Written testimony to Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee
by Blue Star Families

“Review of Department of Defense Single Servicemember and Family Readiness Programs”
SASC Personnel Subcommittee
February 14, 2017
2:30-5PM

Chairman Tillis, Ranking Member Gillibrand and other distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.

I am Kathy Roth-Douquet and I am the CEO of Blue Star Families. Blue Star Families (BSF) builds communities that support military families by connecting research and data to programs and solutions, including career development tools, local community events for families, and caregiver support. Since its inception in 2009, BSF has engaged tens of thousands of volunteers and serves more than 1.5 million military family members. BSF believes that all military families should be able to serve and simultaneously build thriving and healthy families. With BSF, military families can find answers to their challenges anywhere they are. With strong ties to all branches of service, active duty, veterans, and their families, BSF is nationally recognized for its annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey. The largest of its kind, the survey provides both quantitative and qualitative data that reveals a snapshot of the current state of the service members and their families. Conducted annually, the Military Family Lifestyle Survey is used at all levels of government to help inform and educate those tasked with making policy decisions that impact service members and their families–who also serve.

Supporting Military Families Strengthens National Security and Local Communities

Military families are assets to national defense and local communities. They are central to the health and capability of the All-Volunteer Force and are good neighbors actively engaged in making their civilian communities great places to live.

This past year has seen new and emerging security threats in numerous regions while Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts and personnel downsizing continues. The resulting operational tempo is very concerning to service members and their families. New proposals to make further cuts to housing allowances were accompanied by new cuts to military family support programs. Quality of life issues like military family stability and the impact of deployments on children are increasing relative to lasting concerns regarding pay, benefits, and spouse employment.

Research suggests that service members’ top concern is for their family’s well-being and family well-being is top consideration in whether a service member stays or leaves the force. In fact, our research shows that while 66% of service members and their spouses would recommend service to young people, only 43% would recommend it to their own child. While the military has adopted a number of reforms to support military families in the past few years, there is still much more to be done.

Key Priorities for Military Families

Blue Star Families conducted its 7th annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey in April-May, 2016 with over 8,300 respondents including military spouses, active duty service members, veterans, and their immediate family members participating in the survey. The Military Family Lifestyle Survey’s response rate makes it the largest and most comprehensive survey of active duty, veterans, and their families.

This year’s survey results show a military community at a point of inflection. It shows the country needs to get smarter about what a healthy All-Volunteer Force really looks like – and what it needs it to look like to ensure future success. The All-Volunteer Force was not designed for our current security environment of protracted low-level conflict, nor was it designed for the modern service member – who is better educated, married with children, and living in an increasingly diverse and inclusive society.

Analysis of the qualitative portions of this year’s survey reinforced the quantitative findings. For example, extended family separations, frequent moves, and outdated expectations that military spouses sublimate their personal, professional, and familial priorities to support their service member’s military service are the most relevant topics identified as substantially reducing the quality of life and attractiveness of martial service. Military families understand that serving may mean making sacrifices in support of service; however DoD must also examine the military necessity of the burdens it asks military families to bear.

Despite varied topics covered in this year’s survey report such as Financial Readiness, Veteran Transition, and Healthcare, one clear and consistent theme emerged: the DoD must do a better job of incorporating military families into its current thinking and future planning. Rather than ad hoc measures meant to provide support during periods of acute warfare, military families must be understood as a structural component of the force. Thinking about families in this way makes the country smarter about what it takes to ensure our nation’s security and it improves the ability of the DoD to meet recruitment, retention, readiness, and reintegration goals.

Our key priorities for the coming year are based on areas of need identified in our 2016 survey. We feel improvement in these areas also has the greatest potential to reduce the trend of increasing quality of life concerns that was a top trend in our 2016 survey.

