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White House unveils new approach to military family support

WASHINGTON -- White House officials have released a report that unveils a new, governmentwide approach to military family support and details a sweeping, interagency effort under way to strengthen families and enhance their well-being and quality of life.

President Barack Obama announced the results of a nearly yearlong review of military family support Jan. 24 in a White House ceremony attended by the Defense Department's top brass, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; service chiefs and their spouses.

From child care to health care to spouse employment, the report, titled "Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America's Commitment," identifies the key issues military families face and presents programs and resources government agencies plan to roll out in the coming months to address them.

"This document is the commitment to our military families not only of this government, but this nation in terms of their support, their care and their empowerment," Robert L. Gordon III, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Pentagon's office of military community and family policy, said during a recent interview.

The report outlines four key areas that the governmentwide effort plans to address: enhancing military families' well-being and psychological health, developing military spouse career and education opportunities, increasing child care availability and quality, and ensuring excellence in military children's education and development.

"We're bringing together our agencies, our whole of government, with our whole of nation to focus on those four priority areas," Mr. Gordon said. "The DOD can't do this alone; it does take a whole-of-nation approach."

Mr. Gordon cited counseling services as an example of the benefits of an interagency effort. While Defense Department officials offer counseling through Military OneSource and within military support centers and communities, "we can expand those services and activities with partnership with other sorts of sectors," he said.

The report addresses plans for expanded counseling services in detail, which will greatly benefit military families, Mr. Gordon noted. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 2 million service members have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in an unprecedented frequency, the report said, and, along with service members, military families also are vulnerable to deployment-related stress. The report cited a 2010 study that reports an 11 percent increase in outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of 3- to 8-year-old children of military parents and an increase in behavioral and stress disorders when a parent was deployed.

"We do need to pay attention to the socio-emotional support of our kids," Mr. Gordon said, noting the impact of long parental separations due to deployments. He also acknowledged the additional responsibilities the spouse back home must shoulder in the military member's absence.

"We have devised ways ahead as a government and ... in partnership with the other sectors to do something about that," he said.

The report also lays out new and improved programs to increase behavioral health care services for military families in the coming months. Officials with the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments, for example, are slated to implement a multiyear strategy to promote early recognition of mental health conditions that includes education and coaching for family members and integration of mental health services into primary care, the report said.

DOD officials also are working to boost the number of mental health providers and to increase quality of care. In one effort, a TRICARE military health plan working group is undertaking a yearlong project to provide the best possible health care for the more than 9.6 million beneficiaries beyond 2015, the report said.

Additionally, the Defense and the Health and Human Services secretaries will jointly accelerate efforts that prevent and address suicide, the report said. Meanwhile, VA's national suicide call center will expand and enhance services to combat suicide among veterans.

The report also outlines efforts to protect military families from unfair financial practices, to address homelessness and improve housing security, and to ensure availability of substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery services for veterans and military families.

Mr. Gordon also touched on employment opportunities for spouses.

"Our spouses want to work," he said, noting that of the roughly 700,000 spouses in DOD, 77 percent have expressed a desire to work. "We want to create opportunities for them," Mr. Gordon said.

The report takes a two-tier approach to the issue of employment, he said. First, the government is committed to opening doors to educational opportunities, and then on easing the path to employment.

As an example, he highlighted the Army Spouse Employment Partnership program, which has signed a statement of support with 42 Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies. Since 2003, these companies have hired more than 84,000 Army spouses, the report said. DOD officials plan to enhance and expand this program to Navy, Marine and Air Force spouses, Mr. Gordon added.

"These are the kinds of opportunities we are looking for," he said.

In another effort, officials with the Veterans Affairs, Labor and Defense departments will reform the employment workshop portion of the Transition Assistance Program to include an outreach initiative for military spouses, the report said. The workshop will feature a hands-on, tailored work force readiness program for service members and their spouses, including employment assistance during moves.

Other agencies will educate corporate America on the benefits of hiring from within the military, the report said, and encourage them to hire military spouses.

Turning to military children, Mr. Gordon said a considerable portion of the review was dedicated to looking at the need for more abundant child care. The department has 200,000 military children in the child care system, he noted, and a shortage of about 37,000 child care spaces.

"This is one area we want to focus on," Mr. Gordon said. "You'll see that commitment in this document. It's a partnership that we want to engage with our communities."

This community partnership is vital, he noted, since only about 37 percent of families live on military installations; the remaining 63 percent live in thousands of communities nationwide.

Officials with the Defense, Education, Health and Human Services and Agriculture departments are working together to increase the availability of child care options, the report said. This month, new child care liaison positions will be established through pilot programs in 13 states with identified childcare needs. DOD officials also will leverage partnerships with organizations such as the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the Council on Accreditation and Zero to Three for assistance with training community providers.

Additionally, DOD officials will continue to slate construction projects to meet the demand for increased capacity and to replace aging facilities, the report said.

On education, the report details efforts to ensure excellence in military children's education and development. Officials in the Education Department, for example, will, for the first time, favor grant applications to meet the needs of military-connected students, the report said, and DOD officials are committed to making DOD schools a leader in the use of advanced learning technologies, including software, online courses and student-written and sharable simulations.

To help to reduce the negative impacts of frequent relocations and absences, DOD officials will pursue the complete development of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which addresses mobility-related challenges military children face, such as records transfer and course placement, the report said.

To gain a complete picture of this groundbreaking effort, Mr. Gordon encouraged service members and their families to read the full report.

"What you'll find is how the government and nation really define areas where we can support and care for our families, our service members," he said. "But not only that, it's about empowerment. It's the fact that our families want to be fulfilled. It's the fact that they are assets for the country in those 4,000-plus communities and across the world, and how we can leverage that as well. This document talks about all of these things."