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OPINION

Amid COVID, connect with military families in need

By KATHY ROTH-DOUQUET AND GWENDOLYN BINGHAM | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: August 26, 2020

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Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, a military family we know in California packed and shipped their household goods to Japan, sold their vehicle, and began disenrolling their children from their schools — the usual motions of a family following their next deployment orders. Then came the global travel advisories, canceled airlines flights, and the Department of Defense’s sweeping stop-movement order for personnel.

The family retracted everything, from school disenrollment to their housing notice. Without funds for a hotel room or military lodging for an indeterminate amount of time, they sheltered in place for months, with only lawn furniture and air mattresses.

They were luckier than many. Thousands of military families have no housing or are being forced to pay two rents/mortgages during this time. For many military families, the pandemic not only presents unique challenges, but has also compounded hardships that existed long before the spread of the virus.

In a weekly Pain Points Poll that tracked how military families managed during the pandemic, families revealed compounded stresses and challenges that make life all the more uncertain. Over its 10-week fielding, the poll discovered over 40% of respondents had to delay their PCS orders, while nearly a fifth of active-duty spouses lost their jobs or were unable to work. Many military families, having made their now-canceled relocation plans, reported having or preparing to pay rent for two residences. Home life has been impacted as well, with more than half of respondents with school-aged children saying that they saw behavioral changes in their kids.

What’s more, over 63,000 military personnel including doctors, National Guard and military engineers have been deployed to the front lines of the fight. Many left behind families who are displaced from homes and unable to move — all while facing heightened risk of exposure and reports of increased COVID-19 cases among their ships and units.

These hardships, like the virus itself, are evolving and difficult to manage. The implications of these challenges stretch beyond the well-being of an individual family unit to the overall preparedness and defense of our country.

While the federal government is working to respond, some of the challenges our military and veteran families are facing require more than a budgetary fix. We require a cultural shift in which civilians better understand and support these families — support that, in turn, also buttresses our nation’s national security.

Data from our annual Military Family Lifestyle survey shows us that fewer active-duty service members would recommend military service to their family members or children because of the many challenges it brings. Moreover, as military families struggle with schooling and finding suitable and affordable child care, future generations may increasingly turn away from the option of service to their country. In the long term, the welfare, readiness and personnel retention of our overall military could be harmed.

Blue Star Families has been working with partners at the Association of Defense Communities and dozens of top nonprofit and corporate partners to make sure virtual resources are available for military families during the COVID-19 crisis. These virtual resources include informative webinars where defense communities can speak to policymakers and experts about topics including mental health; navigating CARES Act funding to support veteran telehealth services; and transitioning out of the military during the pandemic.

Beyond this effort, there are two integral steps that the American public can take to truly and tangibly support those who serve us. The first is to work to maximize interactions between our military installations and local communities. This interaction is a readiness multiplier to the “connectivity” our servicemembers and their families feel when moving to new duty locations and becoming a part of your communities. Another step is to support programming aimed at fostering military family cultural competency in local civilian communities.

A life in the military is a proud one, but it’s also a hard one. Only 0.5% of the U.S. population is in active military service; yet, these are the very people who put their lives on the line to protect the United States and our American way of life. Now, it’s up to each of us to return the favor.

Our call to action goes beyond staying at home to stop the spread. By understanding the struggles that military families face every day, we can each do our part to support those who fight for us and thereby preserve the future of our country’s safety and defense. Many have answered this call to action — we are profoundly grateful and thank you! Whether you support Blue Star Families, United Service Organizations, or one of our other military or veteran service support organizations — our military needs its civilian neighbors to be by its side.

Kathy Roth-Douquet, a Marine Corps spouse, is CEO of Blue Star Families. Gwendolyn Bingham is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general.