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What a Real People-First Pentagon Budget Would Include

Family-support and mental-health services need a long-overdue plus-up.

President Biden just rolled out an outline of his annual budget proposal, and analysts from all corners of the D.C. Beltway are flocking to the nearest microphone to lobby for their piece of the budget pie. 

We’re two military spouses adding our voices to the chorus. While military spending often evokes images of jets roaring overhead and uniformed soldiers marching to cadence, so much more goes in to preparing our force to keep America safe. Entire family units serve alongside their loved one in uniform, and their health and resilience are more than a fringe issue – they directly affect force readiness and retention. 

COVID-19 has rightly forced national security experts to re-analyze our conceptions of what kind of spending it takes to keep Americans safe. The pandemic exacerbated existing vulnerabilities within the DoD’s military family support apparatus. Below are three critical areas for investment that deserve attention in these budget debates.

Boost military childcare

In the 1980s, the Military Family Act and the Military Child Care Act passed amid the recognition that childcare and other family services “support the mission readiness, retention, and morale of the total force.” Yet childcare options remain woefully deficient. 

One of the authors spent the last three months of her third pregnancy on bedrest. Her spouse was deployed, so she looked to the local Child Development Center for childcare for her two- and four-year-old. No dice. She lingered on their waiting list for 18 months – hardly helpful for her situation. 

According to the DoD’s 2020 Report to Congress on Child Development Programs, Erin’s experience is more the rule than the exception. Both accessibility and quality of DoD childcare is abysmal. 9,000 military children are currently stuck on waitlists. 135 facilities are in “Poor” or “Failing” condition due to deferred maintenance. And 124 priority CDC projects don’t have funds to move forward. 

Things only got worse as childcare facilities closed or reduced their offerings amid the pandemic. Many service members struggled to find childcare as they got called back in to work. Many of their civilian spouses – who already suffer from an astronomical 25 percent unemployment ratehad to stop working in order to step in. This issue deserves priority in today’s budget. 

Add mental health resources

Much could be (and has been) said about improving DoD mental health offerings, especially in the wake of extended family separations due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. We’d like to see more funding for Military Family and Life Counselors. 

It should come as no surprise that the high operational tempo of our post-9/11 military puts tremendous strain on military families. MFLCs are non-medical clinicians, trained to guide military couples and children through their unique adversities. Confidential and cost-free, these resources have benefitted both of our families personally. Sarah’s family sought out MFLC support during the transition after her spouse’s first deployment. Erin’s kids have met with MFLCs through their school.

But access to MFLCs is not standard across all duty stations. Expanding their budget would ensure every military family could access these critical professionals. 

Compensate spouse leaders

The DoD runs various family support programs that rely on unpaid labor from military spouses. Two examples are the Air Force’s Key Spouses and the Navy’s Ombudsmen. These volunteer leaders put in long hours every month to welcome new families to the area, coordinate local social networking, and deliver meals and holiday baskets new families and those with deployed loved ones. They are required to attend periodic trainings. None of this labor is compensated, and most costs come out of their pocket.

Military spouses understand and take pride in the role we play in the greater national security picture. But after 20 years of wartime operational tempo, many are tired, burnt out, and struggling to cobble together their professional careers. Offering modest stipends to dignify this mission-critical support work being done would speak volumes to our community.

President Biden’s outline proposal purports a 1.7 percent increase to defense-related spending, even though the Pentagon is already at historically high levels. Now that the topline has been set for negotiations, funding for the above priorities would have to come from lateral shifts within the existing defense bucket. We urge policymakers to take a critical eye to various older systems that continue to divert inordinate amounts of dollars away from the people who carry out the Pentagon’s primary missions. 

Sarah Streyder is Executive Director of the Secure Families Initiative and an active-duty military spouse. Erin Anhalt is a veteran spouse and works as a social media consultant.