A memo recently released by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin demonstrates what military families have always known: Their needs are one key to the success of the all-volunteer military service.
The memo addresses, among other things, the rising cost of housing, food and relocation; military spouse employment; access and cost of child care; and the critical need to provide financial stability to military families at a time when many are struggling. It comes at a time when the military is failing to reach its recruiting goals. Notably, Austin describes the issues as personal.
These issues aren’t new. Defense and service officials have struggled for decades to address the problems.
Nearly 10 years ago, together with a team of military spouses (many of whom were volunteering to fill employment gaps in their resume as a result of their military spouse status), we worked to develop a survey that has informed decision makers ever since. It was important then — and it still is — that we had a seat at the table.
The issues we highlighted have also been seen in Defense Department surveys and other studies for decades. Many are included in Austin’s memo and are now considered enduring components of the modern military family experience — issues like child care, food insecurity, spouse unemployment and underemployment, licensure, financial security, child education, and the impact of deployments, mental health, suicide, and family separation.
We now know that understanding the sacrifices made by military families are part of a holistic approach to military retention and encouraging future military service; addressing these issues should be part of a “to-do list” not a “wish list.”
What have we learned? Military family issues have generally taken a secondary role to the needs of service members and veterans. Yet, this memo reveals that military families are essential to military’s national security goals, and their needs cannot be ignored. Those needs have become clearer over time, but they have not disappeared.
Through collaborative efforts like the Blue Star Families Survey, as well as ongoing partnerships with the DoD and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring our Heroes Foundation, IAVA, MOAA, TAPS, The American Legion, NMFA and countless others who have continued to work tirelessly — partnering with both the government and the private sector — to spotlight these issues, these military family problems issues have gotten more attention.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the memo’s recommendations come at a time when the military is struggling to reach its recruiting goals, public interest in the military is shifting, and trust in the military has diminished.
These combined factors make addressing these issues more urgent, but it shouldn’t take a recruiting crisis for the voices of military families to be heard. Too often, recommendations like Austin’s are the end of the conversation, and while they look promising on paper, often they fail to result in real changes. Even so, I have hope that the past decades of work is having an impact or at a minimum, informing today’s conversation. Hopefully, Secretary Austin’s memo reveals that military leadership has begun to understand the central role families play towards the military’s mission.
The military community has seen substantial changes as a result of ongoing collaboration and coordinated efforts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, and those efforts must continue to ensure military family voices play a central role in understanding and mitigating the true opportunity costs of military service. While Secretary Austin’s memo might have been published in September — there have been decades of work, research, thought, and deliberate collaboration that brought attention to the important issues that the memo addresses. It was because of these concerted efforts that such a memo could be written at all. His memo reveals the countless opportunity costs of military service, but it also shows that this work is far from done.
Dr. Deborah Bradbard is senior research associate at the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF) and also a military spouse.
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