Addressing the Needs of Military Families

Summer 2011

On the morning of June 14—the start of just my second week as an America’s Promise Alliance intern—I walked toward the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for the “Addressing the Needs of Military Families” event. Speakers and audience members included military family advocates and high ranking military officials—including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. For a second week employee and recent college graduate to represent her organization at such a high-caliber event seemed, at first, to be no easy task.

After my initial star-struck reaction (and jitters) faded, the importance and purpose of the event began to resonate, leaving me excited instead of nervous. About 100 of us had gathered there to discuss and learn more about the pressing issues facing some of America’s most deserving but also most vulnerable: veterans and military families. Representatives from the Department of Defense, the veteran’s community, and non-profits alike had taken time to come together, share ideas, and challenge one another to better serve those who selflessly serve the nation.

I was first impressed by the tone and quality of the event. This was not a token gesture to pay lip service to America’s often invisible heroes. This was a serious group of dedicated, passionate professionals who had made the event’s mission their life mission. Panelists and audience members spoke freely, with Admiral and Mrs. Mullen readily exchanging contact information with anyone who raised a good question or idea.

I was struck by people’s confidence and professionalism, and noticed how they seemed to crave the debate and exchange that was so openly taking place. Even the small-group conversations before and after the event were stimulating. I spoke with several advocates and was both inspired and humbled by their work and their integrity.

Panelists and attendees relied on evidence-based approaches, hard data, personal stories, and best practices in framing their discussions. In a world so often lacking in such meaningful civil discourse, compromise, and innovation, this was something new for me. I found myself taking the words of speaker and disabled combat veteran Jennifer Crane to heart: “we need you,” she said, encouraging us to be steadfast in our commitment to the troops and their families, just as she was committed to her duties abroad.

The Alliance’s involvement in the event was also exciting to me. APA has partnered with several other wonderful advocacy organizations to produce an online Community Blueprint Tool. The Blueprint aims to provide local leaders with the tools and information necessary to improve their support capacity for veterans, service members, and their families. I was proud to wear my name tag with the Alliance’s name underneath, knowing I was just one member in a large and innovative partnership including organizations like Give an Hour, the Red Cross, Blue Star Families, and more.

Today’s military is rapidly changing, and the panelists encouraged us that communities—not just the government—now have an opportunity to play a tremendous role in supporting those who serve. It’s up to us at home to do our part and lend a hand. Military families have a tremendous capacity for resilience, but they, like all of us, need support and encouragement from their communities. I walked away from the event encouraged, despite the real problems surrounding the issues and the great amount of work to be done.

Military families make up a complex group. They are often young, and struggle with sky-high unemployment rates, frequent transfers and deployments, physical and mental health wounds, social isolation, and the complications of military bureaucracy. As Admiral Mullen rightfully pointed out, for the returning troops and their families, their wars are really just beginning.

I know that APA’s 5 promises—caring adults, safe spaces, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others—are sorely needed in the unique lives of the military children who sometimes fall through the cracks. They may not qualify for free, quality pre-kindergarten programs, may move schools as many as nine times, may harbor the stresses of repeated parental deployments, and may feel the effects of poverty because of their parent’s mounting medical bills and rising unemployment rates. I’m glad that we’re playing a part in shaping the growing conversation. America made a promise to the children of its servicemembers, and, luckily, America’s Promise Alliance can help that oath be met.