Category Archives: Speaking up

45 Years of Advocacy #WayBackWednesday

This year, our Association celebrates its 45th anniversary. That’s 197,100 days of advocacy and support for military families! From our roots as the Military Wives Association, to our present-day programs, scholarships, and resources, we continue to stand for this Nation’s service members and their families.

And, yes, our fashion sense is still just as snazzy as our founding Mothers’!

Is there something our Association can help your military family with? Leave us a comment and let us know how we can help!

71-MWA-1ST--BOD-----B

The Military Wives Association’s very first Board of Directors meeting, 1971

Did You Know? #WayBackWednesday

Did you know, in 1985, the National Military Family Association became the first organization to testify before a Senate subcommittee on the critical issue of health care for military families? But what’s affecting military families in 2014? Find out what pro-military family legislation you should know about.

ted-kennedy-and-margaret-hallgren

Former Association President, Margaret Vinson Hallgren speaks as the late Senator Ted Kennedy listens.

The Budget is a Game of ‘Survivor’ for Military Families

Spouse Summit 2014 3“Why are we cannibalizing ourselves?”

As I looked around the table at Military.com’s Spouse Summit, I found myself in a heated discussion with eight courageous, committed spouses, including a Military Spouse of the Year who cares for her husband who has a traumatic brain injury, a woman who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and another one who created an online blogging community for military spouses.

Our mission was simple – or was it? Rank 15 military family benefits from most important to least, cutting the 5 that we deem least important altogether.

My table was all women whose spouses have 6-10 years of service. The caregiver spouse voiced her desperation to keep non-medical counseling and other family service programs that have helped to guide her family. Some were ready to cut the Post-9/11 GI Bill for spouses and kids, while others thought it was more important than Basic Housing Allowance (BAH).

spouse summit 2014 2Across the room, a senior spouse questioned our desire to help pay for our kids’ college education, “How many of us paid for college ourselves?”

Most people raised their hands.

Though every cut hurts, it’s the slash after slash that leaves us bleeding. Whether I prioritize Commissary benefits over guaranteed pay raises or retirement benefits… it all comes out of the same place: our pockets.

“Why aren’t other government agencies doing this same thing? Having this same discussion?”

Are employees of the Treasury or the Federal Trade Commission having roundtable discussions about what benefits they’re willing to sacrifice to balancing the budget? Are they facing cuts at all?

Why does it feel like we’re on an island all alone, left to ration what little we have left? Why are we always putting ourselves on the chopping block?

What benefits do you think are most important? Share them with us in the comments or go a step farther – write to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) and tell them your story!

shannonPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Online Engagement Manager

Testimony Countdown: Getting the Military Family Message to Congress

Kathy-testimonyHave you ever been invited to testify before Congress? It’s a rare opportunity, and no matter how many times it happens (30+ times for our Association since Operation Enduring Freedom) it really gets your adrenaline pumping. Our next opportunity is this week—March 26th.

Years of listening to military family concerns, years of becoming experts in military health care, child care, spouse employment, and our premier issue – the well-being of military families- go into crafting our statement. Since last year, we’ve been faced with the threats of sequestration and a proposed budget that asks military families to sacrifice once again. We’ve been asking Congress to remember military families, and to understand that the resources to keep those families ready must be sustained not diminished.

So where do we begin?