The areas we will be focusing on are:

  • Increasing understanding among the general U.S. population that operational tempo and family separations remain very high– seventy-two percent of active duty and military spouse respondents indicated the current optempo exerts an unacceptable level of stress for a healthy work-life balance, and forty-two percent of military family respondents report experiencing more than six months of family separation in the last eighteen months. Military families continue to experience significant challenges and make heavy sacrifices as a result of their service
  • Improving access to timely and competent healthcare services is imperative for wellness and force readiness–Improvement to healthcare was a top response when asked “What could DoD do to make it easier for you to ensure your family is healthy & happy during your or your loved one’s military service?”
  • Improving employment and career viability for military spouses–unemployed or underemployed military spouses– military spouse unemployment sits around twenty-five percent (compared to three percent for all married women with children under 18) and is a top obstacle to the financial security and successful retirement or transition planning for military families
  • Developing better solutions to the lasting challenge of access and affordability of quality childcare–sixty-six percent of military families are unable to reliably find childcare that meets their needs and it was the top response when asked “What could DoD do to make it easier for you to ensure your family is healthy & happy during your or your loved one’s military service?”

Operational Tempo and Family Separations

The military lifestyle demands long hours, unpredictable work schedules and that families endure frequent and prolonged separations not just for wartime deployments, but also for training, temporary duty assignments, and additional responsibilities that frequently require travel. Service members and their families feel the current optempo is unsustainable and threatens the health of their families. Active duty service member respondents rank “general military optempo/deployments/training time” as their number five issue and thirty-three percent rank it in the top five issues overall. Seventy-two percent of active duty and military spouse respondents indicated the current optempo exerts an unacceptable level of stress for a healthy work-life balance.

Despite the troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, military families continue to experience high rates of separation from their service member. Forty-two percent of military family respondents report experiencing more than six months of family separation in the last eighteen months and thirty-seven percent of military couples reported experiencing relationship challenges in the past year related to worry over future deployments. Sixteen percent of active duty family respondents had a family member currently deployed.

For the first time since the survey began ranking issues by respondent subgroups in 2014, active duty respondents ranked the impact of deployments on children as a top five issue. Thirty-one percent of active duty respondents indicated the impact of deployments on children was a top five issue, a fifty-seven percent increase as compared to the 2015 survey, with active duty and military spouse respondents both ranking it the number four issue for 2016. Fifty-one percent of military family respondents feel the DoD support services are inadequate to support military children in coping with deployments. Military leaders can continue to prioritize military family programming as an essential component of readiness while operational tempos remain high and the global security environment remains uncertain.

Healthcare

Healthcare coverage is part of a complete compensation package for a service member and his or her family, just as it is in the civilian labor markets. As military families consider whether or not staying in the military is a good decision for their families, many quality of life and cost considerations go into that decision calculus. In this year’s survey satisfaction was considerably higher regarding access to and timeliness of care among military spouse respondents who use Tricare Standard (eighty-one percent) as compared to military spouse respondents who use Tricare Prime with a Military Treatment Facility provider (fifty-four percent).

Medical and mental health care are intimate exchanges between a patient and a provider, requiring trust and empathy. However, thirty-five percent of military family respondents who have a child with special needs report they do not feel their child’s needs are being adequately addressed. Forty percent of service member respondents were uncomfortable seeking mental health care from a military provider. For military family respondents who identify as LGBT, fifty-nine percent feel the military system lacks LGBT competent mental health providers, and thirty-nine percent of feel Tricare’s LGBT healthcare policies are inadequate.

To reduce uncertainty around healthcare benefits, stakeholders including Congress, the Department of Defense, and the Administration, need to communicate the details of proposed changes early and often. Yearly cuts or changes to benefits erodes trust–and as a result, the readiness–of military families. Only nineteen percent would recommend service to others if the current trend of cutting/changing benefits continues. Additional steps include reducing healthcare red tape experienced by users–especially transferability of established services/specialists after a permanent change of station (PCS), and eliminating the need for referrals to obtain/maintain continuity of care (i.e. referrals for long-term specialty care/educational services should be valid in new duty station without seeking new referrals). We need to learn from trends in the civilian medical and healthcare sector to increase patient satisfaction such as expanding MTF hours to later into the evening, opening weekend hours, increasing same day/next day appointments. Finally, increasing provider continuity and ensuring appropriate staffing levels (i.e. providers assigned to MTF’s deploy during their MTF tour, resulting in frequent shortages in providers and lack of continuity of providers at MTF’s. Consequently, patients are forced to see multiple providers and lack continuity of care).

