Wife of Air Force chief of staff visits base: hosts key spouse luncheon

  • Published
  • By Vanessa Edwards
  • Wife of Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander
When the word came that Betty Welsh, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, had arrived Aug. 15 at the Maxwell Club 10 minutes ahead of schedule, Debby Ramsey, wife of the 42nd Air Base Wing Vice Commander Col. Mark Ramsey, and I hustled to our positions at the front door to officially greet her.

But instead of welcoming Welsh to the "Best Hometown in the Air Force," we were welcomed onto the surrey parked outside. There, Welsh was gracious as always and personally greeted us. When we escorted her into the club, members of the 42nd Air Base Wing key spouse program and representatives from the Airman and Family Readiness Center were waiting to meet and lunch with the Air Force's "first lady."

"The aura in the room was very unexpected," said Casey Nagaoka-Smith, 42nd Security Forces Squadron key spouse mentor and one of only two enlisted spouses there. "Despite her status, she was very warm, welcoming and humble."

In fact, Welsh managed to personally greet almost all 28 commanders, first sergeants, key spouse mentors, key spouses and representatives from the Airman and Family Readiness Center before she was whisked to her seat in the newly renovated Old South Room for the greatly anticipated luncheon.

Pam Borgert, wife of 42nd Mission Support Group Commander Col. Michael Borgert, said that she had anticipated a "frank dialogue about the future of the key spouse program, both at the 42nd Air Base Wing and in the Air Force."

And a frank discussion it was.

· A first sergeant emphasized the autonomy of commanders to run their own programs.
· The AFRC highlighted the importance of command support, particularly at the wing level.
· A spouse raised concerns about commanders who reject the program altogether.
· A commander without children expressed concern about connecting with unit families with children; another requested support to Airmen who are also single parents.
· Nagoaka-Smith highly encouraged active recruitment of enlisted spouses as key spouses.
· Welsh expressed the likely need for the key spouse program to receive a name change.
· We all agreed that taking care of families is a worthwhile endeavor.

"What a great opportunity to infuse even more excitement into the key spouse program here at Maxwell!" Borgert said when I followed up with her. I thought so, too, especially because lunch ended with more questions than answers.

· How do we normalize the use of mental health services?
· How do we sustain the traditional Air Force-family culture stateside when privatized housing and other factors unintentionally encourage our families toward isolation in the civilian community?
· And how do we measure taking care of families at all?

These questions are exciting challenges that Maxwell is more than ready to tackle.

But, really, how do we know when we are getting it right?

"Doing the best with what you have and emphasizing flexibility in the way you care for your squadrons and their families is essential," said Carrie Jo Ludescher, wife of 42nd Medical Support Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Jay Ludescher and the 42nd Medical Group key spouse mentor." It is also essential, Ludescher continued, to "hear from the leadership team."

There is only one requirement placed on each commander and key spouse for the key spouse program. Commanders opting for a key spouse program must lead a key spouse team that includes two other crucial players of any successful key spouse program: an actively involved first sergeant or superintendent and an experienced and motivated key spouse mentor. The rest of the program is up to the commander - the key spouse program remains a commander's program. This minimal structure is designed to support the key spouse, to avoid a common key spouse concern that they do not feel comfortable or know how to talk to the commander who appointed them or cannot get a roster or a returned phone call from a first sergeant.

The requirement for key spouses is to complete a five-part training on grief and loss, domestic violence, suicide and self-care. Key spouses must be credible with first sergeants as well as prepared to identify issues and refer families to the resources that they need.

"Collaboration is the key to success in a program like this," Borgert shared. "Every unit, no matter how large or small, needs an effective key spouse program. When crisis or tragedy strikes, it is a well-running program that takes the best care of our Air Force families."

Ludescher echoed this sentiment. "Together, we spread the word, lift up with encouragement and maintain excellence in all we do for our Airmen and their amazing families!"

Who does the key spouse program support?

"Key spouses care about families," Ramsey said later by email. "And you do not have to be a spouse or have a spouse to benefit from the assistance of our trained key spouse volunteers." In other words, do not let the name fool you. Key spouses are here for you.

As for the opportunity to meet Welsh, Ludescher said "it was a great honor."

"Her compassion and understanding of the total person concept [was] encouraging," she said.

The luncheon ended on the steps of the club where we posed for a group photo.

"We are so lucky to have this group," I whispered to Welsh. She smiled and nodded.