Opening Statement of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander during the hearing on Issues Affecting Families of Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines

Posted on December 11, 2003

I'm glad to be co-chairing this hearing with a senator who has been a leader on this issue from day one. Not only has he joined me in spearheading this series of hearings on military families, but he has been a tireless advocate on their behalf in the Senate as a Member of the Armed Services Committee. In fact, Sen. Chambliss was recently awarded the Military Coalitions 2003 Award of Merit for his work strengthening the TRICARE system to support the health care needs of our troops and their families.

No time of year reminds us more of loved ones who are away than the holidays. It's an emotional time. So it's appropriate that we spend some time this December learning how we can better support military families while their loved ones are away for the holidays serving our country.

This hearing is part of a series of hearings conducted by these two subcommittees focused on finding ways to ease the strains of deployment on military families. I held a field hearing last June 2, 2003, at Ft. Campbell on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. Sen. Chambliss chaired a hearing at Ft. Stewart in Georgia. Our Democratic counterparts each held a similar hearing in their home states. We also held a joint hearing in Washington with the top policy-makers on this issue from the Pentagon and elsewhere.

Those hearings have already had an impact - these are just a few: We learned about the Defense Department's exemplary program on child care  and also found ways it could be improved for short-term needs. In responding to the need for troops to visit their families, Congress and the President provided funding so troops on two-week leave through the revived R & R program can have travel expenses covered when they fly home. That's in the process of being implemented now. We addressed combat pay by increasing the Family Separation Allowance. Families have additional needs during times of deployment which cost a little extra money  this $250 a month makes a difference, and Congress funded that this year.

We in Congress also addressed healthcare concerns of our soldiers and their families. The Department of Defense authorization bill included an additional $400 million for this year so that when reservists are called to active duty they become eligible for TRICARE coverage. Additionally, when reservists return from active duty, instead of having TRICARE coverage for only 60 days, reservists will be covered for up to six months.

Finally, during our earlier series of hearings, the issue was raised of soldiers and families losing certain benefits, such as Head Start, when they began receiving combat pay. The Head Start legislation recently passed by the Senate HELP Committee included a provision pertaining to this Head Start eligibility. As our soldiers are away fighting to defend our freedom it is our responsibility to make sure we help take care of their children. The fact that soldiers are receiving combat pay because they are working in dangerous situations should not adversely affect their children and families. Therefore, I proposed language to the Head Start reauthorization bill ensuring that a military family, otherwise eligible for Head Start, would not lose its eligibility because a member of that family is receiving combat pay.

Today, we're shifting our focus slightly. Up to this point, we have focused primarily on the needs of the families of active duty troops  those that make the military their full-time career. But we know those serving in the Reserve and National Guard are a major portion of our troop commitments abroad today, and their families have unique needs while their loved one is away.

Of the American troops serving in Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, 308,826 of them are from the Reserve and National Guard. About 25 percent of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are from the Reserve and National Guard. In Tennessee, since September 11, more than 6,200 troops from the Reserve and Guard have been mobilized, including 644 troops from here in the Chattanooga area at last count. So it's important we consider the needs of families of reservists and National Guardsmen at this time of high military deployment.

Some of those needs are different. When a reservist is deployed on full-time military duty, he or she is not only away from their family, but also away from his or her regular job  a job which would normally provide income to the family as well as important benefits like health care coverage. Because the families of reservists don't tend to live in military communities  such as those that live on or near Ft. Campbell  Reserve families don't have access to the same support network for needs like child care, counseling, or even just getting news about their loved one's unit.

So we have a lot to learn about today, and we have two great panels of witnesses to help us do that. I look forward to their testimony.