Military Spouse Employment

The ability of military spouses to meet their own employment expectations is a significant factor with overall satisfaction with the military lifestyle[1] and with individual service member retention decisions[2]. Fifty-one percent of respondents to our survey identified military spouse employment as a top obstacle to their family’s financial security and military spouse employment remains a top concern for active duty spouse respondents. Twenty-one percent of military spouses responded they were unemployed (versus three percent for comparable civilian group — married women with children under eighteen), a new finding in this year’s survey. Findings also indicate that married active duty and military spouse respondents were twenty-seven percent less likely to have dual incomes than married non-military couples with children under eighteen. Less than half (forty-eight percent) of military families with a civilian spouse earn two incomes, as compared with two-thirds (sixty-six percent) of the general U.S. population with kids under eighteen who field two incomes.

A newly released white paper from the Bipartisan Policy Center appropriately explains how an outdated view of military spouses and families is not adequate for a modern all-volunteer military. In this year’s survey seventy-nine percent of active duty military spouses reported being a military spouse had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career, an increase from last year’s survey results. It is important to note that findings indicate that military spouses able to maintain a career are thirty-six percent more likely to recommend military service which contributes towards retention and future recruitment.

Finally, active duty spouse respondents in this years survey indicate seeking federal employment is not a successful strategy for military spouses despite special military spouse hiring authority. The existing special federal hiring authority does not appear to be a particularly effective initiative for hiring military spouses with seventy-nine percent of military spouse respondents who applied for employment using the hiring authority indicating they had not obtained federal employment.

To address these military spouse employment needs we need to prioritize military spouse employment and education initiatives at the national and community leadership levels. Increase coordinated efforts among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to promote high-quality portable or work-from-home positions for military spouses that enable employment continuity and career advancement. The DoD and the federal government can clarify the various public hiring preferences available to military spouses and better educate human resource managers and spouses on how to implement/utilize to ensure hiring managers are implementing existing policies.

Childcare Concerns

Frequent moves and geographic separation from extended family members makes the need for childcare especially acute within military families. Childcare continues to be a top need among military families, especially military spouses who are pursuing an education or employment. In this year’s survey eighty-three percent of active duty spouse respondents report lack of childcare impacts their ability to pursue employment or education. Interestingly, among active duty spouses respondents who desire work, those who do not want to work, and those who are unsure, the top three reasons for not working are the same: family commitments, service member’s job demands (including PCS, deployments, service member’s unpredictable schedule), and childcare. While family commitments and service member’s job demands is consistent with last year’s findings, childcare replaced relocation in this year’s top reason for not working.

Increasing access to affordable, flexible, and high quality childcare will remain a top challenge and presents a substantial opportunity to increase military family readiness. Additional support for flexible and affordable childcare remains a top request with sixty-six percent of military families indicating they are not always able to find the childcare they need and thirty-eight percent report spending $500 or more per month on childcare. When asked “What could DoD do to make it easier for you to ensure your family is healthy and happy during your loved one’s military service,” the top theme among qualitative responses was “offer accessible and affordable childcare.”

To address these childcare challenges the DoD needs to simplify on-base childcare enrollment, increase capacity across military-certified providers including occasional care capacity, and increase career to child ratio in order to align with state laws where federal ratios are lower than those mandated by the state. The DoD can streamline the process for re-registering children for Child Development Center (CDC) placements following a Permanent Change of Station (PCS). Finally, the DoD can work to enhance command sensitivity to the growing trend of equitable division of household and childcare responsibilities as well as command support for improving work schedule predictability and military spouse considerations as a factor in PCS assignments.

Conclusion

Blue Star Families believes that military families are assets to both our national defense and local communities. They are central to the health and capability of the All-Volunteer Force and are good neighbors actively engaged in making their civilian communities great places to live. Service members may be employed by their respective services—but they work for all Americans. Thus the responsibility for supporting military families is certainly a duty of the Department of Defense; however, a healthy nation also shares in this responsibility. Our country can help support military families by learning more about the unique nature of military life and increasing civilian and military collaboration on a number of levels. We can do this by supporting a number of positive military lifestyle factors such as: the employment of military spouses; military child education and wellness; financial and retirement savings education; military childcare; local civilian community engagement; strong mental health; and veteran employment.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

[1] Casetenada, L.W. and Harrell, M. (2008). Military Spouse Employment: A grounded theory approach to experiences and perceptions. Armed Forces and Society, 34(3), 389-412

[2] Scarville, J. (1999). Spouse Employment in the Army: Research Findings. Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a222135.pdf