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16 agencies sign on to help military families

By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

Saying that caring for the loved ones of servicemembers should no longer be seen as the sole province of the two agencies most closely identified with the military, President Obama Monday laid out a what he said was a coordinated, comprehensive approach to improving the well-being of military families.

Sixteen agency heads have signed on to a plan to make supporting military families a priority across the government, Obama said in a White House ceremony. The agencies have made a total of 50 commitments that will pay special attention to the health, education and career opportunities of military spouses and children, he said.

This collaborative effort is the result of Presidential Study-9, which Obama in May 2010 directed the National Security Staff to develop a coordinated governmentwide approach to supporting military families. The 25-page report details what each agency committed to do. First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden have been leading the effort.

The agency commitments break down into four broad areas, the President said. They include well-being and psychological health, education for military children, career and education help for military spouses, and better, more accessible child care.

Obama said many of the programs that the agencies have committed to improving or expanding are not new, but the cabinet-level, governmentwide commitment to the issues is.

“In other words, we’re not simply reaffirming our responsibility to our military families, we are upping our game,” the President said. “In fact, these 16 members of my cabinet have signed their name to this report, pledging personally to see this through. And not only to fulfill these commitments, but to make sure that as we go forward our military families are being heard across the government. That’s what we’re looking for here.”

Nicole Alcorn, a military spouse who was at the White House for Monday’s event, said the signatures of the agency heads was not merely symbolic, but an indication that all sectors of the government would be-as the president put it Monday– “on the hook” for seeing to the welfare of military families.

“Its across-the-board accountability, their personal commitment and professional commitment,” said Alcorn, whose husband is a Navy explosives disposal expert, in an interview. “It’s very much that it takes a village, and when everybody takes a little bit of ownership, we become involved, there’s a sense of buy-in and responsibility.”

Sue Hoppin, another military spouse who founded the National Military Spouse Network and who also attended the White House event, said she was hopeful that the administration’s effort was the beginning of a long-term change in how the government as a whole approaches military family issues.

“This is the first time I think that they’ve approached it at this level,” she said. “There’s a recognition in America now that the responsibility for military families and servicemembers doesn’t just reside at VA or DoD. Our military children are in public schools. Our spouses certainly fall under the Department of Labor. There are interesting things going on at Health and Human Services to help wounded warriors. These agencies should really be talking and breaking down the stovepipes, and coordinating more of an effort at a federal level to support military families.”

Hoppin said new initiatives relating military spousal employment were some of the biggest breakthroughs. The Labor, Commerce and Defense departments, together with the Small Business Administration will help to market veterans and military spouses to private industry as job candidates.

“I’d be surprised if you met a (military) spouse who hasn’t had to write a financial plan for an organization or who hasn’t had to deal with a little PR campaign for a spouse group,” she said. “Just in everyday life, military spouses are gaining valuable experience that makes them very valuable employees.”

Another of the specific interagency commitments announced Monday brings together DoD and the Department Health and Human Services to address the psychological health of military families. Todd Bowers, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps reserve said that was an area that deserved the government’s focus.

“I always tell people that I volunteered for my military service, and subsequently my deployments,” he said. “My family was drafted. That’s something that I don’t think the American public fully understands. The impact that this has is overwhelming for these families at times. Every time I’ve deployed-the four times I’ve deployed since 9/11-each time gets harder and harder for my family. So when I look at this, I’m going to try to put myself in their shoes, because each time that I’m leaving or I’m coming home, it’s not until I see their tears that I fully understand the impact of my choices and what it does to them.”

Bowers, who is also deputy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a servicemember advocacy group, agreed that it makes sense to have a governmentwide approach to services for military families. He said there were already a multitude of agencies involved in providing those services, but they have lacked a framework or a mandate to work together until now.

But Bowers said ensuring that the new commitments go beyond a one-day White House media event will take genuine commitment.

“Effective oversight. That is the best way to put it,” he said. “Both Congress and military advocates need to watch these things and make sure they get implemented in an effective manner. But I have a feeling based on the level of investment that was in that room today that this is going to be something that there’s going to be a lot of follow through on.”

Michelle Obama, the First Lady, emphasized Monday that the release of the report and the signatures of agency heads was not the final step. The President also promised a broader public outreach effort on military family issues. Later this week, Michelle Obama will appear on Oprah to make the case that all Americans should make efforts to support the families of servicemembers.

This story is part of Federal News Radio’s daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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