Outreach Opportunities Abound Through Community Covenants

March 16, 2009
by Maryann Lawlor
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The U.S. Army is in the second phase of a program that encourages residents of cities, states, towns and communities to support armed service members and their families. Called the Community Covenant program, the goal is to raise awareness and encourage businesses, organizations and state agencies to develop and foster effective state and community partnerships that offer assistance to service members. Although the initiative was the brainchild of Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and began in the Army, its success in motivating business and government leaders to support soldiers inspired project expansion. Efforts now underway focus on assisting all warfighters, regardless of their service branch.

Leading the initiative is Maj. Gen. Craig B. Whelden, USA (Ret.), president of Whelden Associates, Celebration, Florida. The program began in 2007, when Geren recognized the need to give communities the opportunity to show their support for soldiers. Geren then asked Gen. Whelden to take the lead.

The Community Covenant begins with an official Community Covenant Signing Ceremony. The ceremony is tailored to the local community and can be large or small. The goal of the ceremony is to affirm—or reaffirm—a community’s support to service members and their families. In addition, it brings attention to partnerships, organizations, programs and initiatives within a community that already support these national heroes.

Between April and December of 2008, 85 communities hosted a Community Covenant Signing Ceremony. The ceremonies occurred in locations of all sizes—from state houses to state fairs, Gen. Whelden shares. Governors and mayors led the ceremonies, and in many areas, tens of thousands of citizens attended.

What began as a one-year campaign to ensure that soldiers could see how the Army was delivering on its promise to support them and their families became a “joint” effort in June 2008. Although the Army is leading the way, Gen. Whelden relates that it quickly became apparent that U.S. citizens can and should be encouraged to support all warfighters and their loved ones, regardless of their branch of service.

The general emphasizes that the initiative does not focus only on localities surrounding military bases; communities throughout the nation are encouraged to create covenants to show their support to the military in tangible ways. And several Community Covenant-signing organizations have tailored the Army’s standard covenant document to better reflect how their specific community can help service members; most go far beyond the basics that the Army suggests in the standard document, Gen. Whelden shares.

The outreach effort includes a list of best practices based on programs that already are in place. For example, many governors have expanded benefits in health care, life insurance, unemployment benefits and emergency financial assistance to members of the National Guard and Reserve. Many states offer education benefits to service members and their families through tuition assistance and scholarships for family members. Federal, state and private-sector initiatives include spouse career mobility and enhanced employment options; other programs support warfighters as they transition from military to civilian life.

Communities have developed many creative ways to show their support of the military. Residents of the Fort Hood, Texas, area, for example, initiated an Adopt-A-Unit program that includes sending letters and packages to warfighters in current operations while making members of deployed personnel’s family part of their own. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a project that reaches out through localities as well as online to offer assistance to grieving family members who lost a loved one while he or she was serving the country. TAPS services include seminars, camps and retreats as well as social events and online webinars.

The general explains that last year’s efforts for covenant participation focused on “low-hanging fruit:” states and cities with large populations. “In 2009, the goal is to offer every state, city and town in America the opportunity to host such a [Community Covenant Signing] ceremony, thereby demonstrating support for service members and their families. We are focusing our efforts on Middle America,” he states. As of February, 18 Community Covenant signings already were scheduled to take place in 2009, he adds.

Gen. Whelden encourages leaders of communities, cities, states and towns to contact him to find out how they can give their citizens the opportunity to show—in tangible ways—their support for the men and women as well as their families who protect and defend the United States.