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Our service members should be able to raise a family while building a financially secure future even when duty calls them away at home or overseas. Sadly, shockingly and shamefully, that is too often not possible. And that unfortunate reality is threatening the health and well-being of children and families while having a devastating impact on morale and readiness.

As members of the congressional armed services committees, we see firsthand how military families are struggling like never before amid frequent moves — usually every 1 to 3 years — and long, sometimes unexpected deployments. Lack of child care is a significant contributor to a military spouse unemployment rate of 24%, as estimated by the Government Accountability Office. And like most American families, very few military families can afford to not have both parents working. 

The military’s feeble efforts have, frankly, failed for too long. A 2020 Pentagon report showed nearly 9,000 children of servicemembers were stuck on waitlists for child care services despite an immediate and critical need. The military services also have 121 unfunded military child development center projects in their backlog, many of which would expand badly needed capacity and address the 135 existing military child care centers in poor and failing condition.

We also must do more to enable servicemembers who are new parents to spend crucial early time at home with newborns. Over the last two years, Congress established a parental leave benefit of 12 weeks for federal employees who are new mothers and fathers — but these benefits exclude servicemembers. We should do our part to expand military parental leave benefits as much as possible to better align it with that of those they serve and protect. 

As it stands right now, a foster child with two caregivers who are servicemembers could end up without any parental bonding time. Not 12 weeks. Not 6 weeks. Not 5 days. Nothing. It’s clear who this hurts the most: the children themselves. This shouldn’t be controversial: Every child deserves to bond with their parent, no matter how they came to join their family. 

Our nation must do better by our servicemembers and their families. That’s just one reason why we introduced legislation to confront this crisis. Our Military Child Care Expansion Act would establish new funding options for military child development centers; help servicemembers pay for in-home child care; pilot a public-private partnership to expand child care capacity for military families; and require the Defense Department to identify the root causes of poor and failing child care facilities as well as report the cost of fixing them. These reforms, plus a major investment in military child care centers in the upcoming infrastructure bill, would turn a significant national failure into a point of patriotic pride. 

Our Servicemember Parental Leave Equity Act would expand caregiver leave for servicemembers to 12 weeks for both new mothers and fathers. It would offer paid parental leave to servicemembers providing long-term foster care and more flexibility for military families by allowing caregiver leave to be taken in multiple increments. In the private sector and the government, new fathers often take their parental leave at the birth of the child and the rest after the mother returns to work. This must be allowed for servicemembers, too. Our bill would also ensure that new mothers are not ordered to participate in overnight travel or physically demanding training exercises, except at the option of the mother or in the interest of national security, and it would adjust the option by which servicemembers can “pause” their career to attend to longer-term caregiving, professional needs or personal interests. 

So even while we celebrated moms on Mother’s Day last month, Congress needs to do more to prove that we’re willing to honor and lend a hand to moms the 364 other days of the year, too — and that includes the mothers who serve either directly or as military spouses and partners. Expanding service member parental leave and helping military families get the child care they need and have been promised is the very least we can do.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, is chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, is chair of the Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee and a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel.

A Smith Child Development Center caregiver interacts with children in a play group in Baumholder, Germany.
A Smith Child Development Center caregiver interacts with children in a play group in Baumholder, Germany. (Mary Davis/U.S. Army)

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