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Online tool helps identify service members in need

The latest news reports and statistics are sobering: Last year alone, 128 U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide, the most since 1980 when the Army began tracking the numbers. Potentially more troubling — that January would set a record for the first month since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which more troops died from suicides than were killed in combat.

Gary Bowen, Ph.D.

For the UNC School of School Work’s Gary Bowen, who has long been on the front lines for improving services to military families, such glaring figures raise one vital question: “How do we identify people in trouble and those who are most prone to problems in the face of adversity?”
Over the last several years, Bowen has envisioned at least one possible solution. He thinks a program originally developed to assist at-risk children could also be the key to identifying vulnerable military troops and their families and could help enhance their health, welfare and combat readiness. 
Developed in the early 1990s by Bowen and School Dean Jack Richman, the School Success Profile (SSP) is an online academic assessment tool that was designed to help principals and teachers better understand what young people face outside the classroom and assist in addressing their needs. The evaluation has shown success in schools across the country in identifying barriers to school performance, such as peer pressure, lack of family support and neighborhood danger.
Bowen, a Kenan Distinguished Professor, thinks the profile could show similar success in assessing the personal resilience of soldiers and their loved ones. Additionally, such an assessment tool could help service members determine if they have sufficient support networks in place — extended family, friends, neighbors and coworkers — to effectively cope during stressful times, he said.

A page from the online assessment tool for Marines. View larger

These people are vital sources of “social capital” and become the “guardrails on the road to life” for military families, Bowen said. Given the active pattern and length of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq over the last six years, their support has been especially needed, he said.
“The one thing we know is the value of the social support system,” he said. “If you look at what’s important to people and what helps them get through the day-to-day demands and challenges, it’s the relationships they have with others.” Bowen noted, “Formal services and programs need to be more intentional about helping service members and families develop these informal support systems.”
Using the online assessment enables the military to be “very direct in its understanding of the support systems people have in place to successfully navigate the road,” Bowen added. Having this knowledge, he said, also enables practitioners to evaluate existing resources for service members and develop additional programs and outreach services.
Bowen actually piloted the assessment tool for the U.S. Air Force several years ago, relying on the same technology built by Flying Bridge Technologies Inc., of Charlotte, to develop the School Success Profile. The “asset inventories” focus on two main areas, one that addresses family, unit and community relationships and another that focuses on the respondent’s success in meeting life demands. Participants are evaluated based on their responses to a variety of statements. For example, items to determine a respondent’s wealth of support include: 

Your spouse/significant other understands the demands of your job, is supportive of you being part of the military now and is supportive of you making a career in the military.
If you request it, you can depend on friends, neighbors or co-workers for help with household tasks, for information about available community agencies and resources and for transportation.

To determine resiliency levels, items tap into a respondent’s physical and emotional well-being, financial welfare, deployment readiness, and overall quality of life. Examples include:

You maintain a healthy diet, exercise on a regular basis and would describe your overall state of health these days as very good or excellent.
You have enough money to pay your bills each month, you have incorporated savings into your budget, and you have some extra money available in case of emergency.

Service members and civilian spouses receive summary profiles of their responses, including helpful strategies for building stronger connections with others. They also are given links to Web sites that are tailored to military members and families. Although participants’ responses are recorded anonymously, Bowen said data can be used for program planning and development within individual military units and communities.  
“An important aim is to assist practitioners in developing a ‘community of practice’ in working with military members and their families,” Bowen said. “It’s really about strengthening the informal system of support.”
Overall interest in the military assessment model is still growing. Last year, Bowen received nearly $228,000 from the U.S. Marine Corps to develop an online “family readiness” assessment tool for the service branch and for funding for two MSW student research assistants. The assessment went live in February. Bowen worked with Flying Bridge Technologies to secure funding for the project and added that the School of Social Work’s relationship with the company models an exemplary public-private partnership.
Last summer, the professor also worked on a feasibility study for the N.C. Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services to create an assessment model for the state’s guard and reserve families. He is now exploring additional funding for set up.
Bowen’s work also recently garnered some high-ranking attention. In March, he traveled to Quantico, Va., and briefed the Marine Corps Family Readiness Committee, including Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, and Annette Conway, wife of Gen. James T. Conway, 34th commandant of the Marine Corps, on the science behind the assessment model and how the tool will be used to develop support services and programs to increase the resilience of Marines and their families.
Bowen is confident that the model has broader reaching possibilities.
“I would like to see versions of this assessment tool being used by all of the military services, including the U.S. Army and the Guard and Reserve,” he added. “This work has enormous implications for informing and improving program planning and development for military members and their families.”
By Susan White
This article is from the Spring 2009 issue of Contact Magazine, which contains a special feature on how the UNC School of Social Work is supporting military members, veterans and their families.
Related links:
Family Readiness Receives New Tool