By Patrick Winderl
As soldiers in the U.S. armed services are deployed at home and abroad, the effects on their families can be difficult.
To help the relatives of frequently moving soldiers, the military has created an army of family readiness groups to provide support during difficult times.
For Havre-area resident Nicole Johnson, the readiness groups are an integral part of military life. She serves as the president of the family readiness group for the Havre and Chinook areas.
Along with a small but dedicated group of volunteers, Johnson works to bring social and emotional support to the families of service personnel.
Johnson is the wife of Brian Johnson, a full-time member of the Montana National Guard who is stationed in Havre. Johnson is part of the 443rd Petroleum, Lubricants and Supply Company, which is based in Billings and has detachments in Havre and Chinook.
A number of soldiers from the 443rd were called up to Great Falls for security detail, including 13 from Chinook and 12 from Havre, Johnson said.
Although Great Falls is much closer than the Middle East, the transition for families is still traumatic, Johnson said.
"Our guys are just in Great Falls, but that doesn't mean their lives aren't turned upside down," she said.
The military has ordered that every unit create a readiness group, partially in response to problems that arose during the first Gulf War, Johnson said. The sudden deployment of troops overseas left some families unprepared for the change, she said.
There are 22 individual military units in Montana, although not all of them have yet established a readiness group, Johnson said. The Montana National Guard has created a state advisory council that meets every three months to work toward establishing family readiness groups in every unit. Johnson is one of four people who serve on the council.
Johnson, a nursing student at Montana State University-Northern, is no stranger to military life. Both of her parents were in the service, and she graduated from high school while they were stationed at a military base in Germany.
"As long as I can remember, I've been surrounded by uniforms," she said. In fact, she met her husband while he was stationed in Germany.
Brian Johnson said the family readiness groups are important because they help to ease the minds of soldiers when they are deployed."It's definitely a morale booster," he said. "It's just one less thing you have to worry about. You can rest assured that your family will be taken care of."
The Havre and Chinook area family readiness group organizes a number of annual social events for service personnel and their families. Most recently the group held an Easter egg hunt in Rotary Park in Havre. Volunteers filled plastic eggs with candy and other goodies, then sent a veritable army of children on a humanitarian mission to seek and consume the loot.
Soldiers, spouses and children alike gathered for the event.
"Filling the eggs was pretty time-consuming, but it ended up being a lot of fun," Johnson said. "The kids found every one of those eggs."
The group also holds an annual summer picnic in Beaver Creek Park. The funds for the event are raised each year during a Christmas party, which includes a white elephant auction.
The events serve a dual purpose, Johnson said. Getting the community involved encourages soldiers to make a career in the military, she said.
"If they don't have a connection, they won't stay," she said. "It's about recruitment and retention. We want to strengthen the relationships between the soldiers and the community."
Havre and Chinook are very supportive of the troops, Johnson said. One of the purposes of the family readiness groups is to harness that support, she added.
"We try to educate the community about what it is we do," she said. "A lot of times people are lost. They want to help but don't know where to turn. That's where we come in."
One project the Havre and Chinook family readiness group is working on is organizing care packages to send to soldiers who have relatives on the Hi-Line. More than 30 personalized packages will be assembled and sent to soldiers who have been activated or deployed overseas.
Working with relatives, neighbors, friends, former classmates and community members, the group is raising money to cover the cost of postage and accepting donated items to be included in the packages.
The group hopes to fill the packages with traditional fare like baked goods, cards and photographs, as well as items that people might not think to send. A list the group has created includes Chap Stick, batteries and children's report cards.
A number of local service organizations have pledged help with the venture, said group volunteer Judi Kase. A planning meeting will be held Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the National Guard Armory. Anyone interested in helping out with the project is encouraged to attend.
Those with questions should call Kase at 265-9776.