News: Living Life with an Exceptional Family Member
Story by Cpl. Chelsea Anderson
ARLINGTON, Va. - Dealing with the stresses, uncertainties and constant changes of military life isn’t easy for Marine families. That difficulty is only compounded for those families who have an exceptional needs family member.
When Jennifer Russo and 1st Sgt. J. Thomas Russo first found out their 22-month-old daughter, Giuliana, was autistic, they were devastated.
In the beginning, Jennifer thought Giuliana’s behavior was normal for a toddler of her age. It wasn’t until after her husband watched a television special about autism that red flags went up. The diagnosis changed everything — and the Russos were at a loss of what to do next.
The Exceptional Family Member Program
“There’s not a handbook that tells you what to do,” Jennifer said. “Your life is forever changed, you know that, but you don’t know where to begin.”
After some searching on the Internet, the Russos found the Exceptional Family Member Program website and a case manager introduced them to the vast array of resources available.
They received an information packet with recommended speech, occupational, and applied behavior analysis therapists, doctors who specialized in autism and other resources to help their family adjust to the sudden change.
“They had a ton of information,” Jennifer said. “Honestly, at first I really didn’t know what to do with it, but it felt good to have a starting point. It was just like a shining light after receiving such bad news — and life-changing news — that we never really anticipated.”
The EFMP handles Marine Corps family members with exceptional medical, behavioral health and educational needs. This includes wounded warriors, mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder and various other disabilities for spouses, children and dependent adults.
All Marines with exceptional family members are required to enroll them with the EFMP.
In addition to resources, the EFMP ensures Marine families with exceptional needs are equipped for the inevitable — a change of duty stations.
Before receiving orders, the new location must have appropriate accommodations in the area to meet the exceptional needs for that family. Once that is ensured, the EFMP staff is there to make the transition easier on the family.
"When the Marine receives orders, both the losing and gaining installation EFMP managers are notified," said Michael Flaherty, Exceptional Family Member Program Manager at Headquarters Marine Corps, Henderson Hall, Va. "We have what is called the 'Warm Hand-off' process that is intended to create a seamless transition and ensure the continuum of care for our EFMP families. All these things are in place so that our Marine families do not have to re-invent the wheel every time they PCS."
Living Life Exceptionally
Now, roughly three years later, the Russo family is learning to adjust to life with autism. Giuliana receives daily therapy to help reinforce positive behaviors as well as work on her speech and other skills.
“Progress is so slow sometimes, you wonder ‘Is this even working?’” Jennifer said. “But it is.”
Giuliana, who just turned five, has a hard time using language to communicate her wants and needs. While she has the capacity to identify things and say their names, she often lacks the skills to use her vocabulary in a practical sense. She also struggles with processing and understanding language, but thanks to therapy, she is making progress.
“Giuliana listens so much better now,” Jennifer said. “Before, we couldn’t even get her to respond to her name. Now she’s following step-by-step instructions that we give her.”
Marine Corps Life
Like other EFMP families, the Russos must learn to juggle their special needs with the expectations of the Marine Corps.
“My wife, Jennifer, and I take each day at a time, and find it helpful to connect with other families of special needs children and support groups,” Thomas said. “It is important to make sure Marines (with EFMP family members) get the support they need so they can focus on accomplishing the mission.”
Initially, Jennifer worried having an exceptional family member might limit her husband's career. Thomas, however, has had a different experience.
"There is a fear that EFMP status will harm or limit one's military career, or preclude family members from accompanying sponsors on overseas and CONUS tours," Thomas said. "In my experience, having an exceptional family member has not limited or hurt my career in the Marine Corps. EFMP gives me a peace of mind knowing that once I receive orders, the receiving installation will be researched extensively to ensure proper supports are available to my daughter. If not, they will start the process again."
Thomas, who currently serves as a Company First Sergeant at Marine Barracks Washington, will reach his 20-year-mark in four years. That means the Russo family will most likely be making a transition to a new location before his retirement.
“When there’s talk of us possibly getting orders and moving to another area, I immediately start to worry if the new school can support her educational needs and therapy needs,” Jennifer said. “Also, that transition for Giuliana might be rough.”
However, one thing that does give the Russo family comfort is the knowledge that wherever they go, they will always have another EFMP office at their next duty station to help them make the transition.