Military spouses tell what life is like in the world of active duty

The Pentagon keeps tabs on the status and attitudes of military spouses. Its biannual survey asks about satisfaction with military life, finances, employment an...

The Pentagon keeps tabs on the status and attitudes of military spouses. Its biannual survey asks about satisfaction with military life, finances, employment and a list of other factors. For what leadership learns and how they use it, the Federal Drive Host Tom Temin  spoke with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, Patricia Barron.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin All right. And the latest survey is out in the field. Fair to say?

Patricia Barron Correct. It currently is being fielded, and we’re hoping that many spouses have received it in the mail or are learning more about it.

Tom Temin And by the way, is it a male survey that they fill out with a pen and pencil and mail back, or can they do it online?

Patricia Barron They can totally do it online. And there’s also a QR code that we have that they can scan to make it really easy for them to do so.

Tom Temin And give us a sense of the scope. How many military spouses are there? Probably most members have a spouse, I would think for the majority.

Patricia Barron Well, more than half of our military service members are married. Therefore, we’re looking at about 600,000 active duty military spouses.

Tom Temin Wow. And what is your historically the return rate that you’re getting the participation rate in the survey.

Patricia Barron We actually did pretty well the last time we feel that this the percentage went up a bit more than we have had in previous iterations. So we’re excited that we’re going to be able to increase that percentage even more. So we’re trying to get to about 25% return rate, which would be fantastic.

Tom Temin Yeah, that’s a really projectable sample. If you get 150, 200,000 or so returns.

Patricia Barron Absolutely. And every single one of those returns tells a story and we are anxious to hear about it.

Tom Temin And do you get a good geographical distribution because a spouse in Okinawa may have different concerns than a spouse in Parris Island?

Patricia Barron Absolutely. We send [Continental United States (CONUS)] and [Outside Continental United States (OCONUS)] and I would also say that while you’re taking the survey, you’re able to tell us exactly where you are.

Tom Temin Got it. And what do you ask? What are some of the key questions?

Patricia Barron What’s important to us is to really hear from our spouses about their current status, of their satisfaction with military life. What types of things can we do to increase the quality of life that they’re experiencing? I’m a 30 year active duty spouse, certainly grew up in the Army as an Army spouse, currently have a daughter that’s an active duty spouse and a veteran. And so the discussions that I have with many, many younger spouses are important to me. But having this survey fielded is the best way for the [Department of Defense (DoD)] to get responses back from the field. And we really use the information that we received to look at our current quality of life programs and make adjustments as needed.

Tom Temin And that brings up an interesting question. If the couple, if both spouses are in the military, are they both military spouses and therefore they can fill out the survey?

Patricia Barron I have had active duty spouses, mostly females, tell me that they receive the survey in the mail. And so there are an active duty service member, as well as an active duty spouse. So perhaps the answer is yes.

Tom Temin Yeah. Interesting philosophical question, I guess, because there are spouses in the military member and both sides are both of the couple. Give us a sample of the kind of learnings that you say received in the last round that were significant enough for, say, the Pentagon, the brass to wake up and look at this and maybe take action.

Patricia Barron The last time we did something really interesting. We asked two open ended questions. And so we were able to receive qualitative data as well as quantitative data. To tell you the truth, those open ended questions gave us a lot of insight into the current status of how spouses are feeling about their military life. For the most part, I think that we heard that there was satisfaction with military life, but there were certainly some points of what I would say pain point. Childcare is always something that comes up, just not having enough childcare available to those spouses that want to be in the workforce. Speaking of workforce, you PCS so many times throughout your military spouses career that maintaining a career, finding employment can be very, very difficult. So we heard that loud and clear. We also heard an awful lot about work life balance. That’s something that young generation really values. And we took that into account. And so what have we done with, let’s just take those three topics for instance, when it comes to childcare, spouse employment and work life balance. Certainly with childcare, besides the military construction bills that have come out that look at building new child development centers in the near future, we also need to look at that now. And one of the things that we realized was that we hadn’t looked at the childcare workforce in a very long time, and we needed to see if we were competitive still with the childcare market. And we took a deep dive into that, came up with an awful lot of ideas on how to better develop that workforce so that we can get the best people to come in entry level and then stay with us and hopefully grow with us into leadership position.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Patricia Barron. She’s assistant secretary of defense for Military, Community and Family Policy. And do go on. You were talking about some of the results in what the Pentagon has done about it.

