If local, state and national political and business leaders want to help military families, one place to start is addressing the unemployment -- and underemployment – of military spouses, according to four different groups who are advocates for the military community.
To go along with National Military Appreciation Month, Military Times asked some family advocates if there were some big things – and small things – on their lists that the administration, Congress, businesses and communities could do that would make a big difference to military families.
All of the groups acknowledged that efforts already are underway to ease the problems of spouse employment, but the fact that the unemployment rate for military spouses – over 20 percent – has not changed substantially is "mind-boggling," said Brooke Goldberg, director of military family policy and spouse programs for the Military Officers Association of America.
Goldberg’s message to employers for Military Appreciation Month and beyond is simple: "Hire military spouses."
Advocates and defense officials have touted the value of military spouses as employees, she said, and as the workforce in general becomes more flexible, employers can tap into that talent via flexible schedules, telecommuting and other methods.
State officials can help by making it easier to transfer employment licenses and certifications, said Patty Barron, director of family readiness for the Association of the U.S. Army, who reached out to a number of spouses for their input for ideas that could be helpful for military families.
Defense Department state liaison office has been working to educate state legislators and others about the problems these restrictions cause for spouses, but there is still much work to be done in the states, Barron said.
"Can we break through this licensure hassle and just get states to recognize other states' licenses so our military spouses can contribute to the financial well-being of their families?" said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.
Blue Star Families is also calling for loosening these licensing restrictions and, on a broader level, has begun a career initiative calling on corporations and the government to form public-private partnerships to reduce spouse unemployment, said Amy Jerome, senior director of community development and programs for the organization.
"Awareness and education is key," she said, to inform employers about the strengths that military spouses bring to the workforce and to educate spouses about how they can highlight those strengths and find opportunities in their community.
"This is much bigger than one entity," Jerome said. "There has to be a large conversation taking place on national and local platforms."
'WE'RE STILL AT WAR'
Some of the advocates have a broader message for people and communities across the country.
"America has to remember that we're still at war," said NMFA's Raezer. "We have more than a couple hundred thousand troops deployed right now. When we say 'military appreciation,' we want people to understand that the people who are serving today in the military and their families are still at it on behalf of the nation."
For civilians, she suggested, "Do what you can to show you understand that we're still a nation at war." That could mean anything from a 10 percent discount at your business for military families, a charitable donation to a military-friendly cause, or something less expensive, but just as thoughtful.
"Contact your local Guard armory or Reserve center," Raezer said. "Take a can of cookies to the recruiters in your neighborhood. Do something to say thank you, because those recruiters have a tough job, and their families never see them."
Those smaller actions mean a great deal to military families, Jerome said, and Blue Star Families is cultivating its Blue Star Neighbors program to encourage and recognize such gestures.
"We want our men and women in uniform to know their families have the care and support of neighbors in their community," she said. "At the core of that is just inviting folks to introduce themselves to military families on your street, in your community, at your school, and opening your door. ... Offering to help out with child care, dropping a plate of brownies on the doorstep. We know that those small acts lead to friendships and relationships that allow our military families to feel they have trusted partners and connections in the community."
In last year's Blue Star Families survey, 88 percent of respondents said they don't feel the general public understands the sacrifices made by service members and their families. During this month of appreciation – and beyond – it's important to highlight the disconnect believed to be between military and their communities, Jerome said.
"It's critically important for Americans to know what the mission of the military is," she said, and to know about current conflicts and events.
When the wars were in the news and the surge in Iraq was at its height, Raezer said, there was a great outpouring of support for the military and their families. "But now we're off the front page," she said, although the danger and sacrifice is still there.
BUDGET IN FLUX
When Kelly Hruska, director of government relations for the NMFA, visited Germany recently, she said, families' biggest concern was the lack of a predictable defense budget.
"They're concerned about [permanent change-of-station] moves and how we're going to pay for them because there isn't enough money in the budget," Hruska said. "Families shouldn't have to worry about that."
The budget uncertainty affects a wide range of programs, from child care to health care, support for children, pay and benefits, Raezer said.
"The administration needs to understand the military family's need for predictability," Raezer said. "We're never going to have total predictability, because this is a dangerous world. But solving this funding issue is a big thing, and can contribute to predictability for service members and families and for military leaders.
"That would be huge and send a big message to families."
Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com