• Instructors prep spouses for new responsibilities

  • For 20 years, ACS has been assisting spouses of CGSOC students with the Field Grade Spouses Seminar to help them prepare for their next duty station.

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    For 20 years, Fort Leavenworth’s Army Community Service has been assisting spouses of Command and General Staff Officer Course students with the Field Grade Spouses Seminar, formerly the S3/XO Seminar, to help them prepare for their next duty station.
    The class was originally Army Family Team Building and eventually became the seminar.
    These all-day seminars, offered seven times each year between August and April, include lessons on how to be a supportive leader, family readiness groups and practical protocol. Spouses can interact with a panel of Army spouses who have already completed this stage of their soldier’s military career.
    So that there is no cost to the spouses, the seminar is funded through grants and support provided by the Command and General Staff College Foundation, the Fort Leavenworth Spouses Club and the Fort Leavenworth Thrift Shop. However, the biggest support that keeps the FGSS running strong comes from the volunteer instructors.
    “We have amazing instructors,” said Kim Shoffner, FGSS coordinator and instructor. “Many are professionally trained facilitators and each brings a unique skill-set to the program.
    “Most importantly, all have field-grade spouse experience, which adds to the program credibility,” she said. “Each instructor has a passion for the program and helping other military spouses.”
    Currently, the FGSS is taught by five instructors — Meaghan Bircher, Marlee Marshall, Catherine Cotovsky, Anne Rielly and Shoffner.
    Bircher has been teaching the “Supportive Leadership” and co-teaching the “Practical Protocol” portions of the seminar for the last five years.
    “I began teaching with FGSS after being an active volunteer with numerous Army programs throughout my soldier’s career,” Bircher said. “I wanted to teach with this program because I feel it is so vitally important for a military spouse to be equipped with as much knowledge and resources as possible, and this class provides a tremendous ‘bang for your buck’ in just one day.
    “I am honored to share the knowledge I have acquired through my soldier’s career and give back to my military family and community,” she said. “I think this class offers spouses the opportunity to ‘find their fit’ and reflect how best to balance the opportunities and challenges of military life and being a military spouse.”
    Bircher said she enjoys teaching the supportive leadership portion of the course the most.
    “I feel the most passionate about this class. It is so important for the field-grade spouse to understand that they are in a supportive role,” Bircher said. “They are supporting the Army, the unit leadership or a (battalion) commander’s spouse, on top of their role supporting their soldier.”
    Page 2 of 4 - Marshall has been teaching the “Army Strong” portion of the seminar on and off for the last 10 years, but her first taste of the seminar was when she attended it as a field-grade spouse in 2001.
    “I knew it was a pivotal class. It helped me transition from being the one in uniform to supporting the one in uniform,” Marshall said. “I love connecting with other spouses. Army spouses are unique to any other profession. We care for our families, we have careers, we support our soldiers, we support each other, and we try to do it all with grace and humility.
    “Our resources and support agencies are greater than ever,” she said. “However, connecting one-on-one and in a seminar setting allows them to see they are not alone and there are other spouses experiencing the same joys and sorrows. Facilitating that conversation and connecting them to one another is truly humbling.”
    Marshall has been around the military service her whole life. Her father was in the service, she served from 1989 to 2001, and her husband serves as well. Because of that, she said she feels she can offer a unique perspective to the Army and Army life.
    “As a family member, a soldier and a spouse, I have never been without a (Department of Defense) military (identification) card. I would like to think I can articulate my perspective in a way that is real and encouraging to other spouses,” she said. “More than anything else, I hope I instill in the spouses a desire to go home and talk with their soldier. Their No. 1 resource is their soldier.
    “I hope they ask them questions about their job, and what the next four to five years of their Army career looks like,” she said. “They can do anything together, but they have to communicate.”
    Cotovsky has been teaching the “FRG” and co-teaching the “Practical Protocol” portions of the seminar for two years. Like Marshall, she also attended the seminar when she was a field-grade spouse in 2013. When she returned to Fort Leavenworth with her husband in 2016 as permanent party, she sat in as a member of the panel and became an instructor when two former instructors left in 2017.