Patricia Barron Exactly. So as I mentioned, the child care workforce development. Look, we’re proud of looking into that and hopefully we’ll see some great outcomes from that. The second thing that I would say is, again, looking at military spouse employment, really excited about the military spouse career accelerator pilot, which is a fellowship that we are doing with industry, where we are paying for 12 weeks of fellowship time with different businesses across the country. And we hope that at the end of those 12 weeks, military spouses will get offered permanent positions. And that pilot is working out great. We’re seeing close to 84%, 85% offering up permanent positions with those industry partners. And it’s going gangbusters. And we’re in year two now, and that’s been received very, very well. We’re learning a lot about the types of employment that spouses are looking for, and the types of skill sets that industry partners are looking for. So that helps us as well. And then I think I mentioned work life balance. Where does the military community family policy come into play? Well, we own a military welfare and recreation policy, MWR policy. So I’ve asked our team to look at what opportunities are out there for families to get together when they do have time off. Are we looking at outdoor recreation? Are we doing more in that space, or are we making it so that families can come together at certain places on the installation?

Tom Temin I want to come back to the question of careers, because one of the difficult challenges over the years has been licenses that don’t transfer from state to state. In some sense, people that are say, I’m making this up. Computer programmers are more portable than someone that does manicures, where you need a license from state to state that doesn’t transfer.

Patricia Barron That’s absolutely right. I myself am a registered nurse, started out that way, and I have seven state licenses that I’ve gathered throughout my husband’s 30 year career. And so we know that licensing and reciprocity and portability is incredibly important. What ended up happening last year on Jan. 5, actually, I remember that because that was my anniversary day. The president signed Jan.5,  we had new legislation that basically asked the state to provide licensed reciprocity to spouses when they PCS into that state. Now, states are still looking at what that means to them and how they’re going to implement that law. But in the meantime, our Defense State Liaison Office has done incredible work around the interstate compacts for different career paths, and we see an awful lot of success there and hope for more success.

Tom Temin And one of the issues other elements of the military have struggled with is the housing problem areas where the housing is substandard or contractors operate dumpy apartment buildings or the military itself does, and then moving contracts that can really be a bugaboo, and they’re having trouble getting that all redone through the contracting mechanisms. Does it ever get frustrating to see these things come up on the survey? And yet, you don’t really control military housing or the moving contract and so forth. How do you project the results to make sure that you can say, hey, brass, listen to this, look at this. I mean, you are brass, so maybe you’re at the table.

Patricia Barron That’s exactly right. What I would tell you is that we take all the information and we don’t just keep it to ourselves. We share it with every one of our DoD colleagues that have skin in the game, equity, the ability to make changes. And because of the survey results that we received on a lot of different issues, we’re able to take it to other different departments within the department, if you will, and give them a heads up that this is starting to really bubble up, and we need to get very serious about looking into it. And we have. There’s been an awful lot of new policies that have been put in place to get after the housing crisis, which, as you know, happened about 4 or 5 years ago. There’s been a lot of work done around that. And when I go out and I visit with spouses at different installations, I ask specifically about how things are going and some of the areas that I’m not responsible for, just so I can bring back that updated information and share with my colleagues.

Tom Temin And by the way, does the survey take data about gender and race and those kinds of things so that you can sift the data and attitudes according to different demographic pieces?

Patricia Barron We do in the demographic section of the survey, but we don’t specifically ask about DEIA.

Tom Temin But can you tell us whether women have greater issue with a particular topic than men or black people have a particular attitude toward a given parameter versus white people or Hispanic people, that kind of thing.

Patricia Barron I believe if we were to really parse out the demographic information and compare it to answers. Obviously, everyone can be very secure that their answers are private and actually not anything that we can get back to and say, oh, this person said this thing. It’s a very secure survey in that respect. But overall, we can see if enough people have answered in a certain demographic, we can kind of tell that there might be something that we can glean from those specific demographic categories. But I would say overall, just to remind your audience and our fellow military spouses that’s why it’s so important to take this survey. And so the survey can be found at I’ll say that one more time, Because everything that you tell us is important, and the more of you that take it, the better we can look at different specific areas, as well as demographic areas to see where we can make some changes.

Tom Temin Any other big topics we should know about?

Patricia Barron Yeah, this is a really good news story about some of the changes to policy and programs that we’ve done based on the results. One is the pet transportation policy that just went into place that allows for pets to be transferred during a PCS, and then also dependent care flexible spending account for our military families.

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