An update on the Army’s push to better support service member families

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At the Association of the U.S. Army Conference, just concluded, topics ranged from international strategy to the health and well being of individual soldiers and their families. One issue has been housing. Another is spouse employment. For an update on both of those issues, Federal Drive with Tom Temin caught up with the deputy commander of the Army Installation Management Command, Maj. Gen. Omar Jones.

Interview transcript:

Omar Jones: Well, we’ll tell you – we were as a military, but specifically the Army, we were in a tough situation about three years ago in the winter of ’19. And it all really kind of came to a head. But Tom will tell you where we are now, and I’ll tell you how we got here. We’re very good position right now. What we learned from the housing crisis that struck us in early February ’19, and it was many years in the making was that we needed to embrace our partners even closer. We needed to move forward, we represent the government, and we take care of our people, our soldiers or family members, our civilians that are living in the houses, and to make sure that they have safe quality housing that they deserve. And what we have done is we’ve increased the oversight, we have strengthened the partnerships with our privatized partners that are out there that run the housing for us, and our partners invested well over a billion dollars just in the past three years to improve the quality of homes. There’s approximately 87,000 homes in the Army that are privatized – all stateside, not overseas. And we have a plan that by end of the decade, every single one of those 87,000 homes will either be new or renovated. So we’ll have hands-on to make sure that again, at the right quality, safe at the right standard, we approved responsiveness. So when people do have a problem in the house that they’re getting, folks are going to come out and are going to fix that problem in an appropriate reasonable amount of time. And just the communication – communication, keeping the residents informed. I will tell you every single Monday, either myself or my commander Lt. Gen. Doug Gabram meets, we review every single family in the Army who is displaced, and it usually is about 50 out of 87,000. And those are planned, maybe it’s a pipe that burst or something but making sure those families get taken care of throughout the process to get them back in their homes. And then we sit down every week with one of the partners and we go through every single one of the installations we partner with them. And we go through how responsive they’re being to maintenance requests, how quickly they’re able to get a house ready for the next occupants to move in, then what’s the long term plan to make sure that the quality we have today is what we have in five and 10 years. So we learned a lot but I’m happy with where we are and I’m much happier with where we’re going.

Tom Temin: And it sounds like you have kind of a dashboard almost to see what’s going on across the board there?

Omar Jones: We do, by partner, by installation, or however you want to look at it to make sure that you can see ourselves and that we can anticipate a problem and fix it well before it impacts our soldiers and families.

Tom Temin: Now does this – any of this spill over into the barracks which are the Army-owned types of facilities?

Omar Jones: It does, and is you’ve heard the Army leadership talk for the past few years, and then absolutely here this week, the Army’s number one priority is people. The Army doesn’t work without people. And investing in our people and the quality of life of our people is key to their readiness, key to taking care of their families, key to attracting Americans who want to raise their hand and join the Army. And one of those quality of life initiatives is our barracks. And we have put significant effort into making sure that again, it’s the right quality, just like we’ve done for our family housing, the right quality in the barracks, that maintenance is responsive, and it’s the right quality when they come in, they fix things. When you have an application now that I’ve been talking about the past couple days, or told you to take a picture of problem they have in the barracks posted in the app, maintenance comes out. They’ve already seen the picture. They know what to do, go to the Army maintenance app, and they can fix it right there on the spot while keeping the soldier informed. So again, being responsive to their needs across the board, but also look over 10 years of investment. As we look at all facilities across the Army, the number one type of facilities we’re investing in is our barracks so we can take care of those single soldiers and making sure that it’s a quality place that they want to live that they can call home and be proud of while they’re living in the barracks.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I understand I’m probably the last to realize this, my idea of barracks dated back to 1980s drill sergeant movies.

Omar Jones: A little different now.

Tom Temin: There’s nothing like that anymore.

