Fort Lewis leaders sign pledge to soldiers, families

The Army post's top leaders formally recognized the toll the ongoing wars are taking at home by signing a pledge reaffirming their commitment to military families.

The pledge, known as the Army Family Covenant, is a promise that the quality of life it provides soldiers and their families will match the quality of service they give the country during a time of war when families have endured long deployments apart.

Family support always has been important, but not always a priority when it came to funding programs and services, said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, commanding general of I Corps and Fort Lewis.

"Today we are making a public commitment to put actions behind our words," he said during a ceremony Friday.

The covenant represents the Army's plan to spend $1.4 billion for those programs each year through at least 2013. Fort Lewis officials expect to see the annual allocation for those programs increase 20 percent, said Denis Senftner, deputy director of Fort Lewis Morale, Welfare and Recreation, which manages many of them.

The covenant is being signed at Army installations worldwide in coming weeks.

In recent years, Fort Lewis has taken steps to improve the quality of life for soldiers and family members. Fort Lewis has up to 50,000 family members living on post and in surrounding communities, said Joe Piek, a Fort Lewis spokesman. Most of the soldiers have deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq two or three times, separated from their families for a year or longer.

The base has spent $10 million to add two child development centers and plans to build six more. Fourteen hundred barrack spaces are under construction or soon will be.

It will hire more than 30 paid assistants to offer a helping hand to family readiness groups that now rely on volunteers. It also will offer more opportunity for free or low-cost child care, waive fees to enable more children of deployed soldiers to take classes or play sports, and plans to renovate its theater, library and various recreation centers.

Keeping soldiers who have experience serving in a combat zone is key as the Army fights two ongoing wars and also must have a force ready to respond to emerging threats.

"A big part of that is taking good care of families," Piek said.

Family members who attended the ceremony said they've noticed their needs have become a bigger priority for the Army.

"I've seen great strides in the 21/2 years I've been here," said Liz Drago, whose husband is a battalion commander serving in Iraq. "I think the focus is really on families, and it's starting to pay off. ... If families are happy, soldiers are happy."