Meet the civilians who connect the Army to the public

Meet the civilians who connect the Army to the public

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FORT MEADE, Md. (Army News Service) — Karen Conlin lives in Middleburg, Virginia. The nearest military installation is about an hour drive away, and not all the civilians in her area, she finds, are that informed about the Army.

Conlin herself is a civilian, but she plays a vital role promoting good relations between the Army and the public. She is a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, or CASA, one of 93 community leaders from a variety of professions, including business, education, finance, law, media, and medicine.

In her role, she has been visiting schools in her area and across the state to host essay-writing events on what it means to be an American patriot and has even taken students on trips to Arlington National Cemetery for tours and wreath-layings.

Last year she sponsored a speaking series with Army leaders from around the world, connecting students over Skype with the director of the National Security Agency and the surgeon general of the Army.

In September, she brought two 9/11 survivors to speak at a high school in The Plains, Virginia. The survivors had been inside a Pentagon corridor near where the plane struck.

“We talked about what it was like for the country that day and what it was like for the military,” Conlin said. “[We talked about] what it was like to be survivors of the attack and what it was like to have friends and colleagues who did not survive.”

During her trips to schools, Conlin talks to students and their parents about Army careers and opportunities to learn valuable skills and even receive scholarships, but for Conlin, the work isn’t just about conveying a recruiting message.

It’s about “helping the kids see their future at a time [when] they haven’t had that first glimpse” of those who serve.

“We want the entire country behind [our service members]. They can’t be behind them unless they know what the incredible service members are doing every day,” she said. “So it’s my job as a CASA to make it real for children.”

Conlin does a lot more than visiting schools. In October, she and her family organized the Open Barn event at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. Open Barn is a caisson-haunted house event which hosts about 1,500 to 3,000 children, many of them from military families.

Every summer, Conlin sends out 300 invitations for Twilight Tattoos to industry leaders, local government officials, public school faculty, foundations, media and so on. She said many don’t even know what a Twilight Tattoo is, so she must explain that in her offers.

This summer Conlin attended all 10 Twilight Tattoos and had guests at each one. Every year the number of people who respond grows, she said. Her guests are people who have never had an introduction to the military or to the Army.

“I use it as a door opener,” she said.

Although Conlin never served in the military herself, she was profoundly moved following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that led her to “put assets toward Army initiatives.” With her 20-year experience as a sports agent, she understands well how synergy brings people and causes together.

One of her first projects was to help create the Helping Our Heroes Foundation, and then the rest just followed from there, she said.

STEVE LEE

Steve Lee, like Conlin, works with local recruiting efforts. He works in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he helps recruiters gain entry to the public schools.

In 2004, Lee became the founder and co-chairman of the Cincinnati USO Tribute to the Troops. Over the past 13 years, this event has become the single largest contributor of financial support for the USO programs at the Warrior and Family Support Centers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.

Each year the organization flies four or five wounded Soldiers from those hospitals to Cincinnati to attend the USO event and tell their stories to citizens of that city. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra performed the last two years, he said. A military leader, almost always a flag officer, speaks as well. Revenues from ticket sales benefit the USOs at the two hospitals.

Years ago, Lee said he was watching a “60 Minutes” TV segment on suffering endured by Soldiers who lost arms or legs in combat. “It touched my heart. It made me realize how much I should be showing my appreciation to them and their families for the sacrifices that they were making for my freedom.”

Not a veteran himself, Lee decided to talk to friends and retired military about ways he could help make a difference in their lives. They suggested supporting the USO and personally visiting the wounded at Walter Reed.

So Lee traveled to Walter Reed, where he met retired Sgt. Joe Bowser, who was recovering from wounds sustained in Iraq, notably to his right leg, which had been amputated below the knee. Lee recognized Bowser right away. The Soldier had been his mailman when he lived in Lexington, Kentucky.

He said Bowser stayed at Walter Reed for 30 months and the two became best friends. Bowser eventually recovered and now works for the secretary of the Army.

Veterans had advised Lee that, if he showed up at Walter Reed and told Soldiers there that he was their friend, he could expect to expect to get phone calls from them anytime, day or night.

