Military families are first lady’s first cause
Jaime Hurley wants to see privileges adjusted for dependents like her.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jerome Higgins wants more downtime between deployments.
Flora Edwards says military families need better child care and more assistance at new assignments.
Concerns like those may be gaining a new and prominent supporter, one who definitely has the commander-in-chief’s ear.
Since her husband’s campaign, first lady Michelle Obama has spoken of making the plight of military families a focus of hers from the White House perch. Now military families and advocacy groups are waiting to see how that support will play out.
"We all have some fundamental things in common," Obama told a crowd of veterans and military family members last October while campaigning at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a community that has about 60,000 Marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We share a vision of a system that does more to support military families, both when your loved ones are deployed and long after they return."
On March 12, the first lady traveled to Fort Bragg, N.C.
She told a crowd of servicemembers and their families that "the war doesn’t end when a soldier returns home" and called on local communities to pitch in.
"I encourage everyone out there within the sound of my voice to reach out — to reach out on your own, through schools, the PTA, little leagues, churches, workplaces — and find out if there’s a soldier or a soldier’s family right there in your own community who needs a little extra support, because they are there."
First ladies’ projects
Pet projects are nothing new for first ladies, she said, with Jacqueline Kennedy taking on the "first real first lady project" when she refurbished the White House.
Lady Bird Johnson did beautification projects, Barbara Bush pushed for literacy and Hillary Rodham Clinton got involved with health care. Rosalyn Carter advocated for mental health issues.
Military family groups say they’ve seen a consistent message of support from Obama, from the campaign trail to the White House.
"[F]irst lady is a really nice position to bring awareness and also to really recognize the service of family members to the military in ways that nobody else can," said Shelley MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in Indiana.
The needs of military families often overlap with working families in general, where both mom and dad work, and Obama has expressed interest in working with civilian and military families, MacDermid said.
A new Military Family Readiness Council was mandated as part of 2008 defense legislation and had its first meeting in December.
Obama could use that burgeoning group to advance her advocacy, said Kathy Moakler of the National Military Family Association.
While each branch has mechanisms in place for family feedback, Obama could host town hall meetings with military family members or simply post resource links on her Web site, Moakler said.
"We would love to see Mrs. Obama have a role in publicizing issues that are already out there," she said.
"We are all about the information."
Regardless of the form Obama’s military family advocacy takes, any committees or organizations she leads or aids would probably be advisory in nature, MacDermid said.
The effort also would have to compete for funding and priority from a Congress and military already balancing various needs.
"That’s probably going to be the overwhelming challenge that everybody’s facing," she said.
What is needed?
Flora Edwards and her family arrived in England about six months ago for her husband’s new assignment at RAF Mildenhall.
Edwards, a day care provider, said her family had difficulty getting information about Mildenhall and what to expect at this overseas assignment.
"It was really confusing," she said. "When we got to Heathrow [Airport in London], we were stuck."
Aside from better guidance for new arrivals, Edwards said child care is a concern for many Air Force families in England.
From economic troubles to deployment strains, marriages and long-term medical care for injured veterans, military families are facing many issues, MacDermid said.
Some military kids have spent more than half their young lives with mom or dad deployed.
"A lot of families are feeling pretty tired," she said.
Obama’s could help raise awareness of military families in the civilian population, MacDermid said.
"They are serving in a fair amount of isolation," she said. "People may want to help and not know how. She has a wonderful opportunity here to raise that up and help everybody help each other."
Rose Holland is the Army Family Action Plan manager for U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy.
The feedback about what works and what doesn’t in the Army was discussed at the annual AFAP conference in January.
In Vicenza alone, Holland said she received more than 100 issues that community members felt needed to be addressed, including mental health services and dental care.
"We need to remember that part of the Army family is our single soldiers," she said.
"They don’t receive as much attention."
Obama could help keep focus on the Army’s Military Family Covenant, a program enacted in 2007 to better respond to family members’ needs, Holland said.
Whether Obama’s advocacy can bring about change on the ground level for those bearing the brunt of the wars remains to be seen, MacDermid said.
"It’s hard to turn around an aircraft carrier, and that’s not just referring to the Navy," she explained.
"The military is a very large organization, and it takes a long time to shift things."