I remember sitting at my first meeting as Family Readiness Program Coordinator at RAF Mildenhall. It was a giant meeting where each component representative provided the Commander with metrics concerning their area of responsibility: flying hours, sorties, equipment logistics, physical readiness scores and DUIs. Then, the conversation turned to me. I stared down at my report, ready to discuss how many individuals showed up to our pizza and bowling deployment dinner.
No wonder they looked at me as a social coordinator.
Pizza and bowling was just a welcome distraction from the family crises, frustrated job hunter, frazzled parent, confused newcomer, strained marriage, or any of the other life challenges that walked through our Family Support Center’s doors.
Pizza and bowling is just a vehicle for community outreach. When you remove the everyday stressors and allow for military spouses to unwind and share their stories in a safe, non-threatening environment they inevitably open up and reach out to each other. Over a slice of pizza a conversation emerges about brokenness, loneliness, and comfort in understanding that they are not alone.
Behind all the yellow ribbons and banners of red, white, and blue, our military community struggles to overcome the side effects of 11+ years of combat operations. The Department of Defense is actively tracking rates of suicide, incidents of sexual violence, and substance abuse for active duty members, but what about the military families? In 2012, as part of their statement to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, The National Military Family Association, recommended that Congress “require a DoD report on the number of family members who committed suicide, made a suicide attempt, or reported suicidal thoughts.”
I didn’t provide counseling. What I did provide was an open ear and the ability to connect our community members, servicemember or military spouse, with the resources and information they needed and wanted but were too afraid or embarrassed to ask anybody else. These people came to us raw wanting nothing more than a friendly face and reserved judgement.
I think one of the failures of the family support systems is that we’ve yet to truly nail down how they are mission essential because they are. They get lost in a lot of fluff and what I call “milk and cookies” or in this case, pizza and bowling. Honestly, I think that that is the hardest image to shake. Families are mission essential and we have to champion that to the leadership.
But let’s be honest. It might be a leap to tie pizza and bowling to saving lives, but who’s to say that we didn’t? Who’s to say that our deployment dinner didn’t provide a military spouse with a much needed mental health break or connect a spouse with a supportive network of individuals who truly understand the challenges a military family faces on a daily basis? When you pit a deployment dinner against operational readiness, it seems ridiculous at first, but is it really? When our military families are happy, healthy, and connected we know that it has a direct impact on the servicemember and increases her or his effectiveness and focus in the field.
During my time at the support center, I constantly struggled to find a way to communicate to military leadership how exactly military family programming is an essential part of “the mission.” When we’d discuss new parent programs and marriage workshops with leadership, they’d all smile and nod and say “that’s great” or “nice”. They’d shake our hands, thank us for what we do, and walk out of the door without a second look back.
Without real support from military leaders, military family programs are crippled, but the problem isn’t at the installation level. It starts much, much higher.
The Military Family Readiness Council Better Bring Its A-Game
With more than 70% of military spouses communing online, the Department of Defense made a concerted effort to reach out to military families online via DoD funded and contracted websites like Military OneSource, the Military Spouse Employment Network, and MyCAA among others. Now, hundreds of geo-local Facebook pages and smaller sites sprouted up to attempt to bridge the communication gap between these vital resources and military families.
Despite the plethora of websites and social media communities, big and small, military families are still having problems getting access to or finding the information and resources they need and want. It’s evident that there is a disconnect when it comes to getting the information to where it needs to go. Duplication and redundancies are rampant, further complicating the process of getting the right information and resources to the right people at the right time.
Enter the Military Family Readiness Council. This advisory committee originates in the 2008 National Military Defense Authorization Act and was intended to make recommendations about family programming, monitor family readiness needs, and assess current family programs and activities.
By law, this council is mandated to meet twice a year. That failed to happen until recently. The council met in September of 2012 and is scheduled to meet again on May 1, 2013.
The lack of action from the council motivated the 2012 Armed Forces Insurance nationwide recipient of the Military Spouse of the Year Award, Jeremy Hilton, to take the initiative to create a Facebook page on behalf of the previously dormant Military Family Readiness Council. Hilton is hoping that the Facebook page is the first step towards getting military families connected to the information that the council identified as “important” for military families to know. The community page is unofficial and is not sanctioned by the DoD. Hilton has taken it upon himself to share findings, documents, recommendations and resources discussed in council meetings in the spirit of the committee’s pledge to transparency on their behalf:
“The committee also believes that public transparency of Council actions should be increased, and encourages the Council to establish a website. This website should serve to keep military families informed about upcoming Council meetings and to post the outcomes of prior meetings, and to increase transparency of Council activities and reports.” – 2011 NDAA Report, Senate Armed Services Committee
During the September 2012 meeting, the council added four everyday military spouses to its membership. Jeanne Bunden, one of the new military spouse council members, found herself a bit taken aback during the September meeting. She told Military.com’s Amy Bushatz that she expected a the council to function more like a working group rather than a briefing.
According to Bushatz’s article, some critics of the council aren’t convinced that current efforts are enough to make a real impact on the efficacy and delivery of military family programs. Karen Golden, a government relations deputy director at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) summed it up best:
“The bottom line is it’s either important or it’s not, and when you fail to meet and when you fail to produce anything substantial, then the clear message to families is that it’s not important.” Karen Golden, MOAA
What’s at Stake If the Military Family Readiness Council Fails to Act
If there is anything I know and understand about the military, it’s that priorities are set from the top down. If our leadership isn’t fully committed to making a real effort to overhauling and streamlining military family programs through this act of Congress, the military spouses and community advocates assigned to this council are going to need to hold our military leadership’s feet to the proverbial fire.
What our leadership is failing to recognize is that military family readiness programs are at the core of overall military readiness, particularly when it comes to recruitment and retention. When military spouses reach their saturation point with the challenges they face as military family members, servicemembers just might step away from service for the sake of their spouse and family.
Jesse Sloman’s article on The Best Defense blog via Foreign Policy Magazine, “Junior officer retention: pentagon leaders need to start thinking different about how to deal with military spouses” really hit the nail on the head.
“Relationship status and spousal satisfaction are crucial influences on a servicemember’s decision to stay or leave the armed forces, yet these issues have so far been largely overlooked….Two of the most promising lieutenants I know, including one who graduated at the top of his TBS class, are planning to curtail their military careers primarily out of consideration for their wives.” ~Jesse Sloman
Sloman’s piece is really getting at an issue that goes deeper than just junior officer matters. There is a significant culture shift happening in the larger military community. If the Pentagon truly wants to recruit and retain the best and brightest, they need to focus on the whole picture and in particular on military spouses and military families. As Sloman so poignantly states, the Pentagon cannot continue to ignore the fact that “the military’s current social model is a legacy of a different time.”
If the Military Family Readiness Council fails to make a real effort to ensure that military family readiness programs are poised to meet the needs of the 21st century military family, they are putting overall military readiness at risk.
Take Action by Joining the Conversation with Military Spouses Committed to Change!
The next council meeting is scheduled for May 1, 2013 at 2:30PM EST at the Pentagon, but if you can’t make it, the next best thing you can do is to join the conversation. Visit and like the DoD Military Family Readiness Council Information Page on Facebook and make your voice count.