When Admiral Mike Mullen retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier this fall, he focused on the needs of returning war veterans. “War has changed them and their loved ones forever, but it has not changed their dreams,” he said. “You can help make those dreams come true. Hire them. Help them buy a home. Get them started on the path to an education. Give them a chance.”
Kristina Kaufmann, the daughter of Edgartown seasonal residents and the wife of a lieutenant colonel in the Army, agrees fully with Admiral Mullen. And she’s doing something about it, even if she’s rocking the boat that most military wives are expected to sail along in quietly.
Five years ago, when the U.S. was already several years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ms. Kaufmann started to notice the effects of those conflicts on the families of those in uniform. Divorce, suicides, domestic abuse were all on the increase as both wars dragged on with no end in sight. Family Readiness Groups were the main source of support for families facing debilitating anxiety, financial hardship, and outright loss.
“When President Obama went to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ms. Kaufmann said, “he asked the guys, ‘What do you need?’ And almost to a man they said, ‘take care of my family.’
“As a lieutenant colonel, my husband was a battalion commander, which puts him in charge of about 600 soldiers,” Ms. Kaufmann recalled during a recent week of R&R on the Vineyard. “Because I was married to him, I became leader of a Family Readiness Group.”
Ms. Kaufmann’s husband has been in the Army for 23 years. He has been to Iraq once, Afghanistan twice. “I married him just before September 11, so I’ve been an Army wife for about half his career — the hard part,” she said.
When she questioned the effectiveness of the unfunded, volunteer Family Readiness Groups in dealing with complex family situations, Ms. Kaufmann was told to mind her own business, in effect. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m pretty happy by nature, but I was so frustrated and angry all the time,” she said. “I realized that I was doing all that I could for these families, but it was just a drop in the bucket because the system itself was broken.”
Putting her University of California at Berkeley education and an innate can-do attitude to work, Ms. Kaufmann set out to identify problems with the system and how to fix them. “We were five, six years into war and the people who seemed to be making the decisions seemed to be very out of touch with what was really going on,” she said. “Most of the time, when I questioned something, I was told ‘because that’s the way we do it.’ The senior wives told me, ‘put your big-girl panties on and deal with it.’”
Sensing that most Americans care about the issues faced by servicemen and women during and after active duty, Ms. Kaufmann was undeterred. “We just don’t have the resources in-house to take care of the need after 10 years of war,” she said. “So how do we integrate what Admiral Mullen calls the sea of goodwill?”
It isn’t easy for one individual to take on a huge, entrenched institution whose success relies on intensive training and a strict chain of command. To publicize her mission and recruit support, Ms. Kaufmann turned to the pen. With the encouragement of Pulitzer winner Tom Ricks, she submitted an OpEd piece to the Washington Post in early 2009. It was accepted and published on May 11.
In her essay, Ms. Kaufmann illuminated the pain and confusion suffered by many Army families and the Army’s “haphazard, sluggish, and widely ineffective” response. To mend matters, she wrote that the Army needed to listen and ask questions as opposed to dictating and commanding; that officers needed to be trained to support the families of the soldiers under their command; and that Family Readiness Groups should be funded so that they could actually help families that needed a boost.
“The next day I had emails from the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Army, the White House, and ultimately about a thousand people,” Ms. Kaufmann recalled. “I’d say 99 percent were in favor. And that’s what kind of shot me into the position of working as an advocate at a national level.”
With a pulpit now in place, Ms. Kaufmann didn’t hesitate to use it. Convinced that she could be more effective on her own, she turned down several job offers. “I could speak authentically and I wasn’t beholden to anybody,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Kaufmann helped found the Corps of Support with Alan B. Salisbury, a retired Major General in the Army. He is now the chairman and CEO of the organization, while she is the executive director.
The Corps of Support is made up of individuals who have pledged to follow the Code of Support, which, in essence, recognizes the selfless service of the men and women in the armed forces; raises awareness of the needs of our service men and women and our veterans; and encourages donations to and volunteer service with select organizations that support our service members, veterans, and their families.
“Here on the Vineyard, for instance, I’m sure there are specific needs’” Ms. Kaufmann said. “I know some vets have not been able to get all their medical care here on the Island and it became a matter of transferring them to hospitals in Boston. Who pays for that? What are the specific challenges on the Island that reflect the larger issues?”
Because effective delivery of support services has been a weak link in the past, Ms. Kaufmann has been very selective in the programs promoted by Code of Support. “When people are looking to donate, a retired general and an army wife have vetted all the organizations,” she said. “If you come to one of them, you’ll know that your money or your time will be spent in the most effective way possible.”
Even as the Code of Support has blossomed, it has also sapped Ms. Kaufmann. “After ten years of war, I’m exhausted,” she said. “We’re all exhausted — the constant deployments, the reintegration. It’s really hard to keep perspective.
“I’ve been able to do what I’ve done both personally and professionally, and in terms of advocacy because I’ve been able to leave every couple of months for a couple of days or a week. I’ll go to Vermont, visit my parents in New York, or come to the Vineyard.”
To find out more about the Corps of Support, visit to www.corpsofsupport.org.