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App Connects Military Families


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I think most people know by now that serving in the military is hard work, and it can be hard on loved ones who are often managing challenges that people in the civilian world often do not face. According to the National Military Family Association, there are thousands of websites designed to help members of the military and their loved ones find resources like housing, counseling and education.

But the sheer amount of that information out there can be daunting. So the National Military Family Association, the NMFA, is out with a smartphone app called MyMilitaryLife. Here to tell us more about it is Michelle Joyner. She is the communications director for the NMFA. Couldn't have a military thing without an acronym, could you, right?

MICHELLE JOYNER: Exactly. That's why we've moved away from it.

MARTIN: OK. And she's here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Michelle, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOYNER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us for additional perspective, on the phone from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is Laura Yates (ph). She is a military spouse, and she also volunteers for the National Military Family Association. Laura, thank you so much for joining us as well.

LAURA YATES: Thanks so much for the opportunity, Michel.

MARTIN: Michelle, can you start by telling us about some of the challenges that we're talking about here that this app is designed to address?

JOYNER: Certainly. You mentioned in your opening piece that there are just overwhelming resources. In the 12 years that this war has been going on, we've seen great community swell of support for military families. But when you do a quick Google search, you could get 10,000 results. And that type of information is paralyzing. And so where do you go? Who do you trust? What do you know what's best for you?

We've been in this area supporting military families for over 40 years. And we used to answer these questions by phone, and then they became by email. And so it was like, well, now how can we scale this? And we need an app because people are wondering about -my husband's back from the deployment, but my kids don't know him. My kids don't want to go to him. Is that normal? Is our relationship normal? Are these the things I should be experiencing? And so having a resource or a tool that lets you know what you should expect, what questions you should be asking and where to go for help is what military families need.

MARTIN: In part, is what you're doing curating the information 'cause I would imagine that one of the things that would concern me is that how do you know what information there is valid? I mean, I think that there are a lot of people out there, frankly - and no one should be proud of this - who scam people who are in this field and kind of - because they realize that they've been disconnected from civilian life for a while. They've been disconnected from the kind of the routines for a while. And because there is so much information out there, are part of what you're doing curating information to be sure that it's valid?

JOYNER: Absolutely, and that's what we've been doing for 45 years. And we want to make sure that military families are using legitimate resources for them and that they are not falling through the cracks, that they're being plugged into the support services that were designed to protect them. And so we're taking in that information, we're evaluating where it's coming from and making sure that folks are staying away from those scammers. That's one thing that we definitely know affects our community. And so if the Army's providing something for you, we want you to go to the Army. If it's your local church, that's where you should go.

MARTIN: Laure Yates, let's turn to you now. Your husband is a master sergeant in the 104th Airborne Division of the Army. So I want to thank him through you for his service. And I also want to thank you because you are also serving. So thank you.

YATES: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: It does take the whole family to support these servicemembers. Can you give us an example - I understand that you aren't sure that this is exactly - you're exactly the target audience for this 'cause you kind of have some miles on, right, in this service. But who do you think would benefit from this kind of thing?

YATES: Well, I think it would benefit all spouses, both new spouses and more seasoned spouses. From the new spouse perspective, I know when I married my husband, I was coming into a world that I really didn't understand. I didn't understand the rank structure of the Army, per say. I didn't understand what services were available to me. So one good thing about the application, they have a section that's geared for new spouses. So you can go on there and learn about, oh, what do these acronyms mean? And what are the different ranks? And then you can learn about resources that are available on your post like classes for new spouses, orientation classes.

I mean, I know a lot of those new spouses don't know that. But also a more seasoned spouse like me, there is information that's relevant on there for me. My husband's actually going through a medical board to be transition out of the Army. And there's a section on transition. That's not an area that I'm not - that I'm familiar with because, you know, we didn't know we were going to have to transition. So there's information on there about that. And then also because of his medical condition, there's information about caregiver support. You know, I may have to support him in the future because of his condition. And so there's information about services available through the VA and then also information about how to take care of myself as a caregiver as I support him.

MARTIN: Let me cosign that. You do need to take care of yourself. So we hope you will do that. Is there - what about that, Michelle? Is there - taking care of yourself, the caregivers being - taking care of themselves, is that part of the service, part of the app?

