My husband, Brian–a former Navy Aviator–often reminds me of the sacrifice our military families make every single day when they have to spend time away from their loved ones. It’s a good reminder that when a service member joins the military, it’s not just a job, it’s a family commitment to our country.
When I co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Military Family Caucus with Representative Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-GA) in 2009, I set out on a mission to make sure our military families are being heard in Congress and receiving the resources they deserve.
On August 18, Sanford and I hosted our Military Family Summit at Fairchild Air Force Base to honor those who have served and to provide support and resources for those currently serving.
The summit brought together Congressional Leadership, Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve service members and their families with Department of Defense officials and military service organizations to discuss the most pressing issues facing military families today — pay and benefits, community integration and transition, and the health and well-being of their families and children.
Click here to watch a short video of Sanford and me discussing the Summit.
Supporting our military families is a top priority of mine because the strength of our military is drawn from the strength of our military families.
Military families are a critical part of the security landscape.
The high operational tempo impacts readiness, and military family life impacts recruitment and retention.
Currently, there are more than 3.5 million U.S. military personnel, of which 1.3 million are Active Duty. As of 2014, Washington state ranked seventh out of the ten states with the highest Active Duty military populations, with nearly 58,000 Active Duty members. (source).
About 53 percent of Active Duty members are married, and there are more than 1.8 million children whose parents are in the military.
According to the Department of Defense, Active Duty military personnel move once every two to three years, or about six to nine times throughout their lives, nearly three times more than their nonmilitary peers.
Military families are faced with all types of challenges, and our keynote speaker, Michelle Aikman, the 2016 Armed Forces Insurance Air Force Spouse of the Year, spoke passionately about the need for military spouses to speak up if a change or assistance is needed. The feedback I receive from our military families helps me be a stronger voice for them in Congress, which can greatly impact the quality of life for our service members.
As one panelist at our Summit reminded us: “At the end of the day, a kid is just a kid.” When military families are struggling, it’s a reminder that we as a community need to support them just as much as they support our country.
The Military Family Summit raised some tough questions about employment and educating children of service members.
A big topic of discussion at our Summit was spouse unemployment. According to a 2016 report by Blue Star Families, the unemployment rate for military spouses is 18 percent, compared to their nonmilitary counterparts at 4.4 percent. Even more depressing is the underemployment rate, which sits at 35 to 40 percent for military spouses. This means many military spouses are employed at a job that is below their skill set and earnings potential, often because it is difficult for them to find work in their professional field due to frequent moves or lack of long-term experience.
Panelists and attendees explored ways to expand opportunities to working military spouses. There was discussion of requiring the VA to hire licensed military spouses. There was also a conversation about ways to encourage states to recognize out-of-state licenses. A few Summit attendees mentioned how it was difficult for them or their spouse to practice in their field in a new state after their Permanent Change of Station (PCS) because the state did not recognize their license.
Our Summit panelists also discussed better promotion of veteran-owned and military spouse-owned companies, as well as a military spouse entrepreneur “portal career option” to better align passion and skills, similar to what the Rosie Network does.
Another topic of discussion was educating our military children, especially those who have special needs. The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is designed to ensure that the educational and medical needs of a military family member with special needs is considered during the process of assigning the service member to his or her permanent duty station. In 2009, the DOD Office of Special Needs was established, in part, to streamline programs and systems within the Department of Defense to support military families with special needs. Unfortunately, this process has been slow and cumbersome. I have championed legislation to assist children with special needs, such as the ABLE Act, but more needs to be done to specifically help our military families navigate the unique challenges that military life presents for families with exceptional family members.
Legislation Drafted Specifically For Our Military Families
Congress has passed and is working on legislation to help military families. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was enacted into law last year, included a provision to implement a military student identifier to help educators better understand if and where a student’s learning gap exists–and how to help them get up to speed in their education. Panelists and participants at the Summit discussed the need to extend this identifier, which only applies to children of active duty service members, to those of parents in the Guard and Reserves, too.
The House and Senate also have both passed their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA). Although the differences in the two bills must first be reconciled before being signed into law, they include several provisions to benefit military families. For instance, the House bill:
- Provides the full 2.1 percent increase in basic pay required by law
- Maintains the basic housing allowance unchanged
- Extends a special payment for surviving spouses of service members to help offset the Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation reduction
- Extends parental leave for military service members from 10 days to 14 days and allows two parents in a dual-service couple to take 36 days leave in connection with a qualifying adoption to be shared between the two service members
Recognizing the 2016 Eastern Washington Outstanding Military Spouse Award
Before the Summit concluded, I had the honor of recognizing several military spouses who are especially deserving of praise and appreciation. The 2016 Eastern Washington Outstanding Military Spouse Award recognizes the spouses of current U.S. Armed Service members whose daily support and dedication is crucial to the lives of our men and women in uniform. It is so important to honor those who go above and beyond to provide their guidance, comfort and counsel to help their military spouse counterparts. The 2016 finalists were April Wallace, Heather Fancher, Rachel Hemmingson, Taylor Kobylinski, and Diane Schneider Fagan.
Congrats to the 2016 Eastern Washington Outstanding Military Spouse Award winner, April Wallace!
Thank you to all those who attended the Military Family Summit. Please reach out to me if there is anything I can do for you:
Colville: 509-684-3481 | Spokane: 509-353-2374 | Walla Walla: 509-529-9358
It is an honor to represent you and to give you a voice in Congress. I am thankful every day for the sacrifices our men and women in uniform, and their families, make to keep us safe.