Military Family Feedback Shapes Policy
This post originally appeared on PBS's This Emotional Life blog.
Last year I helped to design, implement and analyze a survey for military families.* The intent was to gain insight into a broad spectrum of military family lifestyle issues.
With the help of a variety of military family support organizations, we were able to garner more than 3,600 respondents, representing every branch and rank, who gave their input based on their “in the trenches” experiences while answering questions about their relationships, stress, operations tempo requirements, employment, children’s education and reactions to deployments, civic engagement and use of social media.
Last week that survey was used as a reference in Presidential Study Directive-9, which called upon all cabinet secretaries and other assorted agency heads to provide a unified approach in finding better and more innovative ways to provide support to our military families. (Read the “Strengthening Our Military Families” Report and check out the AFPS Web Special Report: Strengthening Our Families – Meeting America’s Commitment.)
As a military spouse, it is extremely gratifying to know that the military family members who took the time to take yet another survey can see actual results and (yes!) even changes from their participation. To be able to have a solid output and to know that their voices were heard is priceless. Too often, there is fatigue and disillusionment from saying the same things to different people and not seeing any changes, any advancements, any sense that the trials and challenges from your experiences can be made better for the next military family to come along. It can be, in a word, disheartening.
However, this directive shows us that the challenges facing military families are front and center to our nation’s leaders.
This is the first time, to my understanding, that the term national security has been used in conjunction with military families, even though military spouses since Martha Washington have known that the ability of our service members to keep their head in the game depends largely on the knowledge that things are being taken care of back home. Seems about time that everyone else connects those dots as well, right?
That is why the priorities listed in the directive are so important. Psychological health, children’s education and development, spouse education and employment, and child care availability and quality are vital to our military families’ overall health and wellness, not to mention our military’s operational readiness. And, as study after study has shown, these are the areas in which military families can use a little bit of assistance from key players in different agencies. These can’t just be Defense Department issues or even Veterans Affairs Department issues. These are everyone’s issues, at least as much as we desire to have a sustainable volunteer force. We could use some “joint operations” as it were.
Imagine how many more states will sign on to the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children when we have Education Secretary Arne Duncan pushing it down from the top echelons? Yes, I know that individual state assemblies are the ones to pass the legislation, but preparing state school superintendents and local school districts with pertinent information on military children beforehand and declaring military families as one of its supplemental priorities for discretionary grant programs can only help, right?
Getting the Treasury Department involved through a newly created Office of Service Members Affairs, an effort being led by Holly Petraeus, will shine a light on the predatory lending practices of rent-to-own centers and check-cashing dives that seem to station themselves right outside of military installations. (Read more about that iniative in Elaine Wilson’s AFPS article “Holly Petraeus Aims to Bolster Families’ Fiscal Knowledge.”)
And it can only synergize the positive effects when the Defense Department can partner with the Health and Human Services Department to confront the appalling increase of suicides in our military community by focusing on prevention.
This is exactly what collaboration and coordination do. Partnerships and networks form safety nets and spackle in those cracks as they increase capacity by leveraging the best of what each individual agency has to offer. In turn, information is shared, awareness is generated, and the military community is strengthened both tangibly and intangibly as programs are aligned to meet targeted needs.
Tangibly, we see the effects of our feedback through countless roundtables, forums, surveys and command climate assessments. Our input has been analyzed to generate positive change in our lives by reducing barriers and streamlining processes in implementable ways.
Intangibly, we feel that we aren’t in it alone, that we do have the support of our government, our business communities and our neighbors. The solemn vow our service members take when they volunteer comes out of a sense of duty, responsibility and civic pride, among many other things. It isn’t too much to expect a commensurate sense of duty from our government toward our service members and their families in return.
After all, with a volunteer force, the military lifestyle must not only sustainable, it also must be desirable.
* The Blue Star Families 2010 Military Family Lifestyle Survey.