Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Making military families pay twice

Here’s another comment from a military spouse. I am going to keep running these until the little grasshoppers begin to grasp that stresses on the military family may be what breaks the all-volunteer force. By Alison Buckholtz "Has your dad been killed yet?"  My seven-year-old son recently revealed that a well-meaning, worried friend in his ...

US Army Korea - IMCOM/flickr
US Army Korea - IMCOM/flickr
US Army Korea - IMCOM/flickr

Here's another comment from a military spouse. I am going to keep running these until the little grasshoppers begin to grasp that stresses on the military family may be what breaks the all-volunteer force.

By Alison Buckholtz

"Has your dad been killed yet?" 

Here’s another comment from a military spouse. I am going to keep running these until the little grasshoppers begin to grasp that stresses on the military family may be what breaks the all-volunteer force.

By Alison Buckholtz

"Has your dad been killed yet?" 

My seven-year-old son recently revealed that a well-meaning, worried friend in his class asks him this question nearly every day. My husband is a Navy pilot serving a one-year deployment in the Middle East, and first graders at the school have written him letters and seen many photos of him; he even dressed kids in his flight gear during career day.   

When my son repeated to me his friend’s question, I started to wonder about the drawbacks of our outreach to the civilian community. Usually, I go out of my way to facilitate contact with non-military groups because I believe that greater public awareness of servicemembers’ lives can help close the civilian-military gap in perception that has widened since the abolition of the draft. I work to bring civilians closer to the experience of military families in a time of war, with a memoir and a monthly column about our current deployment.   

But it wasn’t hard to convince me that the Congressional Military Family Caucus, a new group which takes a much different approach, is an important national step forward. The Congressional Military Family Caucus aims to create legislation and shape policies that will benefit military families. A combination of legislation and public awareness on behalf of military families can build morale and ease roadblocks like spouse education and employment, tax inequities stemming from residency requirements, and federal services for military children with special needs. If legislators craft policies that lighten the burden of their constituents — in this case, military moms and dads — America benefits from retention of the best people the Armed Forces can attract.

The connection between a strong military family and a strong military force has long been documented; in the current Administration, Michelle Obama’s outreach to military families has anchored her agenda as First Lady. But the Caucus aims to formalize the connection between a strong family and a strong force. It launched last fall, and recently held its first Military Spouse Summit to help set its priorities. I was an invited speaker at the Summit, and stayed to participate. My son’s comments were still fresh, and still hurt. I wasn’t sure if I should share them with the group.  

Seventy military spouses (chosen from an application pool of 500) from around the country traveled to the Cannon House Office Building for the event — some of them at their own expense, others supported by their local Navy League, USO or a veterans’ organization. All of the services were represented, but each spouse’s name tag listed her (or his) first name only, and participants were asked not to mention their partner’s rank or job.   

Speakers on diverse topics such as PTSD and military-friendly voting initiatives alternated with brainstorming sessions, but I was struck most by the research findings presented by Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute MFRI’s director, Shelly M. MacDermid Wadsworth, stressed that "the story of today’s military families is still being written," but noted that the psychological stress and unpredictability of a servicemember’s combat deployment is a "corrosive influence" on family life. Many of us in the audience nodded with recognition.   

I also detected a measure of silent satisfaction — because bringing a research specialty into the mainstream is an important step toward acknowledgement that challenges exist in the first place. Military spouses tend to be as stoic as their servicemember, so it can be hard to share struggles and challenges with each other, or determine anecdotally how serious or widespread a problem is. Rooting the Caucus’ priorities in research (MFRI estimates that over 1,000 studies on military families are underway) is critical to its success. 

To me, however, the most significant moment of the day never appeared on the agenda. During a lull, one of the military spouses at my table pulled that day’s copy of USA Today from her bag. The headline read, "Military Health Care Costs Booming," and the story below it revealed that surging costs are prompting the Pentagon and Congress to consider the first hike in out-of-pocket fees for military retirees and some active-duty families in 15 years. Among the factors driving up costs were these two: 

  • Behavioral-health counseling sessions for troops and family members rose 65% since 2004. The Pentagon paid for 7.3 million visits last year — treatment of 140,000 patients each week.
  • Many new patients are children suffering anxiety or depression because of a parent away at war. Children had 42% more counseling sessions last year than in 2005. 

The newspaper passed from hand to hand at our table, and each spouse frowned. I finally told a few of the women what my son’s friend said to him, because several years’ worth of similar comments have prompted me to seek out family counseling at various crisis points. Our visits were certainly folded into those statistics, and legislators’ comments reported in the article seemed to rebuke us. It appeared that military families were being doubly punished: first by sending a family member off to war, and then for utilizing the resources made available to manage the ensuing trauma. Overusing these benefits — though no one has ever specified what this overuse might be — might now result in limited offerings, or higher costs for families who had been promised this care in exchange for their years of service.   

The irony of reading a story about Congress cutting military family health benefits while attending a meeting of the Congressional Military Family Caucus escaped no one. The power of legislation to change lives was clear to all of us in that moment. Only one spouse spoke. "Promises have to be kept," she said. Her words might well serve as the Caucus’s motto. Because if the Congressional Military Family Caucus succeeds in ensuring that the promises made to America’s military families are kept — through legislation, public awareness, or any combination of the two — it will strengthen our forces as well as our families. Including seven-year-olds.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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