When the public thinks of the military, they likely think of uniformed troops smartly marching or valiantly fighting. Seemingly, the Department of Defense mentally visualizes the military as a collection of battalions, squadrons, and support teams. But today’s modern military is more than the warfighter; it is the civilian soldier, the naval contractor, and the 2.6 million spouses, children, and dependent parents who serve alongside those in uniform. For those military families, defense policies are kitchen-table issues; for the DoD, kitchen-table issues are retention issues.
The department-wide review of defense advisory boards offers a unique opportunity to institutionalize the inclusion of family members in recommending policies — an opportunity too valuable to miss.
Every garrison or combat policy decision in some way affects the lives of the civilians who also call our bases home; they are told where to live, when to move there, how much to pay for the privilege, where they can get health care, and even how to dress on base. The location of the new Space Force headquarters will be the single biggest factor in unemployment rates for Space Force life-partners. The Defense Health Agency’s staffing plan will determine whether an Exceptional Family Member child gets the specialized care she needs to thrive. An accelerated operations tempo, even for non-combat tours, means increased mental health problems, more domestic violence incidents, and the instability that comes from repeatedly fracturing and rejoining a family. White nationalism and extremism in the ranks make the weekly grocery trip an exercise in bravery for too many Black, Native, Latino, and other minoritized family members.
So why — after investing tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting and training each individual troop — do the armed forces create unnecessary hardships that make continued service untenable? If as a military spouse, you cannot transfer your expensive, time-intensive professional license, use your hard-earned degree, or even just find a job, how likely are you to support reenlistment? If your children’s education has suffered from mid-school-year moves and conflicting learning objectives, are you going to agree to four more years of ineffective schooling? If your household income fluctuates wildly every other year by call-ups for the Reserves, will you keep accepting the financial hits? That answer is “no,” according to the Army’s 2018 study on readiness and retention. When the spouse supports staying, 93% of Army families stay “Army Strong,” but when the spouse has decided that “enough is enough,” only 44% of soldiers remain in the service. Defense policies that better meet the needs of the families also protect their own significant investments.
Whether by accident or design, the modern, all-volunteer force changed the nominal dependents into critical stakeholders. As base services have expanded, more and more of daily life has come under the decision-making umbrella of the Pentagon. In turn, maintaining readiness has come to rely on the unpaid labor of spouses to run family programs and to facilitate interactions with the paperwork-intensive, inflexible bureaucracy. Families serve as both the subjected and the enablers, personally suffering under bad policies and yet making those policies still somehow work.
With family members as stakeholders thrice over (beneficiaries, unpaid staff, and the homefront remain-behind-element), the Department of Defense should take every opportunity to solicit and incorporate feedback from the people straddling the civilian-military divide. Every advisory board from the secretary down to the installation should have seats designated specifically for military family members.
The DoD’s National Defense Business Operations Plan FY 2018-2022 lists stakeholder engagement as a key component of their management approach. Yet, despite former Secretary Mark Esper’s July 2019 “taking care of military personnel and their families” addition to the National Defense Strategy, military family voices are specifically sought for only one advisory board — the Military Family Readiness Council.
Meanwhile, the corporate business world is shifting to a 360-degree stakeholder mindset. The Business Roundtable issued new people-centric standards for a corporation, which was endorsed by 181 CEOs who represent America’s largest companies. Many of these companies hold advisory board seats for the Department of Defense. If the “titans of industry” value input from their employees and the communities they operate within, then the Defense Department should seek out the voices of the military spouses who they informally employ, and the military communities that they formally build through their policies.
If you included a few military spouses on the Defense Health Board, you would likely learn that continuity of care is one of the greatest challenges to adequate and preventative health care. A current partner serving on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service could provide insight into the unique challenges of the 20 percent of military women in dual-military marriages. A military family voice on the Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct could shed light on the social spaces where assaults can occur. Families in the military community have experiences, perspectives, and knowledge that few service members, veterans, or external citizens can provide. Trust in their lived experience and their commitment to the success of the whole community.
As the U.S. nears the 20-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon can no longer take for granted the resiliency of military families to make bad or careless policies work. We have given up too much, made too many personal and familial sacrifices, and are tired. With seats at every table for family members, the DoD would acknowledge those efforts, but more importantly, it would demonstrate that it truly values us as partners and stakeholders in the national defense. In return, the armed forces will have new insights, make better-informed decisions, be more targeted in their programs, and have buy-in from the full military community. That’s a force multiplier.
Amanda Grill is a nonprofit professional, political advocate, military spouse, and volunteer with the Secure Families Initiative.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.