By Kristin Borg
My husband has a duty to defend, honor and protect this country. Army life becomes a little more complex having a son, Miles, who was diagnosed as Level 3 on the Autism Spectrum. He needs services such as Speech, Occupational therapy, Applied Behavior Therapy and has to see a variety of specialists such as a Psychiatrist, Neurologist, Nutritionist, and Genetics. He also has an Individualized Education Plan that the schools have to adhere to. The complicated part comes when the unique needs of Miles’ life merges with Soldier life.
Every two to three years, military orders come down and we move our household goods and start over. Miles has lived in four states and attended several different schools and he’s only 10. Starting over also includes the many services that Miles receives. What is there to ensure the next duty station would be viable for Miles to continue to obtain all his services? Insert the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP).
Getting an autism diagnosis was a story in itself. It took being stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where we then traveled to San Antonio to meet with a Pediatric team and, over two days, they assessed Miles. We immediately received the Autism diagnosis and were enrolled into the EFMP. We now felt like we could get the services through TRICARE but we didn’t quite know what that meant for my husband’s Army career. Moving around a ton sure has its challenges… now add comprehensive care for Miles. I thought finding a hairstylist, dentist and nail salon was hard enough. We now had to keep our focus on continuation of services for our son every time we moved.
The EFM Program tries to align each servicemember with a duty station that can provide care and services for each Exceptional Family Member. This is called “assignment coordination”. I’m going to humor you with a Chick-fil-A analogy. I know a few friends (or basically 90 percent of them) who have an addiction to Chick-fil-A. They get stationed in Hawaii, gasp, without a Chick-fil-A. Now what? They live without Chick-fil-A for the next three years and dream of starting a business to fly nuggets and chicken sandwiches from the mainland to Hawaii. This is the basic reason the EFM Program was started. No people, not for Chick-fil-A sufferers… but for families who have special needs to go to duty stations that can provide specific services. Imagine trying to align your spouse’s career track with duty stations that only have a Chick-fil-A. EFMP families have more than just a Chick-fil-A situation… there are about 10+ services they may have to align.
Honestly, we’ve had a bumpy journey with our duty station assignments over the course of nearly 20 years. Ideally, many families create a “bucket list” of duty locations where they would like to be stationed. Traveling is one of the perks of military life and many of my friends have been stationed in Germany, Italy, Korea, Australia and England. Traveling out of the Continental U.S. just isn’t in our cards. We haven’t had much say in where we end up and sometimes jobs are given to us rather than selected. I also feel as though my husband has had more deployments than his peers because of our EFM status. A year tour in Korea and back-to-back year-long deployments to Afghanistan made it unbearable at times. Miles’ dad has been gone almost half his life, also enduring other deployments to Iraq and another tour to Korea.
The one thing EFMP has the inability to do is make it convenient for family life. Parenting a special needs child is difficult in itself, but it makes it harder when the other parent is constantly gone serving overseas. As the primary caregiver to Miles, it becomes exhausting for me when there is no family around to help during difficult times. My husband just received his next set of orders to Washington, DC and a week later received another set of orders reporting to Ft. Stewart, Georgia 10 months later. That doesn’t give our son enough time to receive services in Washington, DC, so now we are living in two different states until May. This is called “Geographical Bachelor”… and it is too often a forced choice for military families.
There are some hang-ups about the EFMP program. In February, 2020, a group of Military Spouses marched up to Congress and advocated for EFMP families. Some of the issues mentioned in Congress were how all five branches (Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Army and Air Force) operate their programs differently. It was also brought to Congress that the EFMP could be a career ender for some servicemembers as they don’t get the same career opportunities as their peers. A few other issues reported were that respite care was not providing services or families were unable to obtain respite services, and schools were “waiting out families to leave” so they didn’t have to give services.
In the Army, about 10% of the population is considered an “EFMP family”. This program is here to ensure the EFM gets assigned at duty stations that can offer the dependent all services needed. The downfalls of the program have been noted and there have been several solutions put in place. “EFMP and Me” was created as the Department of Defense’s “network of services and support” for families with special needs. The Army is also testing out a new app which would help families navigate the system better. I also found that Military One Source has a plethora of information. It looks like the program will continue to make changes going further.
We may not be heading to Europe anytime, but I am glad there is a program in place to ensure services are available at the duty station we are assigned.
About Kristin Borg
Kristin is an Army wife of 18 years and the mom of a young son. Her family has two dogs and she likes to spend her time at dog parks and paddle boarding. You can follow her adventures with having a son on the spectrum on Facebook at Smiles for Miles.
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