Military Families Research Institute
Deployment is a strain in the best of circumstances but coming home presents its own set of challenges. More than two million military service members have been deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, many serving multiple tours in combat zones thousands of miles from home. The Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) works closely with collaborators to improve the lives of service members and their families in Indiana and across the country. Their families serve too, managing challenges and opportunities unique to the military lifestyle. MFRI acts as a "force multiplier" in support of military families in Indiana and beyond garnering a national reputation for its innovative work.
As the leading university-based institute of its kind in the nation, MFRI has become a clearinghouse on concerns and needs of military families. The secretary of the Army, the surgeon general of the Navy, the leaders of Air Mobility Command and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command are among those who have sought MFRI’s participation in high-level meetings designed to shape the future of support for military families.
One such outcome is the new policy decision made to extend Family and Medical Leave Act provisions for military families to include National Guard and Reserve families. MFRI was the only university-baed group represented at First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House gathering of leading military family organizations and they were also present at another White House event considering community college strategies for veterans and other underserved population groups.
One of the MFRI’s newest endeavors—Operation Diploma—aims to strengthen support at Indiana colleges and universities for military service members. A 2008 survey of 92 Indiana postsecondary campuses found that most are poorly prepared for service members and veterans, a population now swelling as new veterans use their G.I. bill benefits.
Many Indiana National Guard members have their educations interrupted by deployment and combat veterans often face physical and psychological injuries that complicate their studies upon returning home. In any case, war experience causes veterans to bring significantly different needs, attitudes and expectations to college compared to their classmates. This includes unique perspectives that can enhance teaching and learning if educators can tap into the veterans’ experience effectively.
Operation Diploma has awarded nearly $2.5 million to help create supportive programs and services for student service members and veterans. As part of this program, the MFRI has awarded grants to Indiana student veterans’ organizations contributing to a 300% increase in their number between 2009-10. These groups offer social support to members and encourage them to become involved in campus and community initiatives, collaborations and service projects. Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Purdue professor and MFRI director elaborated the “organizations provide a sense of community and can help educate their members about the spectrum of services available to them, including financial aid, academic advising and student services.”
A recent panel awarded three top honors:
First place: Purdue University - The student veterans’ organization at Purdue proposes a series of initiatives to meet its dual goals of strong support for student veterans and increased membership. Events include student veteran orientations, career fairs and targeted advertising efforts. Plans also include its second annual Oaken Bucket Game Ball Run. This event features their members and ROTC plus those from rival Indiana University running the football 115 miles between the schools’ stadiums and delivering the game ball in time for kick off. They will also carry a flag bearing the names of Hoosier veterans who have given their lives in service. Runners collect sponsor pledges, which last year totaled more than $2,700 for Operation Bedding, a charitable organization that provides pillows, sheets, socks and other necessities for service members overseas.
Second place: Ivy Tech-Sellersburg – The recently formed student veterans’ organization at Ivy Tech-Sellersburg unveiled an agenda of activities designed to help student veterans and service members on campus succeed and thrive academically by enlisting the help of faculty and administrators. A start-up organization, it took advantage of lessons learned by consulting with the successful organization at nearby Indiana University Southeast to craft its proposal.
Third place: University of Evansville – UE’s organization outlined several efforts to ease the transition to college for veterans and service members, including new student receptions and adult-learner workshops to aid in the transition. It also included several events designed to enhance campus and community collaboration.
IU Southeast, in partnership with Ivy Tech, has received an Operation Diploma Grant for three successive years. According to Student Veterans Organization president Nancy McLain, the group has placed a high priority on efforts to help free Amir Hekmati, a former marine who has been detained and sentenced to death in Iran. Hekmati is an Iranian-American born in Arizona and accused of spying for the CIA. Hekmati was visiting Iran in August 2011 to see his ailing grandmother. Although Hekmati was assured it was safe to make the trip by the Iranian Interests Section in Washington D.C., he was turned over to authorities in Tehran. This type of advocacy furthers the group’s mission to raise community awareness to veteran needs.
The SVO helps veterans on campus work toward their degrees by creating social activities that veterans can partake in together. It also helps them network with other veterans and resources in the community available to them to promote their success. They also address issues, either physical or psychological, that stand in the way of that success, and they also help with veterans’ social needs.
Another program sponsored by Operation Diploma is From Boots to Books: The Veterans and Student Service Members Academic Assistance Program designed to create a community of university personnel, students, and community agencies that provide support/service that increases the likelihood of veterans and student service members completing their educational goals including:
MFRI research also reveals the profound impact of parents’ military service on their children. In partnerships with the Indiana National Guard, MFRI offers a reunification exercise designed for children called Passport Toward Success. MFRI outreach director Kathy Broniarcyzk explained that they were approached to develop programming for children because none existed. “We had to think of how we could help kids build their resiliency. We focus on stress reduction, communication and problem-solving skills.”
Finally, MFRI conducts a wide range of scholarly research and practical tools to assist the battlefield to home transition and holds conferences on the same.