Months after receiving authority from Congress to build a much needed child development center at Camp Bull Simons, Florida, Army officials are still having discussions with Air Force officials about their safety concerns with putting the center on the camp.
“We’re in the middle of trying to figure this one out,” Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, Army deputy chief of staff for the operations (G-9) directorate. “But I can assure, I can almost guarantee, that we’ll have a CDC at Camp Bull Simons and it will an Army CDC.”
“Thank goodness the [fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act] authorized us to be able to start design work for the facility,” Vereen said Tuesday at an Association of the U.S. Army event.
The camp was carved out of an active bombing range the Air Force uses in its testing mission.
Families at Camp Bull Simons have struggled with child care since 7th Special Forces Group was moved to Florida a decade ago under the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment action.
The camp has few amenities. Barracks, a chapel, a troop clinic, and an exchange shopette and services were built, but there’s no child development center, family housing or commissary. Army families want a child development center built near the chapel on Camp Bull Simons, where it would be convenient for soldiers.
But the Air Force has pushed back because of safety concerns.
Meanwhile, Vereen said, Army officials have placed a program manager in the area to look at interim child care options for families until they can get a CDC built. Right now, that center is scheduled to be built in 2025.
About 60% of 7th SFG families live in Crestview, 20 minutes northeast of Camp Bull Simons and 45 minutes to an hour from Eglin Air Force Base to the south. To get to child care on Eglin, they must pass the camp.
So, if they can get a spot, Army families spend three or four hours a day in the car to drive to and from an Eglin child care center, depending on traffic.
In addition to the CDC at Camp Bull Simons, Congress approved 15 other child care centers across the services in the fiscal 2023 legislation, to include three Army CDCs. The Biden administration had requested funding for two CDCs across the military services; Congress added 14.
For years, service members across the country have struggled to find affordable, high quality child care for their children, with long wait lists in a number of locations. It has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the availability of child care in the civilian community, too. The services were trying to deal with staffing shortages at child care centers even before COVID-19.
And for a number of years, lawmakers have chastised military officials for not seeking funding to build more CDCs, which are trusted by military families to provide the level of care they want for their children.
The Army is now building five CDCs and another 10 will be built through fiscal 2025.
‘No shortage’ of Army child care centers?
“We don’t have a shortage of CDCs in the Army. We have enough infrastructure,” Vereen said, while noting that some centers need to be repaired or remodeled. The Army is working through that process, he said.
The number one issue is hiring enough staff members, he said.
“We have a lot of initiatives going on with regards to how we grow our CDC employment. So our installations are going after it, trying to incentivize our workers,” he said.
The Army provides opportunities for employees to develop their careers, through schooling, certifications, licensure, so they can transfer jobs when moving to another installation. Most of the CDC workers are military spouses, he said, so this provides employment opportunities as they transfer from one post to another.
In written testimony submitted to Congress for an April 19 hearing, Vereen noted that the Army’s child care strategy includes “increasing and sustaining child care infrastructure, recruiting and retaining additional quality child care providers, sustaining off-post care options, and exploring new initiatives and partnerships.”
However, ongoing staffing challenges related to recruitment and retention continue to limit child care availability at some locations, he noted, despite recent Army pay increases for child care employees which now start at $17.39 per hour plus bonuses and other incentives.
Vereen and Sgt. Major Michael J. Perry III, senior enlisted for the G-9 directorate said they talk with leaders, soldiers and families as they visit Army installations. During a visit earlier this month to Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, they learned that child development centers there are experiencing a 60% employee turnover rate, according to an Army news release about their visit. It creates a long wait list, and in some cases, soldiers aren’t able to report for duty because of the lack of child care.
About 75% of the children currently in the JBLM child care centers are the kids of single service members or dual military couples, who have priority. But that leaves few spots available for couples that include the service member and a working civilian spouse.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.