“The minute a sailor deploys, a water pipe breaks, the dishwasher breaks, light bulbs go out, the car gets a flat tire,” said Heather Kuhn, the ombudsman for Navy Family Ombudsman Program at Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic (CNRMA). “Our sailors have enough on their plate as they're doing the nation's work.”
The ombudsman of today is an official volunteer appointed by commands, typically a spouse and is a well-trained professional. They communicate information to support the life situations that Navy families encounter in the military.
“My hope is that having a thriving ombudsman program at each command allows the leadership as a whole, and every one of the sailors, to have peace of mind that their families have a support system.”
On October 3, 2019, the Hampton Roads Navy League honored Ombudsmen and Fleet Readiness Support Advisors at the first-ever Joint Sea Services Hampton Roads Ombudsman Appreciation Dinner at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
“Tonight, we honor the ombudsmen, those who stand the watch when the service men and women, who don the uniform of our country, go forth to the perimeter of the free world to protect this great nation,” said Ret. Force Master Chief Jim Monroe, chairman of the board for the Hampton Roads Navy League. “We have our guardian angels here to be the conduit for our families and our service men and women.”
The dinner marked the first occasion in which the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard services assembled in joint appreciation of their ombudsmen and command volunteers.
The role of the ombudsman hasn’t changed much over the past 49 years, but it has adjusted to the new methods of communication developed since its creation.
“The major change that we've seen is the way that information is put out,” said Kuhn. “Now, we have the avenues of social media or email distribution lists, but generally, I think that the importance and relevance is still very much there.”
Ombudsmen serve as the liaison between commanding officers and families regarding the general morale, health, and welfare of the command’s families.
Kuhn, who has been a navy spouse for 12 years, has spent significant time working for military family support programs such as the Yellow Ribbon Program and Navy Marine Corps Relief Society. After moving to Norfolk, she accepted the position of ombudsman coordinator at the Norfolk Fleet and Family Support Center.
The Navy Family Ombudsman Program was introduced to the U.S. Navy by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt on September 14, 1970. Zumwalt adapted this program from a 19th century Scandinavian custom originally established by the king to give ordinary private citizens an avenue to express their grievances to high government officials.
“I was in awe of the program - that concept of military families volunteering to help other military families, so we can all thrive on our Navy journeys,” said Kuhn.
In FY 2018, Navy ombudsmen committed 250,799 hours performing their volunteer duties as command ombudsman.
“I believe that the navy needs ombudsmen to continue fostering a community where families are embraced and engaged to be part of that military community,” said Kuhn. “Military family members make up the unit that supports our active duty service members. This is generations of the navy recognizing that we're a stronger navy when the sailors have a support system. So, the stronger we can make that support system, the better informed, the better equipped, the more comfortable a Navy family will be during deployments.”