  1. We develop our position. We start with our blueprint – the 2014 Legislative and Policy Priorities. We add in the newest information from the budget proposal and analyze the impact it will have on military families. We spend a lot of time in discussion – with other advocates, with subject matter experts. We talk to military families – our volunteers, the ones we interact with on social media. We ask questions through surveys and through our scholarship applications.
  2. We write, rewrite and then rewrite again. All the Government Relations deputy directors – Eileen, Karen and Brooke – have been glued to their keyboards crafting their sections of the testimony for the past two weeks. We worry about writing too much or not writing enough. We need to include enough background to put the issue in context. While I have certain sections to write in my areas of expertise, it’s my job as director to compile all the pieces.
  3. We make tough editing decisions. Our initial document—all 30 pages of it—then went to our Government Relations advisory committee. They all agree it’s too, too long. But what do we leave out??? Joyce Raezer, our Executive Director, and I spent several hours one evening going over the statement line by line to make sure we captured every concept we needed to. Katie, our information manager, did a long distance final edit that (hopefully) captured every typo.
  4. We seal it with a social media kiss. On Friday morning, we declared it “done” and sent the statement on its way to the Subcommittee staff. This year, we’ve incorporated our Communications department more closely into the process. We want military families like yours to know exactly what we are fighting for, and we want to give you the opportunity to raise your voice with us.

I have one thing left to write: my 3-minute oral statement that I’ll give at the hearing. Condensing everything we’ve worked on into a few short minutes will be difficult, but I won’t be alone. Three other members of The Military Coalition will testify alongside me. Those panelists will talk about compensation, health care, and the concerns of the National Guard and Reserve. I’ll use my time to talk about why the savings we get from shopping at the commissary are vital, and how our families rely on family support programs and resources not only during deployment but to empower us during uncertain times. I’ll also reinforce the importance of support for surviving families and for the caregivers of the wounded, ill and injured.

After our statements, we’ll answer questions from the Senators who attend the hearing.

You already know what I’ll say – it’s what you told us to say. We’ve listened, and we’ll make sure that Congress hears you loud and clear on Wednesday and on the days to follow.

You can read our statement on line right after we present it. You can also watch the hearing live online and follow us on Twitter where we’ll be live tweeting throughout the day.

Tomorrow is the day. Will you tune in to see our testimony before Congress?

kathyPosted by Kathleen Moakler, Government Relations Director

Special Operations Forces: A War Weary Community Needs Support

air-force-special-ops

When Secretary Hagel dropped his budget proposals in February, it did not recommend cuts to US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). As a spouse who spent over a decade living the Special Operations Forces (SOF) family life, I can say I am relieved that they will not suffer direct budget cuts, but this also carries with it a significant amount of worry. No cuts, means the same or more missions, right?

You see, while SOCOM funds SOF missions, the programs that support families and dependents are provided by the “big” Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. SOCOM’s service members will be equally hurt by low pay raises, decreased Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) and changes to TRICARE. As “big Service” budgets get smaller, and the operational tempo for SOF families continues or increases, where will they get their support?

In 2010, Admiral Eric Olson, then Commander of SOCOM, initiated a study of SOF warriors and their families and was able to document a “fraying” of the force with strong data. Admiral William McRaven turned those concerns into Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF). POTFF primarily helps the service member focus on physical, spiritual, mental, and social issues. Of course, this assists the family as a whole, but POTFF programs aimed at the families are limited because of legal restrictions on who SOCOM can spend money on and how.

I have loved the idea of POTFF since its inception. I was part of those who were studied in 2010. I KNOW this fraying. I knew that I needed to do whatever I could to help future SOF spouses avoid the fraying that I felt for many years.

I am terrified that budget cuts to the programs provided by the Services will devastate everyone, but particularly SOF families because while the war draws down in Afghanistan, the SOF mission does not.

SOF families endure operational tempos and unpredictability in an unending cycle. Resiliency is NOT optional, and it comes at a cost. There were years when I had friends ask me if I was happy, and I could only answer, “I will be, when he’s home.” That routine lasted and lasted–it was the ‘SOF life.’

I can say that I am stronger than I ever imagined I would or could be, but I still cry for the new mom who, despite being a SOF spouse for three years, couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The family programs offered at our installation were stellar, but the amount of people deployed at any given time and in constant rotation needed far more manpower than the military family programs could offer. Our Airman & Family Readiness Center was staffed for the regular Air Force mission, not SOCOM’s.

