrued out-of-pocket medical expenses and needed a military identification card to receive necessary health benefits. Unable to travel to obtain her card, she contacted the Army, specifically the Commander-in-Chief, to see what could be done.
Army Community Service at Fort Knox, Kentucky, stepped in. An emergency mission, dubbed “Operation Tomahawk” (named after Hester’s town of Tomahawk, Kentucky) assigned Maj. Raymond M. Marsh, the ACS center chief, and a photographer to travel to her home — via 17th Air Cavalry helicopter. Bringing along a typewriter, laminating machine and a camera with instant film processing capabilities, Marsh produced and issued her an ID card in her kitchen.
Days later, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
This is one of the first publicized stories of ACS’s remarkable commitment and service to Soldiers and their Family members. This month, the program will celebrate its 50th birthday. While the military communities have evolved over the years, ACS is still dedicated to its motto: “Real-Life Solutions for Successful Army Living.”
“ACS is a group of professionals dedicated to relieving some of the burden our Soldiers and their Families carry every day,” said Stephanie L. Hoehne, the G9 Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation director for the U.S. Army Installation Management Command.
“Our ACS centers are staffed with people who live the ideal of taking care of the Army Family.”
The program’s formal conception started in the early 1960s. By then, services like Army Emergency Relief already existed. However, as the military entered into the Vietnam War, the needs of Soldiers and their Family members changed.
Lt. Gen. J.L. Richardson, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Personnel, took action to establish an official “Family assistance” program in 1963. He requested a qualified officer to develop a plan for the program’s creation. Lt. Col. Emma Marie Baird, who was assigned to the AER and Personnel Affairs Office during World War II, was selected for the position. She began to establish a program addressing military Families’ growing needs. The program’s philosophy, however, would be of evaluation, not revolution.
“Emerging needs can be met, and services no longer needed discarded, to ensure that each program is adapted to the requirements and resources of the specific Army community,” she said in her 1986 paper entitled, “Army Community Service History.”
Under the guidance of AR 608-1, the ACS Regulation, the Army developed programming based on military Families’ diverse needs. From 1965 to 1981, programs such as the Handicapped Dependents Program (now called Exceptional Family Member Program) and the Child Advocacy Program (now evolved into the Family Advocacy Program) were created.
The 1980s was also a time where Army leadership brought Family care issues to the forefront. In 1983, Gen. John A. Wickham, Jr., the Chief of Staff of the Army, wrote a white paper entitled “The Army Family” to address how Family members’ support was important to the mission. His paper led to Army Family Action Plan, a grassroots initiative for identifying and prioritizing issues to enhance standards of living for Soldiers and their Families. Other programs such as the Financial Readiness Program, Volunteer Coordinator Program (now the Army Volunteer Corps), and the Relocation Assistance or Relocation Readiness Program were established in this decade.
The following decade brought the development of Army Family Team Building, a program where Soldiers, Families and Civilian employees could learn about the Army culture, professional development and leadership skills.
Marie Balocki, the executive director for the Department of Defense Office for Reintegration Programs, recalled AFTB’s early years. A military spouse and mother of three young children, she answered a newspaper ad for an AFTB office manager position at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Her duties included logging the instructors’ hours, scheduling classes, and filling in when instructors are absent. To fully understand her volunteers’ needs, she signed up for instructor training. It sounded like a great opportunity except for one caveat: She was “scared to death” to give presentations in front of people.
Looking back, Balocki remarked on how AFTB changed her life.
“The foundation that I got from AFTB is what gave me the confidence and skills needed for each step I have taken [in my professional career],” she said.
As the new millennium started, ACS programming evolved to meet the needs of a more technologically advanced and geographically dispersed society. Army OneSource, a web portal with program resources, launched in 2008. Other online resources such as Virtual Army Family Readiness Groups also became available.
The 2000s was also a time of major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This impacted military Families as more wounded Soldiers came home.
Development of Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, facilities providing direct support for the Medical Command’s Warrior Care and Transition Program and Warrior Transition Unit Soldiers and their Families, began in 2007.
Sgt. Christopher Robbins and his wife Amy used the SFAC services at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after Robbins sustained injuries from his deployment. The SFAC staff members helped the Family by relieving common stressors in the recovery process.
“The SFAC staff members set us up with childcare during my husband’s medical appointments. They also planned activities to make our Family feel special,” Amy said. “We would still be lost in the dark if it wasn’t for their help and assistance.”
Another need increased by a decade of conflict was assistance for surviving Family members. In 2008, Survivor Outreach Services was established to work alongside Casualty and Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Assistance Centers across the Army to provide long-term care for these Family members.
Today, there are 64 ACS centers worldwide in addition to 25 SFACs and eight standalone SOS centers.
“Just as we supported Ms. Hester Francis in 1967, ACS will be there with the Army Family and adapt to meet their needs,” said Lynn McCollum, the G9 Family Programs director at IMCOM.
“As we celebrate the 50th birthday, we will continue with that original mission to help our Army Families remain Army Strong.”