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Less talk, more action

Speaking from the Pentagon, the director of an office handling family policy for one of the under secretaries of defense fielded questions from military spouse bloggers one day. The topic was moving, that recurring challenge of military life.

One question concerned transition issues for families with special — specifically about wait-list — frustrations for state benefits, like Medicaid for disabled individuals. Military families often spend much less time in a state than it takes to reach the top of a waiting list, so moving to a new state means moving to the bottom of a new waiting list for needed services — just one of the hurdles for military families with special needs.

The Department of Defense official acknowledged the plight of these families, but had little information to offer beyond the assurance that the problem is recognized inside the Pentagon. The official then referred the questioner to online tools at Military OneSource for a “smooth transition.”

Later, in answer to another question, the same official passed on the inside tip that resealable plastic bags are the secret to an easier move. It’s the kind of helpful moving hint military spouses share with each other across the kitchen table. It’s not the level of expertise we expect from someone with a desk at the Pentagon.

It would have been more fitting if the advice about plastic bags had come from an online checklist, while advocacy and assistance for military families with health issues originated from a person of influence in the DOD. The people working on crucial policy issues for military families surely have better things to do than give advice about how to pack housewares.

I learned later from a well-informed military spouse that there is a DOD web page to track the number of states cooperating to smooth the transition for military families needing special state services. Perhaps the official answering questions was uninformed about USA4militaryfamilies.dod.mil or perhaps the omission was because the page shows no progress. Not one state assists special needs military families on waitlists for Medicaid waivers.

Another page shows the states participating in professional licensure portability for military spouses. Thanks in a large part to Joining Forces, led by Michelle Obama, more than half the states participate in that program. Perhaps assisting special needs families will be Joining Forces’ next endeavor.

Military families can figure out the minutiae of moving. From leadership, we need action on big issues: The return of warriors bearing the wounds of war — visible and invisible — the effects of those injuries on their families, the medical and educational needs of military children, sexual harassment and high suicide rates.

Our leadership recognizes these needs, but recognition does not always translate into meaningful action. For example, in 2008, Congress created the DOD Military Family Readiness Council to review, monitor and evaluate policy related to military families. (Look here for the official site online.)

Those who follow the council’s progress agree that there’s not much to report. Twice-yearly meetings are often postponed. After five years, the council activated a Web page this month. Public attendance and input is allowed, but the council excludes public comment during the meeting. Written input must be submitted well in advance, but the council’s new Web page does not include instructions for giving any input or contacting council members.

In addition to representatives from the office of the Secretary of Defense, the council includes leaders from military family organizations and representatives of each service branch, including active duty and spouses.

“Having military family members improves the council,” said Emily Fertitta, the Marine Corps spouse representative. “The spouses have been pushing for the council to increase the frequency of meetings.”

Spouses outside the council hope for more results, too.

Navy spouse Jacey Eckhart of Military.com covered the council’s May 1 meeting at the Pentagon for SpouseBUZZ. She expressed the hope that more action and less talk will result.

“There seemed to be a lot of assessing the programs that needed to be assessed by assessors who would assess them,” she wrote, adding that thorough research does take time and will make for more accurate policy decisions.

Lori Volkman, also a Navy spouse, of the Military Spouse J.D. Network wrote after the meeting that the council is a “work in progress with considerable room to grow.”

Perhaps the best source of information about the council is located on Facebook, the “DoD Military Family Readiness Council Information Page,” created by Jeremy Hilton, an Air Force spouse and advocate for special-needs families. Hilton has posted the minutes of the council’s most recent meeting and copies of all the outside input provided by various organizations.

The next meeting of the council is scheduled for Aug. 5 at the Pentagon. Anyone wishing to attend or provide input can contact the council at FamilyReadinessCouncil@osd.mil. Perhaps more input will bring meaningful action.

For more links to information about the council and my complete interview with Emily Fertitta, see the Spouse Calls blog.

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About the Author

Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three living in Illinois. She writes "Spouse Calls" weekly for Stars and Stripes and is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life. Leave comments on the blog or write to her at spousecalls@stripes.com.


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