GRAND PRAIRIE -- Christine Gilbreath holds one of the most important jobs in the Texas Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment.
Don't let the salary -- $0 -- fool you. No commander who hopes to hold his unit together in times like the past decade would ignore someone like Gilbreath, who serves as the family readiness adviser for the battalion, meaning she is the main liaison and problem solver for families of troops.
"This is not the wives club of the old days," Gilbreath said of her role. "We are taken so much more seriously and utilized so much more by commanders. The military realizes that meeting the needs of families makes a difference in recruiting and retention."
Gilbreath, 41, a former soldier herself and wife of a National Guardsman who lives in Crowley, earned some major recognition recently when Military Spouse magazine named her its National Guard Spouse of the Year. The magazine had never made the award to a National Guard spouse, but that changed this year when the head of the National Guard became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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She will find out if she gets to carry the overall Military Spouse of the Year title in May at a ceremony at the Marine Corps' historic base, Eighth and & I streets in Washington, D.C. Five other people including a husband are in the running.
Gilbreath isn't bashful about saying she wants to win.
The reason goes well beyond the personal recognition it would provide her. More important is the entree it would give her to military and civilian leaders at the highest levels of the Defense Department, Congress and the White House. The 2011 recipient, Marine wife Bianca Strzalkowski, met with first lady Michelle Obama, congressional representatives and senior defense leaders.
"There is a lot of credibility that comes with an award like this," said Babette Maxwell, the founder and executive editor of Military Spouse and the wife of a Navy F/A-18 pilot assigned to Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
"When officials in the Defense Department or congressional caucus members are looking for an expert to talk to them about issues or programs to support, this is where they start to find someone to speak on behalf of the military spouse community."
More to do
The military may be doing more than ever to support families, but it could always do more in Gilbreath's eyes.
She would like to see a comprehensive program established to help new military spouses navigate how to get or change benefits, how to pursue education, how to transfer job licensing from one state to another and more, all of which is done now by word of mouth, spouse to spouse.
Gaining knowledge is all the more difficult because of the frequent moves made by military spouses, who have to start all over in a new state every few years.
"All the things I wish I would have known 20 years ago, now I have an opportunity to show spouses," she said.
Gilbreath met her husband in a peculiarly Army way -- working on helicopters together. She was a helicopter maintainer assigned to keep an eye on the new mechanics assigned to the unit in Germany, one of whom was Scott Gilbreath.
They married on Veterans Day 1993, at which time she ended her enlistment in the Army and her husband continued to serve. He joined the aviation battalion in Grand Prairie in 1999 and now works as a technical inspector on Chinook helicopters.
As the family readiness adviser, she organizes fundraisers that pay for holiday parties and deployment ceremonies, then turns around and plans the parties and ceremonies. She also helps spouses and other relatives connect to the right resources, should they have marital, financial, psychological or children issues. On average, she puts in between 1,000 and 1,200 hours a year for the unit, or a minimum of 20 a week.
She does all this, despite two children at home and trials from multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with several years ago when her husband was in Iraq.
"I'm not a counselor, and I don't give advice," she said. "But I know where to go for help."
A year of honors
It has already been a remarkable year for Gilbreath.
A few weeks ago, the National Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., named her a Gold Star recipient for her volunteer work, and the Texas National Guard recognized her family readiness group as the best in the state.
The former commander of the aviation battalion, Lt. Col. James Nugent Jr., praised Gilbreath for the way she surged family readiness efforts when the battalion was being deployed more often and for her abilities to connect the National Guard with local communities.
"Quite simply put, I have never encountered a more committed or selfless volunteer in my 20-year active and National Guard career, nor one who consistently drives meaningful results at so broad a level, while exhibiting grace, warmth, class and humility in the process," Nugent wrote in a letter of recommendation.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547