Give military families the support that they have so honorably earned

In March, the House of Representatives called on President Barack Obama to declare 2009 as the Year of the Military Family. Such resolutions are a time-honored way for Congress to declare its support and appreciation. But it is important that we build on this gesture and provide the benefits our service members and their families have earned and deserve.

Yet after years of war, military families believe they are not appreciated. In May, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and I attended a roundtable in the Capitol on military families. A group of military spouses presented us with the results of a survey of 3,000 military families.

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An astounding 94 percent of those families felt that the sacrifices they make are not appreciated by the rest of our nation. Clearly, there is still a widespread perception and feeling that they are an isolated group in our country.

Military families face unique challenges compared to the average American family. Multiple and long-term deployments, stop-loss deployments, moving around the country, and PTSD and TBI issues are not common to most civilian families, but are faced everyday by our military families.

It is critical for us to convey through words and actions to the men and women who serve our nation in uniform that they are deserving of the highest praise and our best efforts to protect the programs that are the foundation for their quality of life.

However, despite our intentions, there are indications from service members and their families that the programs designed to assist military families are not, in some instances, living up to expectations.

At a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, I posed a question to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the concerns of our military families. They candidly acknowledged inconsistencies in executing these programs.

We know that these services can rise to excellence. When it comes to training our service members for combat, we are the best in the world. We must apply the same level of commitment and attention to programs that support military families.

Taking a step in the right direction, Secretary Gates should be commended for his focus on people and families in this year’s budget, and for working with Congress to improve military quality of life. Among support programs, we are seeing increased resources.

Benefits and support play an important role and demonstrate the enormous challenge in keeping people in the service. After years of difficult recruiting, we are seeing an uptick in recruitment and retention numbers.

Continued and improved support for military families can only help sustain and enhance these numbers. Military spouses are a key to maintaining the stability of the family, especially while the service members are deployed for long periods of time. Many spouses provide a second income. This often means a need for employment and education support.

Congress, through the Military Personnel Subcommittee, has taken steps to help spouses further their educations and careers. A tuition assistance program was established for eligible military spouses to develop portable careers. The secretary of Defense can also establish education and training programs for military spouses.

Jobs and classes mean a need for childcare. If military parents are going to work or educate themselves to provide for their family, they will need assistance in taking care of their children.

Unfortunately, we are seeing long waiting lists for access to the military childcare system. In an effort to alleviate this, the Department of Defense, with the support of Congress, has increased its child development centers to accommodate an additional 13,000 children. The economic recovery package included $80 million for the construction of several additional centers to address the current shortage.

The stop-loss policy has put an enormous strain on service members and their families. The secretary has approved a plan to stop stop-loss.

The department has implemented stop-loss pay at a rate of $500 for each month a service member is involuntarily retained. Of course, this is just a small sample of the myriad of issues facing military families on which Congress will continuously focus.

It is not a stretch to say that service members and military families are more satisfied when they are taken care of adequately.

Proper support for family members can mean greater recruitment and retention, less strife within a marriage and families, and better performance by service members themselves.

Whereas combat troops have support units in the field, service members have support units at home — their families. Just as we make sure the support units in the fields have what they need to back up their comrades, so must we make sure that military families have the support they need.

Davis chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.