Taking care of our own

By Kate Sylvester
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The unspeakable event at Fort Hood last week resonates only in one respect. As news reports described soldiers rushing forward, toward the bullets, to care for their fallen colleagues, I was reminded of what I always knew growing up: The military takes care of its own.

That was the essential experience of my childhood as an Army brat, including the two years we lived at Fort Hood. In the early 1960s, Killeen, Tex., was a dismal town with more pool halls and pawn shops than bookstores or restaurants. But the Army post was studded with swimming pools, recreation centers and movie theaters. The Army worked hard to make the post a good place for families.

Our life at Fort Hood was typical of the way military families lived in those days. We moved almost yearly. Life on base was virtually self-contained. We lived in decent, government-built housing; we generally went to schools on the post. We had easy access to medical care at post hospitals. Most mothers didn't have to work, so it didn't matter if local economies offered few jobs. In those days, the military could -- and did -- take good care of its own.

Life for today's military families is much harder. In a little more than one generation, the composition of military families has changed dramatically.

At the height of the Vietnam War, there were 3.4 million people in the armed forces -- mostly young, unmarried, childless men who served their two-year draft commitments and got out. The Pentagon's most recent statistics put today's all-volunteer force at 1.4 million. More than half are married; 40 percent have children under age 5. A third of our citizen soldiers -- the 836,000 members of the National Guard and reserves -- also have families. Though today's military is much smaller than a generation ago, it has about 1.3 million children to care for.

Military families don't live in the Fort Hood of my childhood. They live where we live: Two-thirds of regular military families live in civilian communities -- as do National Guard and reserve families. More than 90 percent of military children go to schools off base. Military families use civilian medical care (though the military provides health insurance and health care on bases, most military families don't have easy access to these facilities). Only about 175,000 eligible military children use military child care; most families seek child care in civilian communities, according to Rand Corp. And about two-thirds of military spouses are competing in civilian job markets.

Today, wreaths and flags will festoon the cemeteries. Soon, stores will offer military holiday discounts and charities will distribute Thanksgiving turkeys. But that's not what military families need most.

The military lifestyle causes everyday problems most civilians never face. Military children change schools multiple times before graduation; some states don't accept their credits, making it difficult for them to graduate on time. Some states don't allow military spouses to collect unemployment insurance when they are forced to move. Military families who want to adopt children are routinely turned away because they move too often.

Families whose children have special needs, such as those with autism or Down syndrome, pay the highest price. Military medicine offers some support for those families -- but not much. These families must rely on state-based Medicaid services, which vary widely in terms of services and eligibility standards. Every time these families move, their children go to the bottom of waiting lists; in Virginia, the waiting list is 10 years.

"It's a tough life sometimes," a Marine wife told me recently, "but we can handle it as long as our kids are doing okay." Pentagon officials and military family advocates are working hard to take care of those children. The Pentagon now offers such support as training vouchers for spouses, expanded child care and a 24-hour help line. Policymakers should ask the Pentagon for a list of other ideas. The military should no longer have to take care of its own without our help.

The writer is a consultant to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a visiting fellow at Voices for America's Children. Her e-mail address is sylvester@voices.org.

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