So, now with Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy budgets shrinking, while SOCOM’s remains unchanged, what happens to those spouses and families? Of the 1% who serve in the military, 67,000 are in SOF units – a remarkably small, but growing number. The vision for the future of SOF is one of expansion. The stress will not decrease for these families. They have not and will not get a break. Our SOF families NEED adequate support for their growing missions from the Services, Defense Department, and Congress.

We are war weary – don’t forget us and the unique mission our service members provide within the military community.

Brooke-GoldbergPosted by Brooke Goldberg, Government Relations Deputy Director

Captains and Majors: Here’s Your Pink Slip

soldier-on-ledgeEven though I’ve been tracking the Army drawdown as part of my role here at the Association, it still came as a shock when I realized that my family would be affected. I was at work one day when I read an announcement regarding the Captain/Major Involuntary Separation Boards scheduled for this spring. I emailed my husband to ask if anyone we knew was affected. Thirty seconds later the phone rang. It was my husband. “Karen,” he said, “That’s us. My year group is going before the board.”

We remain a Nation at war.

I think my disconnect stems from the fact that our Army community is still so immersed in the war. One of our friends just returned from his fifth deployment. After spending over 5 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’ll be going before the board in April. Another is deploying to Afghanistan this spring. His wife was in tears at his promotion ceremony as guests discussed his impending departure. Just a few weeks ago, my own husband came home and informed me that his group had been hit with several WIAS (Worldwide Individual Augmentation System) taskers, meaning another potential deployment for him.

On some level I understood a drawdown was inevitable, but I guess I never expected to be simultaneously worried about a deployment to Afghanistan and a pink slip because my husband’s service is no longer needed.

One of my biggest concerns is how we are going to continue to meet the challenges of Army life with this additional level of uncertainty. This is not the sort of job you can do with one foot out the door. My husband’s Army career, including 3 deployments and 5 PCS moves, has required 100% commitment not only from him, but from our entire family. It is hard for me to imagine tackling similar challenges in the future while also preparing for the possibility of being shown the door.

After adjusting to the shock, I did what I always do when I’m anxious. I kicked into high research gear. I compiled all the information that we’ve received and briefed our volunteers at Fort Leavenworth, a post with a high population of majors attending Command and General Staff College (CGSC.)

Here is what we know:

  • Almost 19,000 Army Captains and Majors will be screened for separation and early retirement boards this spring. The boards could select up to 20% (3,800) of the considered population for involuntary separation.
  • Officers subject to these boards are Army Competitive Category Captains in year groups 2006, 2007, and 2008 and Majors in year groups 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003.
  • The Officer Separation Board (OSB) will screen officers with fewer than 18 years of active federal service (AFS). The Enhanced Selective Early Retirement Board (E-SERB) will screen officers with 18 or more years AFS.
  • Officers selected for separation by the E-SERB will be allowed to serve their 20 years, earning them full retirement benefits.
  • Those selected for separation by the OSB are eligible for involuntary separation pay, provided they have at least 6 years AFS.
  • Selected officers with at least 15 years AFS on the date of their separation are also eligible to request consideration for early retirement under the Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA). It will be the officer’s choice to select separation pay or TERA. Please note TERA is discretionary, not an entitlement.
  • The boards convene in April/May of 2014.
  • Decisions are expected to be released in August 2014.
  • There will be no “re-look” or “standby” boards, and a very limited appeals process.
  • Actual separation will occur no earlier than the 1st day of the 9th month following release of the boards’ results (e.g., if the results are released in August 2014, separation will occur in May 2015)
  • Officers in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) will be considered by the boards. If selected, the separation date will be determined on a case by case basis.
  • Officers with non-statutory Active Duty Service Obligations (ADSOs) incurred for military schooling, PCS, etc. will be considered by the board. If selected for separation, the non-statutory ADSO will be waived.
  • Officers with statutory ADSOs (e.g., Tuition Assistance, Advanced Civil Schooling, Critical Skills Retention Bonus) will be considered by the board. If selected for separation, the ADSO will be waived and the officer will not be required to repay any unearned portion of the pay or benefit received. As a condition of receiving separation pay, officers who have a statutory ADSO waived must serve in the Ready Reserve for three years.
  • Selection for separation will have no impact on GI Bill benefits for the officer’s own use. In addition, members who transferred benefits to dependents prior to selection will retain their transfer and not face recoupment if they agree to serve until the mandatory separation date.

