Military families have big concerns about their pay and benefits, employment opportunities for their spouses, and their children’s education. Probably most American families have those concerns as well, but these issues present special challenges for military families because of issues surrounding deployments and frequent family moves.
Blue Star Families’ 2013 Military Families Lifestyle Survey, recently released on Capitol Hill, is the fourth annual survey to poll military families to identify and address the most pressing family-related issues. This year more than 5,100 military family members responded to the survey. This is not a short questionnaire, having taken it myself, I can tell you it took time and consideration. These are not frivolous questions; they concern the very real issues facing military families in this, our 11th year combat operations.
The key concerns identified were military pay and benefits, changes in retirement benefits, spouse employment, deployment impact on children, educational, opportunities for children, transition services when leaving the military, deployment tempo (known as OpTempo) issues related to combat stress, the rising number of suicides, and educational opportunities for service members.
While these issues all appear to be separate, many of them are interrelated. For instance, issues of military spouse employment have a direct impact on family finances, as well as educational and job opportunities for parents and children.
One of the panel members, Angie McDaniel, discussed at the report’s release the issues she had when her son attempted to transfer schools (again) when her Navy spouse was moved. During one of their moves, the school their son would have been attending was not meeting his needs and he had to be home-schooled. When transferring to yet another station, they discovered that his new school district was not home-school friendly and told him he needed to repeat his entire ninth-grade year.
Although all of his testing results and curriculum were present, the new school district made life very difficult for this young man. This could have impacted his future education, especially as consideration of any scholarships to college would have been questionable.
Some families in this situation that do not wish to put their children into public school that might not meet their needs would prefer to put them into private school. Without the spouse having a job, this is often completely out of the question. When our children are moving and attending different schools (in Rich McDaniel’s case the third high school in four years) this is a significant stressor on the children and the family.
Additionally, 38 percent of the respondents stated that their local school was not aware of the experiences of the military children in that school. These include deployment, reintegration of the deployed parent (in National Guard this could be both parents) back into the family after deployment, moving schools and lack of knowledge of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. Unfortunately, tracking the data of where military children, active duty and National Guard/Reserve, are going to school is hit or miss, school district by school district.
The pay and benefits questions were asked before sequestration hit the news. The general survey consensus was that this would only have added to the number of respondents stating this was their chief issue. The retirement benefit changes, for those of us approaching retirement, are seen as a slap in the face, a diminution of 20 years of service during wartime. It can also be seen as a violation of the contract, the contract that service members signed when the oath was sworn and the service member and his family began their years of service. Sequestration will affect federal and Defense Department employees the most. Many of these employees are military family members or retirees and they are facing 11 days of furlough before Oct. 1. This is indeed a pay cut for military families.
As for issues related to employment for National Guard and Reserve families, Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt of the U.S. Army Reserve recounted that while her spouse’s first deployment was strongly supported by his employer, the same may not be the case following this second deployment. Many military families have encountered employers who are reluctant to hire a National Guard/Reservists if they can find civilians who can do the job. Sequestration is striking here as well, as National Guard/Reservists are finding it increasingly difficult to go to the schools that they require to do their jobs in the military properly.
Sixty-eight percent of military spouses who responded to the survey felt that being a military spouse had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career, for which many have studied and worked. Sixty-one percent of these respondents were not working but 52 percent wanted to be. Job market alignment (in other words right job for right person) was cited by 80 percent as the reason they weren’t currently working. They might be under-qualified, over-qualified, can’t find jobs in their fields in their current duty station, find hiring freezes in the government, or myriad other reasons work remains elusive.
The survey also covered issues related to post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or combat stress, and suicide. Unfortunately, issues of stigma (or at least perceived stigma) still prevent some service members and family members from seeking help.
A panelist, Col. Anthony Henderson USMC, currently serving in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a special assistant to support transition and reintegration of military families into the community, who has had prior command experience, discussed his surprise at the experience he recently had with his son. As a commander, Henderson has discussed suicide and suicidal ideation with his troops, family members and staff, but he was shocked to realize that his own son had very little information on signs to look for or what to do if a friend appeared to be contemplating death by suicide. This drove home the very real issue of training for family members as well as service members. The continuing issue and concerns with mental health professionals not accepting new Tri-care (military health insurance) patients is of great concern to all of us.
A public policy issue question was that of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Most of the respondents said there was no impact on their service member’s ability to do his or her job or desire to reenlist or stay in the military. Most also said it had no impact on their service member’s morale, mission readiness or national security.
Karen Francis is a writer and military spouse in the Washington, D.C. area and is the Military Families Editor for The Broad Side. Karen is the principal of KFVA Virtual Assisting, a company that provides freelance writing and editing services.