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NEWS | Nov. 3, 2014

Joining Community Forces taps National Guard’s nationwide presence to help all service members

By Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill National Guard Bureau

KINGWOOD, West Va. - The National Guard's unique presence in almost every ZIP Code makes it uniquely suited to expand and sustain a White House initiative to honor military service by supporting those who have served and those who support them.

That was one of the points of agreement between local, state and federal representatives wrapping up a three-day first-ever national Joining Community Forces Workshop here Friday.

"Joining Community Forces is not only timely and the right solution, it is exactly what we need, and it's critical," said Army Col. Steve Parker, the White House's executive director of Joining Forces.

Joining Forces is a four-year-old initiative led by the first lady, Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jill Biden, the vice president's wife. Joining Forces focuses on honoring service, including service members, families, survivors of dead service members, wounded warriors and caregivers.

"The initiative calls to action Americans from all sectors to help in this effort to honor service," Parker said.

The White House initiative emphasizes three pillars of support: education, employment and wellness.

"Joining Community Forces is an initiative that was patterned after the White House initiative," said Army Brig. Gen. Ivan Denton, the National Guard Bureau's manpower and personnel director.

Joining Community Forces exploits National Guard strengths to expand and sustain Joining Forces. Those strengths include the Guard's unique geographic dispersion and its partnerships at the local, state and federal level.

The Guard's involvement also is a logical result from what unfolded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks:

"When 9/11 hit and we started mobilizations, we really started to look at how can we better take care of the Guard," Denton said. "As we better took care of ourselves and our families, we realized we've got almost 3,000 walk-in facilities, of which about 500 are family assistance centers. We started to get veterans of all services coming in off the street seeking assistance. Of course the adjutant generals said, we're going to provide support to all service members, those who have transitioned from active duty, veterans - you name it. We do a lot more than just helping Guard members."

That post-9/11 experience and the National Guard's community presence make the Guard a natural place to sustain Joining Forces, Parker said. "We believe that Joining Community Forces, the National Guard initiative, is the exact solution in many ways to sustaining the effort of Joining Forces," he said. "It's important to the first lady and Dr. Biden that we support the National Guard Bureau - that we support the National Guard - in this effort."

Just as communities are at the heart of everything the National Guard does, so they are at the heart of Joining Forces and Joining Community Forces - and for good reason, Parker said: "Communities inspire service; communities are where Guard and Reserve families live; they're the anchor of support; communities are where members of the active component go back to when they're done with their uniformed service."

Among the more than 400 people gathered for the inaugural Joining Community Forces workshop Oct. 28-30 were local, state and federal representatives, including: local leaders, state employees, federal contractors, adjutants general, senior federal-level National Guard leaders and senior leaders from the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor.

"The National Guard does three things very well," said Army Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. "We fight America's wars, we protect the homeland, and we build and sustain partnerships. Joining Community Forces is an outstanding example of why we place so much importance on the power of partnerships at every level. It is a classic example of the Guard leveraging our local, state and federal partnerships to deliver something that no single one of our organizations could deliver alone - in this case, the very best care for service members from all components and the extended community around them that supports those who serve."

Communication, collaboration and coordination is another key element of Joining Community Forces. Workshop attendees said it's not about re-inventing the wheel: It's about coordinating in such a way that providers know about existing resources to refer service members to, when they have needs to be met.

"If we can't help the person directly, then we're going to refer them and make sure we get them plugged in appropriately," Denton said.

After hearing from representatives from five states that already have kicked off Joining Community Forces and have developed best practices, workshop attendees broke down into small groups that focused on how best to address 15 critical issues frequently faced by service members, including legal services, employment and post-traumatic stress.

Attendees also discussed appropriate local, state and federal roles in the process of meeting military community needs. "The Guard is uniquely positioned to bring all three of those entities together," Denton said.

"All of the federal government has a role to play," Parker said. "Government can't do it all. Only through private and public partnerships will we be able to completely honor service."

"The bottom line," said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush, General Grass' senior enlisted advisor, "is taking care of not only service members but also families and the extended community around us. That's something the National Guard already does very well, and Joining Community Forces is a great opportunity to do it even better."