Captains and Majors in the affected year groups are encouraged to have their photos updated and to scrub their board files. They should receive guidance from their chain of command in terms of reviewing their official record and preparing it for the board.

Is your family concerned about involuntary separation and drawdowns? Please share your questions and concerns.

karen-rPosted by Karen Ruedisueli, Government Relations Deputy Director

Some are All Talk…We’re Not!

Girl-with-Yellow-Ribbon“Our Association’s highest priority is to fight for military families. We fight to protect the programs and services that allow them to meet the challenges of military life and maintain readiness. Our Nation’s leaders cannot ignore the promises they made to those currently serving as they prepare to shape the force of the future.”

Each year, the National Military Family Association develops our Legislative and Policy Priorities list. We don’t do it in a vacuum. We incorporate the concerns we’ve heard from military families. We listen to what our volunteers are telling us from the field. We look at gaps in legislation that has already been passed. We dust off some issues that we’ve promoted for years. We beat the drum on the need for sustaining the programs military families use that work. We seek advice from our Board of Governors and other experts.

This year we paid special attention to the uproar on social media when the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for retired pay was reduced by one percent, as well as when military families were impacted by sequestration and the government shutdown. We heard you loud and clear! Our military families and their service members never fail to answer the call. In return, our government has promised to provide them with the resources to keep them ready. You asked Congress to #KeepYourPromise, and in our priorities, we ask Congress and Department of Defense (DoD) to do just that.

We ask Congress and DoD to guarantee, and sustain, the resources necessary to safeguard the readiness of military families. Like protecting the commissaries, where savings are such an important part of compensation. And ensuring access to high quality health care and preventive health care services. Our families are still healing from over a decade of war – they need medical and non-medical counseling readily available. Our kids have served, too – make sure the schools they go to thrive with help from Impact Aid and DoD grants and supplemental aid. Although the wars are winding down, don’t forget the wounded and their caregivers, who still face the uncertainties of their recoveries or the new realities they must deal with as a family.

There are some areas where the readiness of our military families can be improved and refined. We need more forward motion on standardizing programs for families with special needs across the Services. Enhance the spread of information about tools to help military spouses with education and employment. Some families need to be better equipped to react to the stresses of military life that can result in domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, and sexual assault. Help them negotiate the confusion of installation, State and Federal agencies. Our survivors need to be able to receive all the benefits they are entitled to – end the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset to Survivor Benefit Plan. And how can we better prepare those families who are facing an end to their military service, through their choice or the government’s, while they are still serving? How do we help them negotiate a successful transition to civilian life?

I’ve just given you a quick overview of our priorities’ statement – the Association Legislative and Policy Priorities for for 2014. It gives us a starting point. By no means do we limit our advocacy to these few issues. We expand on it for our statement to the Armed Services Committees. We refine it when necessary to shine a light on a specific issue or policy. Read it over and let us know what you think. And please know that we are always ready to address issues affecting military families as they arise. We fight for you and for all military families.

What would you tell Congress and DoD are most important? What’s your military family story about one of the issues we’ve outlined above?

kathyPosted by Kathleen Moakler, Government Relations Director

Who Gives a Crap About the Commissary?

sailors-at-commissary

With all the different things on the budget’s chopping block, who gives a crap about the commissary? It’s a legitimate question we hear a lot these days coming from people in social media, discussion boards, and news articles. There are so many things to be mad about right now, why worry about a grocery store? Who gives a crap??

And that’s where the misunderstanding begins. The commissary is not a normal grocery store. It’s subsidized with money from the Department of Defense (DoD) budget; 60 percent of its employees are veterans or military family members; and it saves military families an average of 30 percent compared with an average grocery store (yes, even those big box stores and dollar stores).

