Category Archives: Make a difference

Margaret Vinson Hallgren: In Memory

I remember the first day I met Margaret Hallgren. I was green–only 24 years old–and excited about my new job as NMFA’s Newsletter Editor. We were gathering for the Editorial Committee Meeting to walk through the upcoming newsletter articles. In walked a beautiful, older woman with slight build and gray (mostly white) hair. She was kind and gracious as she introduced herself to me as the former NMFA President and an English grammar enthusiast.


The latter part turned out to be the understatement of the century. Margaret was not only a grammar enthusiast, she insisted on nothing less than perfection. Our Editorial Committee dedicated hours to go through 8 newsletter articles as each member went through, line by line, with their changes. I was the fortunate soul who took the feedback from the 10-member committee and merged the changes into a final version that made sense. Margaret was the final eye and she took this responsibility very seriously. This process would often take several weeks. Young and eager to accomplish as much as I could, that initial frustration ultimately taught me not about editing, but about image, dedication, passion, and a genuine love for military families.

In the words of a long-time employee, “Margaret lived and breathed advocacy—so she’d wait until each word was perfect for mobilizing, without alienating, others. Sheer perfection.”

Throughout the years I worked with Margaret, I learned the importance of high-quality work. Her expectation for nothing less than the best was born from her character of integrity and grace. Her slight build was deceiving, underneath her porcelain exterior was pure iron and grit. Her presence commanded authority and anyone else in the room paled in comparison, to include high ranking officials. She was a trailblazer; a woman clearly ahead of her time.


A Congressional Tribute presented by former Virginia Representative James Moran called Margaret “the vanguard of Congress and the Department of Defense’s efforts to sustain readiness and the all volunteer force.”

I can confidently say that all who knew and worked with Margaret were influenced by her quiet, yet formidable poise. With the fierceness of a lion and the grace of angel, Margret will remain in our hearts and minds as we forge on to support and protect today’s military families. We will always remember her and be forever changed by her presence.

Margaret Vinson Hallgren
June 20, 1928 – September 19, 2015

hannahPosted by Hannah Pike, NMFA Communications Deputy Director

Four Things Gold Star Moms Want You to Know

Gold Star Mother's Day Graphic

Today, the fourth Sunday in September, is Gold Star Mother’s Day—a day to honor the moms who have lost a son or daughter in service to our country. Losing someone you gave birth to goes against the natural ways of the world—we expect to bury a parent one day, painful as that is, but we never expect to bury our own child.

Talking to Gold Star Mothers, there are certain feelings many of them share.

Here are four things they want you to know:

  1. We want to talk about it.We want to talk about our child, so don’t be afraid of “reminding us” of what happened. We’re just glad you remember, too. As Gold Star Mother Phyllis Sission told us about her son, 2nd Justin Sisson: “We talk about [Justin] all the time. The fear for us all, and that includes all Gold Star families, is that our loved ones will be forgotten. That is unbearable.”
  2. We still support our military.Yes, something horribly tragic happened to our babies. Yes, they were in the military when it happened. But we all knew this was a possibility. When our sons and daughters took the oath of duty, it was with the purest of hearts. They wanted to serve this country, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice.
  3. We are never “over it.”Some of us became Gold Star Mothers 30 years ago. Some of us are new to this pain. No matter how much time passes, though, we never forget. We do get better at getting through each day, but we are never able to move on.
  4. We enjoy celebrating with you.When our child’s friend earns a promotion or an award, please include us in the celebration. It helps to be around those who served alongside him or her. We are their mothers but you were her brothers and sisters in arms. Please remember that we are family.

This Gold Star Mother’s Day, let’s honor these mothers’ wishes along with their child’s memory.

Besa-PinchottiPosted by Besa Pinchotti, Communications Director

World Suicide Prevention Day: Change the Direction of Mental Health

September marks the start of Suicide Prevention Month, with today being World Suicide Prevention Day—a time when to reflect on the lives taken too soon, and focus on saving lives. We know suicides within the military community are growing at an alarming rate, with more than 20 veterans taking their lives each day. Studies are only beginning to track military family suicides, but we know this number is unsettling, too.



Mental health and the military community has long been an issue swept under the rug…but why? Some service members say they don’t seek help for mental health illnesses for fear of getting in trouble with their unit, being teased by fellow service members, or being discharged altogether. Family members face their own obstacles when dealing with mental health care, ranging from their own embarrassment in seeking treatment, to the lack of mental health providers equipped to understand what military life is really like.

The National Military Family Association is committed to ensuring the nation’s military families have access to programs and initiatives that strengthen and support them, like proper mental health care. One way we’re doing that is by joining forces with The Campaign to Change Direction and pledging to share, with at least 200,000 military families, the Five Signs of Suffering.

“Those who serve our nation, and their families, face unique challenges and stressors that can place them at higher risk for the development of mental health concerns. The Campaign to Change Direction gives us the opportunity to ensure those in need receive the care and support they deserve,” says Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., Founder and President of Give an Hour, the backbone organization leading the Campaign.

