FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — When future Airmen begin their paperwork at a military entrance processing station, they are informed their assignments will largely be determined by “the needs of the Air Force.”
This need of an organization to fill job positions across the globe with qualified personnel often means Airmen will be stationed far away from their hometown, and the family who live there.
For many, this is part of the allure of military life — yet when a family back home falls gravely ill or dies, being away can be a burden on morale and effectiveness for Airmen.
At the Air Force Personnel Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, a team of four NCO and two civilian personnel specialists work to bring, or keep Airmen close to home during emergencies involving immediate family members — while still serving the needs of Air Force.
“We’re one of the few offices within AFPC that actually deals directly with people, families and faces,” said Lori Surgnier, the chief of the Humanitarian/Exceptional Family Members Program Assignments Branch at AFPC. “In the personnel world, you often only deal with numbers — that’s just the nature of the job. But for us, it’s all about the people. That’s how I like to operate with my team to help our families who really need it.”
Currently, about 3,242 Airmen are directly benefiting from a humanitarian assignment at bases across the Air Force.
Reasons that may qualify an Airman for a humanitarian reassignment or deferment (with the member remaining in an assignment) are varied and include, but are not limited to, the terminal illness of a family member or the sexual abuse of the member, member’s spouse or child, or issues involving a serious financial impact such as the loss of property through fire or natural disaster. In each situation, the personnelists consider the merit of change of assignment for the individual as well as the mission at large.
While there are exceptions to policy, Air Force Instruction 36-2110, “Assignments,” Attachment 24, limits the assignments to aid a spouse, child, father, mother, father- or mother-in-law, stepparent or person in loco parentis (who have been documented to have taken the place of a parent in the Airman’s life). Siblings of the Airman or spouse are not within the scope of the program, yet requests involving the terminal illness of a sibling may be forwarded for consideration, according to the instruction text.
Many cases involve legal or medical information that influence a decision, Surgnier said. The team has a direct line to professionals who help determine whether the evidence supports a move for approval.
“My team and I are not doctors, so we go to ask them to review the clinical data to see if it meets, from a medical perspective, the criteria for a reassignment,” she said. “Then we balance that with what we know to be approvable and then make the final determination.”
Other cases are almost automatically approved, without medical or legal approval, to expedite help for Airmen, Surgnier said.
“When Airmen lose their spouse or a child, all they need is supporting documentation, such as a death certificate, and we will facilitate the deferment or reassignment,” she said. “This allows us to quickly move Airmen to where the loved one is going to be buried, or near family for the support they may need — to get their affairs in order and to grieve.”
All requests must require the Airman’s presence, and must be a one-time action, able to be resolved within a reasonable period of time of normally 12 months.
Yet even if the Airman’s situation qualifies, Surgnier’s team still needs to match Air Force requirements with the Airman’s request. To be able to assign Airmen, a valid and vacant position needs to exist at the gaining location. Only in a few severe cases, Airmen may be able to qualify for on-the-job retraining opportunities.
“We will facilitate the assignment as best as we can, but we have to effectively use the Airmen in their AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) and keep them gainfully employed,” she said. “But we do our best to get them as close as we can.”
Airmen can access humanitarian program application guidelines and submit their request online by accessing MyPers. Their application then travels from the Airman’s commander’s office to AFPC’s Total-Force Service Center, which forwards a pre-screened packet to Surgnier’s staff.
“From the time that my staff receives the completed application to the time the final approval is sent to the member, the process can take anywhere from two to four weeks barring any showstoppers,” she said. “We do our very best to get them out within that timeframe, but it depends on workload and supporting information from the Airman.”
Every year, the personnelists process an average of 1,200 humanitarian assignment requests alone. Each staff member is expected to fill between 40 and 70 cases at any given time.
Despite the high demand, Surgnier’s team is able to give about 75 percent of applications their approval.
Once approved, an Airman’s orders are coded for the first 12 months, precluding them from any temporary duty assignments or deployments – a measure intended to keep the humanitarian assignment as stable as possible. The staff’s main responsibility and focus is to relocate Airmen in need as quickly as possible, Surgnier said.
“A lot of (our success in facilitating assignments quickly) depends on the documentation the Airmen provide as part of their application. That’s really all my staff and our team of doctors here have to base a decision on — so it is important members have the right documentation to support their claim.”
Unfortunately, Surgnier said, her team returns many applications with the request for more information.
“Often it is an incorrect application or the documentation doesn’t quite support the claim,” she said. “Sometimes, the Airman will provide what they think is all the information we need, and when we get it to our doctors, there is something missing in the clinical data that is pertinent to their recommendation.”
Whatever problems Airmen may face, Surgnier said the spirit and intent of the programs is to help them cope and focus on the mission.
“We all know that losing a loved can be very traumatic,” Surgnier said. “Everybody deals with grief differently, and sometimes people will feel ineffective. It is better to give that Airman an opportunity to be close to where they can visit their loved one. That may help with closure, and may help them get back on their feet. At the end of the day, we want them to perform the mission and be at their very best — and continue to be successful in their Air Force career.”
Surgnier’s office regularly deals with stories of loss and anguish — a mission that is personal for the retired master sergeant, who has led the office since 2008.
“What keeps my folks motivated is that ‘Thank you,’” she said. “Now that may only come once every three months, but when they get it and they know they have helped another family, that keeps them going — it means a lot and is worth every bit of what we do.”