The commissary is one of the few operations on a military installation that provides more benefit than it costs the government. While costs of supporting the wars, the cost of health care, and just about everything else has gone up, the cost of the commissary has stayed the same. The stats show that for every $1 of taxpayer dollars, the commissary provides more than $2 worth of savings to military family shoppers. A family of four that shops at the commissary regularly saves an average of $4,500 a year. That seems like something to give a crap about, don’t you think?

No one joins the military to get rich. We know our list of sacrifices includes separations, moves, the fear involved in sending a loved one off to war, and (of course) money. We earn certain benefits to help ease the burdens of military life, and one of those is the commissary. That benefit is especially important today because of this year’s active duty pay raise that is lower than average private sector raises.

The commissary made my life richer without giving me a handout.

Do you know how much cheaper certain name brand pints of ice cream are at the commissary? Those pints got me through some rough times. I give a crap about the commissary because I am grateful that when we were a newly married couple, barely paying our bills, I could splurge on that pint of ice cream because I saved on everything else there. I care because that 30% helped us when we were trying to build a savings in preparation for transition. I care because almost every bagger knew exactly what I was going through during deployments and made being new a little easier.

Here’s something you may not know: the commissary saves military families more money than it gets from the taxpayers. I mentioned the double return on taxpayer dollars above, but let’s flesh it out. If the commissary goes away, the money goes back in the DoD wallet. The taxpayer pays the same amount, but your 30% savings is gone and the jobs it provided go away, too. Effectively, those who shopped at the commissary get a big pay cut and veterans, military family members, and others are unemployed.

Enough is enough… it’s time to give a crap.

We should all care about the commissary. Even if you don’t use it, even if you don’t think you need it… someone you know, who is sacrificing or has sacrificed, does use it and does need it. In fact, you can help them by using the commissary, too, because that builds better commissaries, increases their return to the military community in employment, infrastructure, and service and builds a case for making sure that they endure. We should all give a crap.

Shannon-SebastianPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Online Engagement Manager

Currently Serving and Retirees – Pay Cuts Affect Us All

Balance-Budget-on-Backs-(2)With the proposed Ryan-Murray budget deal being voted on this week, military retirees are being urged to let their Congressional Members know how the Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLA) cap on military retired pay will adversely affect them over the course of their retirement. But this is only one part of the Congressional attack on compensation aimed at both the currently-serving and retirees.

Let’s not forget that the other deal announced recently — the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA) — inflicts some pay pain on those currently-serving, which will translate to more pain when they retire. Our active duty service members should be getting a 1.8 percent pay raise, but the NDAA provides only a 1 percent raise.

And, oh by the way, in 2014, retirees will receive their full 1.7 percent COLA. The phase-in of the reduction in the COLA for retirees ages 62 and under, called for in the budget bill, doesn’t start until 2015 and will happen over 3 years. Projections on active duty pay call for smaller raises than the civilian wage increase during that time. So even if the phase-in of the reduced retired pay goes into effect, those currently serving will probably receive a few smaller pay increases than retirees. And remember, smaller active duty pay raises translate into lower retiree pay when that active duty member retires.

Congressional decisions are spreading the pain to all military people in a way disproportionate to the rest of the Nation. We firmly believe the changes in pay and retirement should not have been done piecemeal by Congress without waiting for the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, established to study compensation and retirement.

We can’t talk about the harm to one group of our community without talking about the damage long term to the folks serving now if they’re denied the pay raises equal to civilian wage growth. The families of our future retirees are getting a double whammy–one punch is the lower pay raise now and the other is the lower retiree COLAs in the future. At least there will be a catch-up for the retirees when they turn 62. There’s no catch-up on active duty pay losses.

Let’s make our leaders understand the effects these deals AND continued sequestration are having on all military people.

