Over the years, serving as Director of Military Family Services (MFS), Colonel Russell Mann has drawn inspiration from two paintings, two paintings that eloquently define two aspects of military family life: mobility and separation. These paintings, one of children leaving their home with heavy hearts and the other signifying the absence of a parent, have served as a reminder to Col. Mann of the important work he is carrying out at MFS.
“These two paintings have inspired me over the years. They really typify the two defining features of military life. Those prints are going to remain in this office to remind successors and to inspire them,” explained Col. Mann.
Whether it was postings, peacekeeping missions or deployments around the world, Col. Mann’s experiences with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have shaped his outlook on the importance of proper support for military families. In his three years as Director of MFS, he has worked to bridge the gap between the military and the families behind the uniform. Programs such as the MFS 24/7 Family Information Line have helped families across the country. But Col. Mann undertook a long journey, impacted by many people, before becoming the Director at MFS.
Born in Ottawa, Col. Russell Mann, grew up a military brat, son of a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, began his thirty-six year career with the military in 1979 in Moncton, New Brunswick. Soon after, he headed off to the Royal Military College in Kingston, ON where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Politics. Though Col. Mann wanted to become a pilot, life had other plans for him, and he moved towards the logistical side and started off working in Base Supply at Moose Jaw.
After Moose Jaw, Col. Mann was posted to Edmonton, Alberta where he deployed on two peacekeeping missions: Egypt and Central America. It was his deployment to Central America where he served with the United Nations Observer Group and experienced hostile forces. The experience gave him his first real glimpse of the need for proper military support for families.
“It taught me a lot about the need for family support because during that mission I had to send a number of my staff home. They couldn’t complete the mission because they went back for family related reasons. It put a mark on me because I saw our mission put at risk because we had folks who couldn’t stay in theatre,” explained Col. Mann.
While posted in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the mid-2000s, the Mann family faced a life-altering experience that would prove the strength of the military family. Col. Mann’s wife, Lucie, was diagnosed with stage three Colon Cancer. It was during this time that Col. Mann experienced a support system like never before. Through ties in the community, Lucie was able to receive the proper care she needed and battled the cancer.
“That’s really when the military family put its arms around us. My leadership put me in a new job so I didn’t have to travel and be away so I could focus on my day job and be there for my wife. I was very deeply touched by the compassion of leadership and sense of belonging to the military community. I can’t say enough that it was probably a defining moment in my career. And access to health care was certainly driven home,” remembered Col. Mann.
During a NATO mission in Naples, Italy, Col Mann received the phone call to take up the position as Director of MFS. He was an obvious choice for leaders looking to fill the position.
“While Colonel Russ Mann served as the Wing Administration Officer at BFC Bagotville he contributed to and supported one of the best military family support programs in Canada. When the CAF needed someone in uniform to lead the Military Family program, Russ was a natural choice. He and his wonderful wife Lucie returned home from a shortened NATO tour in Naples. Russ answered the call of duty and got right to work, enhancing support programs, making the case for additional resources and ensuring that families’ voices were heard by the senior leadership of the CAF,” said Walter Natynczyk Chief of Defence Staff at the time.
When Col. Mann arrived in Ottawa as Director of Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services, he merged Military Family Services, Dependent Education Management and Quality of Life programs under one umbrella. At the time, the relationship with Military Family Resource Centres was fragile so Col. Mann had his work cut out for him.
“We had positioned them (MFRC) as an independent third party because that was the language of government. But what we didn’t do was help develop the deep appreciation that we are partners who are committed to serve the military family community, and those are very different statements. So, we looked at what is the basis of our relationship and at the time it was characterized by a lack of trust and lack of transparency. There were a lot of questions from executive directors of MFRC like ‘where does the money go and are we getting everything we are supposed to?’ So, we had to open up a new dialogue and try to develop a new relationship,” explained Col. Mann.
Much of Col. Mann’s work at MFS has been an effort to change the way services are provided to families, so they have easier access. This includes listening to families more, leading to changes like the creation of the National Special Needs Advisory Council. During his time at MFS, he has encouraged MFRCs to look for resources in the community and connect families to those programs. For example, pilot programs have been launched at three MFRC to provide the Strongest Families program to families with special needs children.
Among his other achievements include reducing bureaucratic paperwork and audits for MFRC, slashing reports on 2600 subjects to just 19. This allows the family centres to focus more of their attention and resources on families. The achievement he is most proud of, however, is making the Family Information Line (FIL) into a 24/7 service. The FIL provides information and counselling to families of the Armed Forces. Overall, Col. Mann and his team have worked to create bridges between the military and families.
“I feel good about having tried to develop a closer partnership with Family Resource Centres, trying to work with them to bring families service and be better connected. I am happy that family services is more closely connected now to the military hierarchy so that it can remain on the minds of military leaders more than it could in the past structure. We’ve preserved that family ownership and family control of the centers while at the same time becoming closer connected to the chain of command in terms of information awareness. That has bred better support,” said Col. Mann.
Col. Mann has been recognized by various institutions while serving as director, including the Mirabelli-Glossop Award for Distinguished Contribution. Earlier this year, he was honoured with the Order of Military Merit.
“Its impact is still being felt on me. It’s still very fresh. And for the public employees who bring it to work every day for families, I say to them you own a piece of this. You helped to produce the kind of outcomes that produced the kind of testimonies and examples that allowed somebody to make that nomination. There is no way you go through a thirty-six year career without a lot of folks making it work,” said Col. Mann.
Col. Mann will officially hang up the uniform in April 2015, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to serve military families. After a period of rest, Mann would like to find a job to continue supporting military families and veterans.
“If I could dream a little dream it would probably be to see what we can do for some of our most deeply affected families who are disconnected from military life and making the transition to the veteran side… I don’t think the journey is quite finished yet,” noted Mann.