So what is The Change Direction initiative? On the heels of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, Give an Hour and a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector came together to create a new story in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness.

“We are honored to partner with the National Military Family Association in this critical effort to educate all military families about the Five Signs of Suffering,” Van Dahlen adds.

This story will spark a movement to change the way we view mental health and help us to recognize signs of emotional suffering in ourselves and others.

five signs of suffering

The most important piece of information we can learn from the Change Direction initiative are the Five Signs of Suffering:

  1. Personality Change. This can happen suddenly, or gradually, and can sometimes look as though they’re acting outside of their values, or the person may just seem different.
  2. Agitation. They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and seems irritable or unable to calm down.
  3. Withdrawal. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and stop taking part in activities he or she used to enjoy.
  4. Poor Self-Care. They stop taking care of themselves and may engage in risky behavior.
  5. Hopelessness. Have you noticed someone who used to be optimistic and now can’t find anything to be hopeful about? That person may be suffering from extreme or prolonged grief, or feelings of worthlessness or guilt. People in this situation may say that the world would be better off without them, suggesting suicidal thinking.

What happens if you see these signs in someone you know?

Change Direction offers this advice, “You connect, you reach out, you inspire hope, and you offer help. Show compassion and caring and a willingness to find a solution when the person may not have the will or drive to help him- or herself. There are many resources in our communities. It may take more than one offer, and you may need to reach out to others who share your concern about the person who is suffering. If everyone is more open and honest about mental health, we can prevent pain and suffering, and those in need will get the help they deserve.”

The face of mental health within the military community is all too often ignored—by policy makers, military leaders, and even the service member and their family. Through NMFA’s pledge with Change Direction, we will make sure that you and your military family continue to have the support you need, and we will continue to fight for the benefits and programs your family has sacrificed for.

Join NMFA and The Campaign to Change Direction on today’s World Suicide Prevention Day, and make a pledge to create a culture where mental health is valued and achievable.

shannonPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Content Development Manager

The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective of 20 Years at NMFA



After almost 20 years, I’m leaving my job here at NMFA to go work with military families as the Director of Case Management for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). As the last day approaches, I’ve been sharing my experiences with co-workers and thinking about how I, and our Association, arrived where we are today.

When I arrived at NMFA in 1995, I was at a crossroads. My qualifications to become a legislative assistant in Government Relations included years of experience as a military spouse who had cobbled together a resume of itinerant job skills and a wealth of volunteer service. We had always lived on post. I had raised three children in the military life, changing schools, supporting their activities, and learning the military health care system. Heck, we were Military Family of the Year on post one year in the 80s – the year we were never together as a family at the dinner table. I was—and still am—a connector, a go-to person for anyone with questions because I learned all I could about each community when we moved there.

It was all about the phone and letters in those days – pushing out info through the newsletter and fact sheets. Learning from the great ladies of our organization in my time – Sydney Hickey, Margaret Hallgren, Dorsey Chescavage, Edie Smith – and the men – Bob Rosen, Tom Sims, and Jim Mutter. Being a calm voice at the end of the phone when someone called with a problem or challenge with military benefits. Hardly ever hearing the words “military family” (unless we spoke them) as we worked with members of Congress or attended hearings on the Hill.



Cycle forward through 20 years. NMFA geared up and responded in a big way to the challenges military families faced as we entered the longest war in our history. From our office, we heard and felt the planes hitting the Pentagon on 9-11. We got rid of the paper and started reaching out to families in real time with the info they needed when they needed it. Our own spouses and children in combat. We were our own family readiness group, working with people who understood how it felt when we hadn’t heard from a daughter in Iraq for a few weeks. Sharing tears at the water cooler when it all became too much.

The pace was exhilarating, working long days and weekends, but seeing results in improved benefits and programs for the families of the deployed, the wounded and those who didn’t come home.

We’re fighting a different battle now – trying to preserve the benefits and resources that help keep our military families strong so that their service member can battle another day. We’re looking for support for what may be problems down the road, both for the spouses and children who faced the challenges of multiple deployments and for the families of those who have yet to serve.

I have been honored to work with a grand group of folks who are passionate about military families. It’s important to me because I see those next generations coming, with my kids who serve and my soon to be grandbabies who will be military kids. Some of the nicest people I know advocate for the military inside and outside the Pentagon. I know all the folks here, led by my outstanding Government Relations staff, will continue to channel that passion and make sure military families’ voices are heard

I’ve been privileged to have a family who supported me in my work, especially my husband Marty. Many thanks to my battle buddy, Joyce Raezer. I look forward to new challenges but know that it was NMFA that helped make me the advocate I am today. Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been a grand ride!

kathyPosted by Kathy Moakler, former Government Relations Director

Veterans Have Families, Too.

girl-holding-flagsRecently, I shared some of the awesome things NMFA does for the military community, and last week, we had a great opportunity to work with the military families, and other organizations who have a huge impact within their own towns all across the country.

