Staff Perspective: Military. Family. Stability!?!

Staff Perspective: Military. Family. Stability!?!

I’ll be honest, the number of bills introduced to Congress that slip my notice far exceeds the number that catch my attention. Recently, however, a bill dubbed The Military Family Stability Act of 2015 was introduced to Congress by Senators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Richard Burr (R-NC). My ears perked up at the title:  Military. Family. Stability!?!? Not in my experience. My 13-plus years as a military spouse have netted 9 nine moves, two dog adoptions, three children, five or six deployments, too many TDYs to possibly count, a Master’s degree, a Ph.D., countless job searches, a lot of starting over…you get the picture. My oldest child is just in 3rd grade, but she has already attended five different schools and lived in four different states (plus, one of them twice!). As a clinical psychologist at Tripler Army Medical Center, a military spouse, the mother of three military children, and the friend of many military spouses and Service members, I have a front row seat to the challenges faced by military families as they (we) transition from duty station to duty station. Legislation that seeks to provide even a modicum of added stability to this (very blessed) crazy life, has my attention.

The Military Family Stability Act of 2015 was introduced as a bill “To amend title 10, United States Code, to provide a period for the relocation of spouses and dependents of certain members of the Armed Forces undergoing a permanent change of station (PCS) in order to ease and facilitate the relocation of military families” (Click here for the full text of the bill). If enacted, the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 would allow eligible military families to relocate up to six months before or after their Service member’s PCS date. Eligible military families include those: (1) with a spouse who is employed and/or enrolled in a formal educational program, (2) with child(ren) enrolled in school, (3) with spouse/child(ren) who are covered by the Exceptional Family Member Program, (4) caring for an immediate family member with chronic/long-term illness, and/or (5) with a Service member “PCSing” as an individual augmentee or other deployment arrangement. The bill allows for military families to remain in military housing or move into military housing during the covered period, even if the Service member is elsewhere; base allowance for housing (BAH) would be applied at the “with dependents” rate for the geographic location of family members until they were reunited with their Service member. The bill also allows for Service members to reside in bachelor’s quarters/government housing or to receive equitable compensation to live elsewhere while geographically separated from family. Finally, the bill allows for flexibility in the timing of transportation of household goods and other personal property. When Senators Blunt, Gillibrand, and Hirono introduced the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 to the public, they called upon two military spouses to share their personal stories as examples of just how challenging military moves can be for spouses and children – you can see the video here.

Most military families I know are incredibly resilient, resourceful, creative, flexible, and proud to serve their country. They find the silver lining in any number of challenges thrown their way and generally “roll with the punches.” In the absence of provisions such as those described above, military families find a way…whether that means deciding to homeschool with the benefit of stability in mind, digging into savings to cover the costs of maintaining two homes (however temporarily), accepting a “compromise” job while continuing to search, or simply finding a way to turn challenges into adventures. There is no denying, however, that PCSs come with considerable added stress. For some families, the added flexibility provided through enactment of the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 might just be a game changer. For the military spouse who has labored to complete a degree program, only to find out his active duty spouse’s report date is 3 months before he can fulfill graduation requirements, six additional months of flexibility might be the difference between starting over in a new location with credits that won’t transfer versus achieving a lifelong goal. For the child who changes elementary schools every two or three years, moving during the summer instead of midway through the school year might ease the transition by allowing him time to settle in before school starts, attend “back-to-school” functions, make friends, and avoid feeling behind or lost in classes that would have otherwise started without him. For the military spouse endeavoring to establish a career, additional flexibility in the timing of a military move might enable her to find a new position that is commensurate with her abilities, education, and training; to make a smooth transition out of a current position; and to avoid having gaps in an otherwise impressive resume. For a military family taking care of a loved one with special needs or a chronic illness, the value of time to plan and prepare for a major transition cannot be overstated.  I can envision countless scenarios in which the provisions of the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 would benefit military families during periods of transition; moreover, the Service members I know are at their best when they know their families are well.

Not surprisingly, the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 is endorsed by wide range of military-family-friendly organizations, including: the National Military Family Association, the Military Officers Association of America, the Military Child Education Coalition, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Veterans Support Foundation. The bill also gained a few additional co-sponsors in the month following its introduction.  However, according to GovTrack’s bill prognosis analysis, the Military Family Stability Act has about a 1% chance of being enacted.  I wish I could say I was surprised by this pessimistic statistic, but with Congress approving decreases in BAH benefits and military pay raises falling well below estimations of private-sector wage growth, legislation striving to alleviate any type of military family financial burden appears to face a steep uphill battle.  Nonetheless, I’m heartened by the introduction of the Military Family Stability Act of 2015 because this proposed legislation highlights meaningful challenges often faced by military families and adds to the ongoing dialogue about how to directly support military families.  My hope is that the conversation continues, leading to increased flexibility in support of: (1) the best possible social, emotional, and educational considerations for military children, (2) military families meeting the needs of loved ones with special considerations, and (3) military spouses successfully pursuing higher education and careers commensurate with their education and experience. 

L. Caitlin Cook, Ph.D. is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, HI.