Omar Jones: It is not. The new standard has been approved by the the third major of the Army on behalf of the Army leadership is what we call “4+2.” So it’s four soldiers each have their own rooms, but it’s a suite together, two bathrooms – latrines – that are in there, but they are individual bathrooms so that way, it is much more likely what you would find in an apartment or something. Still, military barracks – you know standards are expected but it’s where our soldiers live, and we want to make sure they’ve got a good safe quality room in the barracks.

Tom Temin: All right, and getting back to the housing issue is families. Families means spouses, still mostly female, but a growing number of male spouses in the Army. And give us an update on the spouse employment situation, this seems to be something that is so important to quality of life and something that, again across the military, has been a struggle for so many years as the change of duty stations happens.

Omar Jones: And Tom, it is. I graduated from West Point in 1992. So I’m coming up on 30 years in the Army this next spring. And when I look at how much the Army has changed, and I think candidly in very positive ways, over those three decades, one of them has been that there are a lot more spouses that are working today, than were working in 1992. And that’s across America, but definitely for this conversation for the military, and for the Army. The army does have unique challenges because we do move so often. It’s to make sure that you have the Army at Fort Bragg is the same thing at the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, same thing as the Army at Fort Riley – wherever you go, standards, how we operate, how we work together, all of those things should be the same. It’s the United States Army. But the other side of the moving is the impact on our people and the impact on our families. And we spent a lot of time trying to reduce that impact. That’s one more of the quality of life initiatives is making the permanent change of station experience better. But the key pieces is for the spouses. How are they able to find them – if they desire – employment, but if they desire employment, how can the Army help them with that transition? And we’ve got offices in Army Community Services so that even before a spouse leaves the losing installation, they can reach out to the gaming installation, and say, this is the type of work I’m doing. This is the type of certifications I have, how can you help me either before or definitely when I get there, so I continue to be employed? And the Army is invested in that, to make sure that spouses’ ability to have the kind of job they want to have with the potential for advancement that they want to have doesn’t become a choice, doesn’t become a choice between the spouse and the soldier. It is something that the soldier can have successful military career, and the spouse can pursue his or her career in parallel. My wife works and we balanced that as well. She’s a school counselor here in Maryland, and we balanced that as well as she works through how to work in the school system and serve families in that capacity while I’m serving in uniform.

Tom Temin: And counseling is a good example for one of the issues and that is recognition of certifications and licensing in one state, by other states. And has there been in that goes everything from school counselors, which is a high level profession, to you know, nail salons where you need a license. And so is there been progress on that front?

Omar Jones: There has been and that’s clearly a continuous ongoing conversation between local jurisdictions, the states and the federal government in some cases. But the key for our families is that the Army is advocating for them. And where the Army can cut through red tape when the when the Army can help set conditions for certification mobility between different states, between different installations, the Army is here to help with that. I think if we’d had this conversation, 30- 40 years ago, probably wouldn’t have talked about what is the Army doing. The Army sees as part of our responsibility to take care of our people to help the spouses with that mobility.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Maj. Gen. Omar Jones, deputy commanding general of the installations management command. And what can you tell us about the upcoming permanent change of station season? It’s been rough for a couple of years, given the pandemic.

Omar Jones: It has been. And the Army made a number of changes with support from the Department of Defense to make it easier. Things such as increase the incentive to do the move on your own. You used to get about 80% of the cost you would get back, now it’s 100%. So if you decide – and it’s a choice – but you want to do the move on your own, you will get 100% reimbursement for all those costs.

Tom Temin: On your own means you hire a U-haul and move all your junk in there.

Omar Jones: Exactly, exactly – but even if you do a partial, meaning that you even just load things in your own vehicle, the military will pay you for any of the move that you do on your own, whether it’s some or all. But also report dates, where a soldier will get a report date. You have to report your new installation on the first of August, for example. If we can’t set conditions with the movers, if we can’t set conditions with the housing, child care, whatever, there’s flexibility to shift those report dates at the local level. They can make those decisions.

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