Washington Times - Lamar Alexander
During the 1991 Gulf War, Col. Ted Purdom's 101st Airborne brigade fought alongside a nursing unit commanded by his wife, Lt. Col. Jean Purdom. Their sons, ages 9 and 11, stayed with their grandmother in Tennessee while their parents served in Iraq.
Today in Iraq, Maj. Lee Medley commands a Chinook helicopter unit. He has been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq for 15 of the 17 months since his youngest daughter was born. During the 21 days he was home at Ft. Campbell, Ky., he spent most of the time training for his next deployment.
Half the men and women in today's United States military are parents raising children. They volunteer for service — and for marriage. But a reduced force structure and more frequent and longer deployments are putting stresses on those marriages and children.
Family readiness affects military readiness. That is why two Senate subcommittees which we chair have been holding field hearings at Ft. Campbell, Warner Robins Air Force Base and Groton Naval Base to put the spotlight on military parents raising children. We will report what we have learned and continue those hearings in Washington next Tuesday.
Our hearings have presented a picture of fewer warriors, more missions, longer deployments, frequent moves, more marriages, more spouses working and more children. We are also finding that while our military is ahead of many segments of society in making it easier for parents raising children, there are many areas that deserve attention.
For example, nationally accredited child care is an area in which the services excel. At the same time, busy military parents need more child care options, especially "respite care" - a few hours off.
Ft. Campbell has 65 spouses that are certified to care for four to six children in its family home care network. But there is a demand for 230 such homes. And if the Groton submarine base commander had more flexibility in spending dollars, he might shift dollars from preschool programs - where there are vacancies - to infant care, where there is a waiting list.
The Pentagon should be able to make some changes to help families fairly easily. There would be wide support for offering more families of 11th or 12th-grade children the opportunity not to move until the child has graduated. (When he finished testifying at the Ft. Campbell hearing, Col. Kim Summers and his wife drove nine hours to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas to his new assignment. It was his 22nd move in more than 25 years of service.)
Communications can be improved. Spouses at Warner Robins told how their husbands waited for hours to use phones, only to experience poor quality and frequent disconnections. Letters and care packages took weeks to reach troops. Tragedies were sometimes reported on network television before the Department of Defense had sufficient time to confirm victims and notify families.
More difficult to do but even more helpful would be to persuade states to make reciprocity agreements aimed at making it easier for military parents who move:
- A high-school junior who learns Georgia history at Ft. Stewart might also be required to meet the Tennessee history requirement when a parent is transferred to Ft. Campbell;
- Spouses who want to provide child care as part of a family home network must wait six months to become certified when transferred to Groton, Connecticut;
- Other states might follow Georgia's example of allowing in-state tuition to continue at Georgia universities, even though the parent is transferred during the student's academic career.
Finally, it was also disturbing to learn that in some cases housing allowances are now counted as part of a military family's income, making the family ineligible for child-care vouchers and Women, Infants and Children's (WIC) grants - even though previous housing was treated as "in-kind" and not as part of their income.
As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld takes a hard look at force structure, at length of deployments and frequency of moves, he should keep in mind the families at home as well as the fighting men and women who are deployed. Maj. Medley's wife, Gricell, put it this way, "We want to allow our soldiers to be good soldiers, but they also want the opportunity to be good fathers and husbands." Help for military parents will mean a high re-enlistment rate, a saving of taxpayer dollars and a happier and more effective fighting force.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. Sen. Lamar Alexander is chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families.