WASHINGTON — Defense leaders told Congress Thursday that if they want to improve military readiness, they have to think about bettering military daycare.

“One common thread I hear at every fleet visit among sailors in all pay grades is accessibility and affordability of quality childcare,” Russell Smith, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday. “Lack of available and affordable childcare is a national issue for our generation. And for our Navy, it is a critical readiness issue.”

“Any investment that you can throw our way that supports childcare facilities … we're grateful to take that.”

The comments came at a hearing looking at quality-of-life issues for service members, part of the annual budget process on Capitol Hill.

Improving service equipment and readiness continues to be a top priority among lawmakers looking ahead at military spending next year.

But defense officials emphasized again that family support programs — and childcare in particular — are critical to keeping the force free of stress and focused on their missions.

“Readiness is a three-legged stool,” said Ronald Green, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. “We have unit readiness … I have family readiness, and I have personal readiness. And every warrior tries to balance that same stool.

“If we can’t get the quality-of-life part right because we’re funding the war-fighting part, then we’re suffering on the battlefield because I can’t focus.”

The Army alone will spend nearly $500 million on childcare costs this year, the largest single expense in the service’s family support programs.

Defense officials testified that more than 8,000 children of sailors and 3,000 children of airmen are on Defense Department waiting lists for base daycare, which they acknowledged results in significant family stress. Army and Marine Corps leaders said they face less severe problems but still increasing demand for the services.

“In some places it is a strict capacity issue. We just don’t have enough slots available,” said Kaleth Wright, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. “But in many other places, ... we don’t have the qualified staff.”

Solving that shortage may involve another lingering military quality-of-life concern: spouse unemployment.

Green and the other service officials said they are looking for ways to simplify the credentialing process for spouses with daycare experience, to get them working on military bases more quickly after family moves. For now, though, the process can still take up to year.

Lawmakers promised to keep the issue in mind as the budget process progresses. That’s expected to drag on for most of the summer and fall, as Senate Republicans and House Democrats battle over military funding priorities.

The president’s initial budget proposal, including his goals for family support program funding for fiscal 2020, is scheduled to be released in mid-March.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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