“It’s very true,” he said. “Soldiers are the truest friends you’ll ever have in your life. Their hearts are true and they are pure.”

As for the need to serve those who serve, Lee said: “While our country needs our Army, and we need it to defend our freedoms and keep us secure and safe, sometimes they need us too. They need to know they’ve got people backing them and care about them.”

These days, he said, whenever he is feeling down, he visits Walter Reed Hospital.

IMPACT ON RECRUITING

During a Northeast Regional meeting of CASAs Tuesday, Sept. 20, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commander of Army Recruiting Command, and his senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony T. Stoneburg, praised the CASAs for the valuable role they play in their communities, particularly in Army recruiting efforts.

Snow called CASAs ” tremendous assets to recruiting,” in particular, for helping recruiters gain access to high schools and community leaders “that ultimately better educates the American public about the opportunities available in the Army.”

Snow believes that, over the years, there has been a growing disconnect between the military and those who have never served, which has made it difficult for the Army to tell its story.

In 1990, about 40 percent of youth had someone in their family who served in the military. In 2014 that had declined to about 16 percent, he said.

“CASAs are part of that team that can help debunk some of the myths about serving in the military,” Snow said. “[They] can get it on record that we’re the greatest team on the face of the planet, committed to doing a lot of good things for people across the world.”

MORE ABOUT CASAs

CASAs provide information about the Army’s objectives, roles, requirements and major programs to the public through speeches, personal contact and participation in Army and community events, according to Angela Ritz, director, CASA Program Office. CASAs also advise the Army on the public’s concerns and perceptions.

Although CASAs serve two-year terms, their terms may be extended to a total of 10 years of service, and the secretary of the Army can extend the terms of certain CASAs even further, beyond the 10-year mark. Since 1922, when the program started, more than 500 individuals have served the Army and the nation as CASAs.

The secretary of the Army makes the final selection to fill a CASA position, and selection criteria are stringent, Ritz said. Among the many requirements, a CASA:

— Cannot be a federal, state or local elected or appointed official or employee if such position would present a conflict of interest.

— Cannot be an active member of the National Guard or a member of the Ready Reserve (Selected), Individual Ready Reserve, or Standby Reserve.

— Cannot hold financial interests or positions that conflict with the performance of duty and must complete financial disclosure forms.

— Must undergo an annual ethics review and receive ethics training each year.

Ritz noted that CASAs are “more like ambassadors than policymakers, but we still try and ensure everything stays above-the-board, because they’re speaking on behalf of the Army in an official capacity and have access to installations.”

Each state, the District of Columbia and the five U.S. territories have one or more CASAs. As special government employees, CASAs serve a two-year term without salary, wages or related benefits and are afforded a three-star protocol status.

CASAs are required to submit a Significant Activity Report to the secretary every six months, detailing the work they’ve done for the Army.

Each year, CASAs are expected to attend one national meeting and, once every two years, they will attend a regional meeting. There are six regions, with three regional meetings held each year, and meetings are held on installations to showcase the great work Soldiers are doing.

Currently, about 75 percent of CASAs are former military, Ritz said. The CASA Program is working to bring more diversity to the CASA population to better represent the Army to America and America to the Army.

In conclusion, Ritz said CASAs “have the goodness of the heart. They just want to give back.”

HISTORY OF THE CASA PROGRAM

Just before World War I, the Military Training Camps Association, or MTCA, a private group, began a training program to train leaders for the Army, Ritz said. In helping the Army select and train candidates for what was to become known as the Plattsburgh Camps, the MTCA suggested that an inner group of “civilian aides to the secretary of War” could benefit both the Army and the association.

In 1922, the Army formally recognized the training program and the civilian aide concept. Interaction with the Army was broad, with specific duties left to each aide’s own discretion. Then, as now, aides served without pay or compensation, she said.

In 1950, Secretary of the Army Frank Pace Jr. redesigned the program to meet the Army’s growing need for contact with grass roots America. Pace also changed the policy of selecting civilian aides solely from the ranks of the MTCA and reduced their terms to two years.

The aides’ primary mission has become promoting good relations between the Army and the public by acting as spokespersons and advisors.