My Journey as an Ombudsman

Written by Jeanine Rickman

When my husband first asked if I would consider being interviewed for the position of ship’s ombudsman, my initial thought was, “What could I possibly have to offer to several hundred military families?”

I sat with this question for some time. After all, I had been a stay-at-home mom for nearly a decade and had only started writing blogs for the Armed Services YMCA Spouse writing program the year before. I wasn’t certain whether I had enough knowledge or experience for the role.

Ultimately, what it boiled down to was my genuine concern for military families. I wanted to be right for this position. Thinking about how much I want to make a difference in the lives of military families was enough to push me outside of my comfort zone. While I embarked on this journey with the goal of helping others, I never could have imagined just how much personal growth I would experience as I embraced this new challenge.

Understanding the Role

The ombudsman role is built on over 50 years of tradition and holds significant importance as a volunteer position within naval commands. This volunteer program is designed so that ombudsmen are a communication link between families and their command leadership.

Ombudsmen work directly for the Commanding Officer yet they also serve as advocates, not only for the command but also for families associated with it. While some may think the ombudsman primarily as a point of contact during emergencies, their role encompasses much more than that.

Learning and Growing

Ombudsman Basic Training is mandatory. Thankfully, there is both in-person and virtual training available. Taking the 9-module webinar training worked best for me, and I was impressed not only with how informative the curriculum was but also with how the presenters made it inclusive and interactive. After completing the training, I understood my role as an ombudsman better and felt prepared for many situations.

During the training, I realized how much non-profit organizations like the ASYMCA have helped me prepare for my role as an ombudsman. Through their programs that focus on helping families be more resilient, they empower families to become their own advocates.

Though not a requirement, I made it a personal mission to continue taking additional classes and webinars that broaden my knowledge.

  • Communication skills and recognizing communication styles
  • Assessing appropriate resources and making referrals
  • The Cycle of Deployment
  • Preventative vs responsive

First Steps and Challenges

In a time when even military families at the same command are more dispersed than ever, gathering families together and facilitating formal introductions has become challenging. To do this, ombudsmen also work closely with their commands to make sure the contact information for families is current.

We are constantly seeking innovative ways to engage families and improve morale.

It’s beneficial that ombudsmen are encouraged to establish boundaries, enabling them to set office hours and strike a balance between their work and family life.

However, the biggest hurdle I encountered was assuming the role of an ombudsman while our command was in the midst of preparations for deployment. This period is exceptionally busy for the ship’s crew. Balancing the learning curve of my new responsibilities, and attending meetings, briefings, and training all at once proved to be a bit overwhelming. Even more challenging was navigating the emotions that come with preparing for our loved ones’ departure. I used strategies and resources not only to prepare myself and my family but also to assist others in a similar situation.

Significant Experiences

Supporting families through a deployment is both difficult and rewarding. Emotions are always high as we stand on the pier watching the ship set sail. Knowing that the ombudsman can offer comfort with encouraging words and information on resources that help during the deployment, reassures military service members and their families.

Attending the Ombudsman At-Large roundtable discussion was an eye-opening experience of the bigger picture of military life. During the discussion, we had the opportunity to speak freely about the challenges we face as ombudsmen and exchange valuable tips that have proven effective, as well as serve as advocates for our families in addressing their concerns and general navywide issues within our region.

Building Community Connections

From the outside looking in, it seems as though military families have a built-in community wherever they land. In some ways, this is true: the greater military community is wonderfully supportive. Building a smaller community within a command is something else entirely because every command is unique and has different needs.

Since the military has a high turnover rate and families are constantly moving, our communities change frequently. Making sure we work with our command to ensure we have an updated roster is very important.

One of the first things I did was create an optional, anonymous survey for families to fill out at the deployment send-off. There were only two main questions with different option boxes to check:

  • How do families prefer to receive information?
  • What types of resources are families interested in?

Even though these are simple questions, they helped our families give us input and improve communications.

Call me “old fashioned,” but my first self-appointed task was to create a resource binder to bring to all our command events and briefings. I filled it out at an ombudsman resource fair. In the age of technology and social media, I never imagined an old-school binder would be so well-received by our command families.

In hindsight, it makes sense. Some families prefer to quietly go through a binder and find the resources they need without discussing their personal situation with anyone else. It’s a simple way to meet families where they are and, share information proactively and discreetly.

Advice for Future Ombudsmen

I have not been in the role of ombudsman very long, but I have learned that good communication and clear boundaries are key to working with both the command and their families.

The most important thing to remember is that as an ombudsman, you are surrounded by support. The commands want their ombudsmen to succeed! Each region has an ombudsman coordinator who is knowledgeable about the program. There are even private social media groups where you can ask questions.

Personal Reflections

Becoming an ombudsman hadn’t been something I considered before my husband’s command encouraged him to approach me about it. I am thankful that by participating in ASYMCA’s programs, I gained insights into resilience and improved my advocacy skills for both myself and my family. These experiences, coupled with my journey as a military spouse, contributed significantly to my growth in knowledge and self-assurance.

Today, I have the confidence to guide other military families toward the programs and informational resources they need, empowering them to advocate effectively for themselves.

A Cycle of Support

The ASYMCA not only supports military families but also offers programs that empower and foster resilience. These programs are particularly valuable for military spouses, like myself, who are far from home and are in the process of building confidence and connections within their military community. Learn more about the various ways ASYMCA helps military families create a supportive network, wherever duty calls.

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