April 12, 2011

Uncle Sam Wants You ... To Reach Out To Help America's Military Families

The White House launched a national campaign Tuesday to better assist military troops, veterans, and their families struggling with the aftermath of 10 years of war.

Military assistance groups acknowledge that troops and their families continue to grapple with often-hidden wounds of war. These include not only the 43,000 troops who have sustained combat injuries, but also those who face financial pressures and children who are falling behind in school.

These plights often go unacknowledged by much of the country, say US military officials, pointing to perhaps the most-cited statistic among troops – that less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the US armed forces.

The new White House initiative, called Joining Forces, will focus on improving employment opportunities, education, and mental health among troops and their families. To that end, the White House is working to bring nonmilitary communities into the fold, to partner with small businesses and community organizations in “an unprecedented national campaign,” first lady Michelle Obama said Tuesday.

The national effort “is the result of everything that you have shared over the past two years,” Mrs. Obama told a White House audience of current and retired military service members, and administration officials including President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. “These families appealed to us, ‘Please don’t let Americans forget what we deal with.’ ”

Troops, veterans, and their families continue to grapple with a number of problems that are unknown to average Americans, military officials say.

Among the most significant – and one that the White House initiative aims to address – are the 43 percent of Guard and Reserve troops who comprise US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan yet get far less support than active duty troops. Because these service members and their families do not live on military bases, for example, they do not have the same access to community resources and care as active-duty troops do, officials note.

The children of Guard and Reserve troops often suffer as a result. They demonstrate higher levels of “disengagement” than do children of their active-duty counterparts and show greater difficulty adjusting to having their parents back home upon return from deployment, according to a study from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that will be helping to administer the new White House initiative.

The White House is reaching out to local parent-teacher associations, to encourage them to help smooth the transition of military children.

Homelessness continues to plague veterans, as well. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. The Veterans Administration estimates that 107,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night. While only 8 percent of the US population are veterans, veterans make up 20 percent of the homeless population, according to the coalition.

Much of the stress placed on troops and their families is the result of the rapid pace of deployments in the 10 years since the war in Afghanistan began, say military officials. Of the 2.2 million US troops who have deployed during that time, some 800,000 have served multiple tours, including 25 percent who have gone to war three or more times, notes the CNAS report.

These deployments create stress and financial strain for spouses as well, who often have a more difficult time holding down jobs because of the frequent moves among military families and the need to care for children while another spouse is fighting a war.

The Joining Forces initiative will bring in businesses including Sears, Kmart, and Sam’s Club, which have agreed that when troops move to a new duty station, they will endeavor to have jobs waiting for military spouses.

“Certainly employment is a huge issue – not only for our veterans who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for the military spouses who are so important for the financial well-being of the family,” says Jim Knotts, president and CEO of Operation Homefront, an aid organization for military families.

The financial stress on military families exists side by side with the nation’s economic woes. There has been a “greater than 100 percent increase in requests for food assistance among military families in the past two years” at Operation Homefront, says Mr. Knotts. The organization offers cash grants primarily to junior and mid-grade enlisted soldiers for rent, car repairs, and utility payments.

While the White House initiative will be welcome help for military families, Knotts says, “The challenge is for everyone to do something – it can be as meaningful as making a contribution to a veterans’ organization to cutting grass for a neighbor whose spouse is deployed,” he adds. “It can be babysitting so that the mom who is that single parent during deployment can have a mental break.”

 Click here to read CNAS' An Indispensable Force:Investing in America's National Guard and Reserves Report.