JOYNER: Absolutely. Caring for the caregivers, definitely an area that we focus on because we know that military families are, oftentimes, those people who are put in the caregiver role. We also recognize that military families are going to go through so many different events in their lifestyle. And so when you join, you need the information on one thing. But then when you have kids or when you move, for when you're experiencing a deployment, those all introduce new challenges to the military.

And it doesn't have to be even war related. For instance, when you move, many military spouses don't know that in several states, you're eligible for unemployment compensation. That's money that you paid into and now is out of your pocket. And so there are those types of information that's available through resources outside the government that military spouses should avail themselves of.

MARTIN: How do you - Michelle, how do you assure yourself that the resources that you're identifying are in fact valid? 'Cause I actually did a little test myself on...


MARTIN: ..To see where - what comes up when I looked up a specific program. And I saw, literally, I - just as you said, I saw, like, 10 different sites. And I think some of them were steering toward, you know, outdated forums and things of that sort. It actually - I could see where that would be quite intimidating, you know, even for somebody like myself. I'm trained to look up information. I still found it kind of scary and overwhelming. So how do you assure yourself and the people who are using the app that the information's current, up-to-date, valid and so forth?

JOYNER: Absolutely, and that's a great question and a concern for us. One of the first things that we go to are definitely the resources that the military provides that are paid for by tax dollars and that we know are targeted to military families. If it's a nonprofit, we're looking at their charity ratings. We're looking to make sure that businesses are, you know, better business examples. We want to make sure that folks who we recommend have the capacity to serve military families.

That there's a lot of goodwill out there, but, oftentimes, it's hard to identify with somebody if they don't understand your lifestyle. So we look at things that's multifaceted but want to make sure that we're not re-creating the wheel, that we're pushing people to resources that are out there. There are YMCAs that have wonderful programs for military families. Let folks know about those. I could list on forever. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. Laura, you know, one of the things that just occurred to me is that since you've been in, Laura, has technology improved your life, I mean, in a way that you can connect with these kinds of things? I understand that you found out about this on Facebook. Tell us a little bit more about that.

YATES: Yeah. I mean, really, technology has totally changed, even, like, an experience of a deployment. You know, now I can talk to my husband by Skype, for example, if he was deployed. And that wasn't the case when we started off. But, yeah, as far as finding information online through - especially the social media. All of the military installations now have social media sites - Facebook and Twitter and so on and so forth. So you can find information so much more easily now than it used to be when I first was associated with the military.

MARTIN: Well, in the couple of minutes that I have left, can I just ask you more broadly what are some of the other things that would support, Laura, that would support you as a military family and you in general, I mean, apart from this app? Can you just tell me some things that people, particularly who aren't sharing your burden, can do to help share that burden?

YATES: I think that there needs to be more support groups for soldiers and families going through medical transition. I think the Army has - at least the Army has a great hold on the transition process from what I've seen. But as far as going through a medical transition, that's one think I haven't really found were as many support groups or support sources for those going through a medical transition.

MARTIN: Michelle, what about you? More broadly, what are some of the other things? I mean, I think it's important to remember we live in a time when a lot of people have no experience with military service anywhere. So could you just take this opportunity to tell, you know, everybody else, like, what are some of the things that you think would be helpful...

JOYNER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...If you want to support these families?

JOYNER: Sure thing. Mental health counseling is one of the top items on our list. The nation, at a whole, is short metal health providers, but, definitely, those that understand military families and the struggles that they face. We need more recognition in communities of who are military families are. Most military families live outside of a traditional brick and mortar military isolation. And so knowing the kids in your school who are military connected or the kids on your soccer team or the military spouses that you employ are very, very important, and offer those family some flexibility.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both again for this, you know, important work. You can't remind people that, you know, these families are serving, too. And it behooves people to recognize that and to thank them, not just with words, as I am doing now. But so - and thank you for indulging me. But thank you and for educating us about the ways that we can better support these families. Michelle Joyner is the communications director for the National Military Family Association. Laura Yates is a volunteer for the NMFA, and she's also a military spouse. She joined us from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Thank you both so much for joining us.

YATES: Thank you.

JOYNER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And, Laura, my very best to you and your family on this next phase of your lives.

YATES: Thank you so much. And also thank you so much for the many organizations that are supporting military families out there like the National Military Family Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.