Let Congress know that budgets should not be balanced on the backs of those who have already given so much. Despite the urgency on the budget bill, we need to focus on the effects to entire life cycle of service – from currently serving to retired. Write your Members of Congress and let them know how you feel.

And, on another note, with these hits to military families’ wallets, commissary savings become even more important! We continue to urge the Department of Defense to preserve the commissary system and the savings it provides.

How Are Military Families Doing? What Researchers Are Discovering.Posted by Joyce Wessel Raezer, Executive Director

What Do You Say About Military Pay…in Two Minutes?

moneyI’ve been invited to provide a military family perspective today at a hearing of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC).

Yes, even the acronym for this Congressionally-created group of experts is a mouthful! And its task is broad. The commission is charged with looking not just at military pay and retirement, but everything that affects service members and their families: health care; family support programs; education assistance to service members and families; tax implications of military pay; military family housing; commissaries and exchanges; and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Programs.

The Commission must accomplish its mission within 15 months. Its recommendations, if approved by Congress, may have a far-reaching impact on the future force. But, it’s important to note that the law creating the Commission says no retirement changes will apply to current military retirees and anyone who joins the military before Congress enacts any of the changes recommended by the Commission.

Even though retirement changes recommended by the Commission may not affect today’s military families, other proposals could. The scope of what the Commission is supposed to study is so vast, but those testifying at the hearing are given only two minutes to sum up what’s important to military families before the question and answer period starts.

Here’s what I’m saying on behalf of the National Military Family Association:

  • The choice to serve our Nation in the uniform of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, or in the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, isn’t just another job for the service member or the family. And, it shouldn’t be regarded as just another job when our Nation’s leaders consider how those service members should be compensated.
  • Who makes up today’s military force can give clues about who might be recruited for the force of the future. In order to determine what will be needed to recruit and retain the best possible force of the future, those looking to change the compensation system to meet the needs of the future should learn as much as possible about the military families of today. Look at all the data available, not just on what today’s military families say they need but on what the demographic trends in our Nation at large tell us about the people who might become tomorrow’s military families.
  • If we’ve learned nothing else in the past dozen years it’s that keeping families strong and ready is essential to the readiness of service members and their ability to focus on, and perform, their mission. Programs and services used to enhance the readiness of families help ease the transitions they face. Those programs and services also provide support when the challenges of military life threaten to overwhelm them, and are not and MUST NOT EVER BE considered part of the service member’s compensation package. They are a cost of doing business.
  • Given all the unpredictable things that are a part of military life—frequent moves, deployments to dangerous places, family separations, and upheavals to spouses’ careers and military children’s education, military families value whatever predictability is possible. They want to know what support resources will be available when they move or their service member deploys. They want to know they can access quality health care when they need it. They want to be assured there are community resources available to enhance their quality of life wherever the military sends them. They want assurance that their kids’ education won’t suffer because of the service member’s choice of career. They want clear expectations about what they must learn and do to be ready to handle the unpredictable. They want to know what to expect in retirement should they make the decision to make the military a career. They want to know that both monetary and community support will be available to them should their service member be injured or wounded or if they should die in service to our Nation.
  • The military, as an employer, must acknowledge its “employees’” need for predictability, and balance that need with the flexibility it must have to shape the force of the future and ensure it has the right skill and experience mix to meet new challenges to our Nation’s security.
  • The military, as an employer and because of the nature of how it does business, has a unique responsibility to ensure the community in which military families live and work has the systems necessary to enhance quality of life. The military community is not just a place of work; it is also a place of support that enhances the readiness of service members and families.

And lastly, military families need to believe that the Nation they serve values their service. Even though it may be difficult to put a dollar and cents value on what might be appropriate compensation for the work performed, the sacrifices made, the skills gained, and the lives disrupted, families want to know both the tangibles and intangibles are weighed in our leaders’ decisions about military pay, benefits, and quality of life programs in their communities.

My two minutes are up.

What would you say about military pay?

How Are Military Families Doing? What Researchers Are Discovering.Posted by Joyce Wessel Raezer, Executive Director