AFA Accentuates Family Support, Quality-of-Life Issues at Air, Space & Cyber Conference
October 2, 2023 | By Patrick Reardon
Nearly 1,000 military spouses attended AFA’s 2023 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., for free. This year’s conference not only featured sessions solely dedicated to the quality-of-life issues most important to military families, but it also provided professional networking opportunities, social events, and resources for military spouses to bring home to their communities.
AFA established its United Forces & Families (F2) initiatives to continuously support quality-of-life improvements for Airmen, Guardians, and Families across the Department of the Air Force. The initiative’s efforts are guided by inputs from the F2 Task Force. This year’s United Forces & Families sessions covered everything from military spouse support and childcare to community involvement and mental health services.
One mainstage panel featured the top uniformed leaders in the Air and Space Forces and their spouses who discussed the work-life “harmony” of a military family and the importance of self-care. The panel included Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and his wife Sharene Brown; Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman and his wife Jennifer Saltzman; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass and her husband Rahn Bass; and then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger Towberman and his wife Rachel Rush. Towberman retired on Sept. 15, and John F. Bentivegna became the second Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force.
The thousands of Airmen, Guardians, and spouses in attendance laughed and connected with the leaders as they shared their frank assessments of military life, including past resentments and turbulences they had to overcome to provide one another—and their children—with the educational, financial, and emotional support needed to thrive as a family. Sharene Brown, who has long been an active and vocal supporter of military families through her Five & Thrive initiative, emphasized the need for military spouses to build and maintain communities in order for their voices to be heard.
“Going around the corner, there’s gonna be some barriers, there’s gonna be some challenges, but we just have to deal with it in the moment and take it a step at a time,” said Sharene Brown in what was likely her final appearance on the senior leadership panel, following her husband’s confirmation to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We thank you, and we thank everyone for what they do, and their contribution to help our military members to get to where they are.”
“We’re just regular people,” Gen. Brown added. “Our families either embraced this lifestyle through marriage or were born into it. We chose this path, but they had no say in it. So, let’s show them appreciation and say, ‘thank you.’”
During another session, Lt. Col. Angelina Stephens opened up about her experiences with severe postpartum depression, traumatic child births, anxiety, and suicidal ideation while in uniform—topics that she said need to be openly discussed, no matter how uncomfortable they might be, in order for the Department of the Air Force to begin taking care of its people and their families the right way.
“Caring in this context really means caring for people or finding a way to care for people, no matter the circumstance—whether they are working in a vault or they’re PRP, if they’re Guard, Reserve, or spouses and family members, or civilians and/or contractors,” said Stephens, who serves as the Chief of Integration for the SECAF-CSAF Strategic Execution Group, the co-lead of the Department of the Air Force’s “Fortify the Force” initiative team, and the lead of the CSAF’s “Barriers to Mental Health, Wellness, and Resilience” cross-functional team. “We all came here to serve, and I think we found that, in some cases, it just takes the right care and the right connection to fill that gap and grow someone, allow them to grow and to serve to their full potential.”
Stephens was the moderator for the panel called “Caring for Airmen and Guardians Wherever They Are,” which featured Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, the Surgeon General for the U.S. Air Force and Space Force; Lt. Gen. Tom Miller, Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Engineering, and Force Protection; and Maj. Gen. Chaplain Randall E. Kitchens, Chief of Chaplains for the Department of the Air Force. Together, the panelists represented what Robert Miller called “the perfect triumvirate” of care.
“It’s not all about the medics, although we play a part and there’s medical healing,” he said. “At times you need chaplains, spiritual healing. And at times you need a strong commander, fellow Airmen, Guardians, others that need to be there and provide that care when needed.”
All four of the family-centric panels at the conference hinged on the idea that quality-of-life issues directly impact force readiness. During a panel titled “Creative Community Solutions,” Alex Wagner, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and Dr. Ravi Chaudhary, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Energy, Installations, and Environment, said their recent work on building and staffing child development centers on bases around the world is directly connected to the United States’ ability to provide the most dominant Air and Space Forces in the world.
“Everything that I’m doing is focused on lethality,” Wagner said. “When Airmen and Guardians are focused on their work, they have confidence that their kids are in the right school, that their spouses are taken care of. They’re not worried about economic security. When they are having challenges, they have access with low barriers to entry to the right resources.”
The F2 Task Force set up their first-ever booth at a major AFA conference. The booth served as a “rally point” for nearly 1,000 milspouses who attended the event. Attendees met at the booth to network with other spouses, meet the members of AFA’s F2 Task Force, and learn more about how AFA can help fund quality-of-life projects on the Air and Space Force installation level. The Task Force also hosted a “Milspouse Mixer” on Sept. 12, an informal gathering for attendees to socialize with other spouses, including Jennifer Saltzman, spouse of Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman.
To learn more about AFA’s quality-of-life and family-support initiatives, visit AFA.org/F2.