NMFA hosted our second Military Transition Roundtable, where we dove into discussions about how we help communities around the country prepare, support, and welcome separating service members and their families.

Some of the questions tackled were:

  • How do we prepare our communities to handle the transitioning service members and their families?
  • Can military support organizations open the door to the civilian community more, if so, how?
  • How do we help these organizations move beyond offering only deployment support?

Being a civilian, this conversation really spoke to me, and the work I do with military families. Before I became involved with NMFA, I would always say I was a supporter of the military, but I’m not sure I really knew what that meant. I wasn’t sure how to go beyond the word support…especially when it meant helping families transitioning out of military service. Did they still need our help?

The answer is yes. Transitioning families do still need support, and here are a few ideas the experts around the table shared to do just that:

  • Let’s get our communities to adopt a mindset which supports hiring veterans and their spouses. It needs to be cultural within community businesses and organizations.
  • If community organizations should make a habit of asking newcomers if they’re members of the military.
  • There are significantly more information gaps and confusion when it comes to transitioning out of the military, and families in the throes of it are navigating as best they can. Just because families are finding their new normal outside of the military, doesn’t mean we need to stop supporting–we just need to change how we’re doing it.
  • Let’s encourage civilians to be the connecter in their communities.
  • Community organizations can make relationships with transitioning families happen by reaching out and talking to military family readiness leaders to find out how to help.
  • We must continue to make it known that veterans have families, too. In some instances, we are dealing with communities who aren’t thinking about the families behind the veteran, so, how do we shift the conversation?

If you are interested in seeing more, check out a full recap of our tweets from our Roundtable discussion.

What are some ways communities, and civilians, can help make transitioning military families feel more at home? Leave your suggestions in the comments!

Jordan-BarrishPosted by Jordan Barrish, Public Relations Manager


We’re Listening! What’s Happening in Your Military Community?

navy-family-says-goodbyeWorking directly with military spouses is one of the awesome things we get to do at the National Military Family Association; we get to listen to their concerns and bring their voices to the forefront of the minds of our nation’s leaders to help make change happen.

Last week, we had two opportunities to bring groups together and talk about what our military families need.

On Tuesday, we hosted a group of senior spouses where our Government Relations team provided an overview of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report and the 2016 Defense Budget. This was the perfect opportunity for these senior spouses to discuss what they’re seeing in their own military communities. Families’ access to health care–especially for those families who have special needs–and child care are concerns in many of the senior spouses’ communities. Hearing these struggles from a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective is extremely important in continuing NMFA’s mission of advocating for, supporting, and strengthening military families.

On Thursday, we were lucky enough to host a magnificent group of students from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Social Work in our Alexandria, Virginia headquarters. These social work students are pursuing the ‘military track,’ and intend to use their education to assist and work with military families and communities. Our Government Relations and Youth Initiatives teams joined other staff to share some of the struggles that military families face when dealing with mental and behavioral health needs. The USC students shed light on where they see the social work field headed, and how they hope to impact military communities in the future.

We are always grateful that we’re able to engage with military families, and those who support them, at a grassroots level. Getting direct feedback from spouses and experts in the community is what allows NMFA to continue being a voice and resource for military families.

What are you seeing in your community? How can we help to make the lives of military families better? Posts your suggestions in the comments below.

Jordan-BarrishPosted by Jordan Barrish, Public Relations Manager

22 Lives Taken is Too Many: Clay Hunt SAV Act Signed by President Obama

clay-hunt-act-signing-paul-rieckhoffWhile Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), stood in front of 22 American Flags, he proudly recapped this historic day – one that he, and IAVA led the charge for. And I was left with goosebumps.

After hours on the phone, storming the Hill, and making sure our veterans are taken care of, IAVA and hundreds of others were there to watch President Barack Obama sign the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act into law. This Act will help aid in the prevention of veteran and active duty suicides among our service men and women.

“22 veterans commit suicide every day. If we can save just one life, this was all worth it,” Reickhoff reiterated at IAVA’s reception, following the bill’s signing.

My goosebumps came from the electric feeling of community that flowed through the room..

“This community that focuses on principles over politics is what made this happen,” Rieckhoff said. And we all felt it; this bill did not become law on its own. It took hundreds of people, working hours on end, to make sure the spotlight didn’t fade on our veterans. It also took Clay’s spirit.

“Clay Hunt was courageous. He was inspiring. He was awesome. This act will help continue his purpose,” Senator Bob McDonald shared.

Military service members, veterans, and their families need our support more than ever. President Obama encouraged those struggling, “If you are hurting, you are not forgotten, you are not alone. America is here for you. We need you.”

Congratulations to IAVA, and everyone involved in this extremely important and meaningful cause. You are helping to save the lives of our current and future veterans.

If you, or someone you know, are hurting, know that it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out, we’re here for you.

Jordan-BarrishPosted by Jordan Barrish, Public Relations Manager