    “I learned so much from the seminar when I was a student. The facilitators answered questions about the Army that I hadn’t ever thought to ask even though I’d been married to my husband for several years. Then so much of what I learned came into play during the years after that. I knew what my role could be, and I knew what opportunities to look for within the unit my husband went to,” Cotovsky said.
    Page 3 of 4 - “One of the harder parts of Army life is all the uncertainty. Most of the time we can’t even tell you what state we’ll be living in next year much less envision what our lives will look like then. So, for those situations that I’ve already been through, I don’t want to miss any chance I have to alleviate some of that uncertainty for other spouses; to help them prepare for the less pleasant parts, but also to encourage them and let them know that they have a lot to look forward to.
    “That’s why I love the seminar so much,” she said. “We get to do that every time we step up to the platform.”
    Though Cotovsky enjoys being an instructor, she said she probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it if it weren’t for her having gone through the course herself.
    “Everyone’s experience is different, but being able to tell the spouses my actual stories, whether they’re stories of getting it right or more often of getting it wrong,” Cotovsky said. “I think it lends some credibility to the program that we, the facilitators, are real Army spouses speaking from our actual lives.
    “Plus, I remember sitting where they sit, and I remember thinking I knew a lot of things and finding out over the course of six hours just how much I still needed to learn,” she said. “I know now how valuable that information ended up being to me. You only go through this stage of your Army life once, and the (FGSS) is the best way to arm yourself with information as you move into this new stage of your spouse’s career.”
    Rielly has been volunteering with the seminar since it first started in spring 1999. Currently, she co-teaches the “So, now what?” portion of the seminar.
    “My own Army experience has taught me to listen to spouses, learn from what is said and embrace differences,” Rielly said. “Hopefully, by doing this we can appreciate each other’s experiences and learn from them.
    “It is the instructors and volunteers that make this class continually successful,” Rielly said. “The seminar gives spouses the opportunity to gain knowledge and network with other spouses.”
    Shoffner has been teaching with the FGSS since 2010. However, she first got involved when her husband was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in 2001 for CGSOC. At that time, she was an instructor with AFTB.
    “I appreciated the value of gathering as much knowledge as possible. The information was invaluable. It truly made a difference for us during the next few years of his career. I learned how to complement and support him and how to help other families become more resilient and self-sufficient in the unit,” Shoffner said. “It has been amazing to see the program evolve over the years. We make a great effort to stay current and relevant. We want to ensure we are delivering key and vital information that pertains to the field grade spouse today. The Army is constantly changing. As such, so is our program.”
    Page 4 of 4 - Along with her experience as an Army wife, Shoffner said her educational background and volunteering experiences help her bring something unique to the seminar.
    “I have a master’s degree in adult education, which helps formulate our delivery methods and how we present the material. In addition, I work part-time for a non-profit that advocates for military children with respect to their education, the Military Child Education Coalition. That experience brings in a professional perspective when dealing with children and how this military lifestyle impacts them,” Shoffner said.
    “I’ve been an active volunteer throughout my soldier’s career. I’m familiar with the amazing family programs the Army offers, and that knowledge base brings added value to the discussions. We’ve thrived during deployments, lived overseas and moved multiple times. Because I’ve been so involved, I’m familiar with the resources available.”
    Jill Gordon and Claire Teter, wives of CGSOC students, attended the Feb. 27 session of the seminar at the Resiliency Center. They said that having instructors who could relate to them personally made the seminar better.
    “They are very knowledgeable,” Gordon said. “I think the fact that they’ve actually been through it, and they’re not just people talking about these things without having experienced it, is great.”
    “The instruction has been great. Clearly it is a knowledgeable group and they’re excited to share what they know and pass along information,” Teter said. “I would tell anyone who has any interest in volunteering (in their unit) that they should come and just get the knowledge.”
    The last FGSS for the year are March 27 and April 13. For more information or to register, call ACS at 684-2800 or e-mail fgspouseseminar@gmail.com.
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