Building a strong country requires treating our military families better


The Views Expressed by Contributors are their own and not the view of THE HILL

This year marks the 45th birthday of America’s experiment with an all-volunteer military. As the all-volunteer force has evolved as an American institution, so has an accompanying narrative rightfully acknowledging the debt owed to those who volunteer to fight the nation’s wars. However, all too often when we tell the story of the all-volunteer force, the burden shouldered by our military families and the role those families play in our nation’s defense are misplaced, marginalized and misunderstood.

In this regard, we must do better because most Americans don’t understand that their safety and security depends on us doing better. Our all-volunteer military assumes the availability of a deep and representative pool of eligible and willing volunteers. But today, the Defense Department estimates that approximately 70 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service due to issues related to physical fitness, obesity, criminal convictions, or lack of a high school degree.

Further, over the past 20 years, the willingness of American youth to consider military service has steadily declined. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey, which has since 1975 annually surveyed about 50,000 high school students about their general attitudes, behaviors and values, including toward military service, suggests today that less than 12 percent of American youth are willing to even consider military service after high school.

All this said, what is less widely known is that since the advent of the all-volunteer military in 1973, the nation’s most reliable pipeline of eligible and willing volunteers has come from families of those who have or are currently serving in uniform. In other words, one consequence of the all-volunteer force has been to create military service as a family business. Accordingly, our ability to recruit the best and the brightest to military service in the future depends on our capacity to support those families serving today. In this regard, after 15 years of sustained military conflict, how are we doing?

That is a complex question, made more challenging by a profound deficit of research focused on the impact of a wartime service on military spouses and military children. What we do know from research conducted by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families and by others, strongly suggests that we can do better.

We know that military spouses are exceedingly well educated, but that many experience unemployment at a rate almost three times higher than their nonmilitary peers. This could be because military spouses must relocate 10 times more frequently than their civilian counterparts, creating gaps in education and employment, and making it nearly impossible to create the security, stability and community connections required to sustain a career. We also know that those military spouses who are able to secure employment earn, on average, 38 percent less than civilian counterparts.

We know that the employment and underemployment challenges experienced by military spouses undercut the financial health of military families. Research highlights that while military families save at the same rate as civilians, more than one-third report difficulties covering monthly expenses and paying bills. Only 50 percent report a “rainy day” fund available for emergencies. A recent survey found that 54 percent of those families planning to leave the military within the next 12 months have less than $5,000 in savings available to support the transition to civilian life.

We know that military children of the post-9/11 generation have been exposed to unique stressors, and consequently that many experience higher than normal rates of anxiety and depression. Two recent studies demonstrate that military-connected children have a higher prevalence of depressive symptoms, sadness, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, compared to nonmilitary-connected youth. While the long-term impact of the service experience on military children is a story that will unfold in the years and decades to come, all indications are that the costs and the consequences could be high.

Importantly, and what gives me great hope, is that we know military spouses and children are resilient, resourceful, adaptable, entrepreneurial and engaged in the world around them. We know that military spouses and children exhibit the characteristics associated with the best employees and the most successful entrepreneurs, and that military-connected families have much to contribute to our communities during and after military service.

Finally, we also know that the extent to which our military families are supported during service and throughout the transition from military to civilian life, correlates directly to their willingness to recommend military service to their own children and to others. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the willingness of currently serving military members to recommend military service to their own children. Today, only 40 percent indicate they would recommend military service, with the unwilling majority citing concerns related to the health and well-being of the family as one of the primary factors in their decision. We must do better.

What does doing better mean? It means acknowledging in our public policy and public discourse that we put our security at risk when we do not adequately care for, support and empower our military families. It means that both the public and private sectors must join together and act to make strengthening our military families a national priority. It means that building a prosperous and safe nation for future generations requires that we treat our military families as a treasured national resource. That would be better.

Michael Haynie is vice chancellor of Syracuse University, where he is executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management.

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