Category Archives: Joyce’s Voice

Reading the Defense Budget’s Fine Print: Is Your Military Family a Priority?

What’s the advice every financial counselor gives you before you sign a contract for a car loan, an apartment, or a service agreement for your new big screen TV? Read the fine print! It’s important to understand, legalese buried in a sub-clause might end up costing you if you don’t do what it says. It’s also important to know what protections for you weren’t included in the contract so you can fight for them—things like a military clause in a rental agreement to keep from being penalized for a sudden PCS move. 


Our Government Relations team has certainly been reading the fine print on the budget proposal submitted by the Department of Defense (DoD) for the next fiscal year (FY17). I’m testifying before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, on behalf of our Association, about how that proposal will affect military families. We’re asking Congress to read the fine print and consider:

  • Pay raises: In their budget presentations, DoD officials have been quick to highlight that the proposed 2017 pay raise of 1.6% is the largest basic pay raise in four years. In the fine print, they admit this figure is smaller than the 2.1% increase in private sector raises, which is the standard currently in law. If the 1.6% pay raise is approved by Congress, 2017 will mark the fourth year in a row military pay raises lagged behind pay increases in the private sector.
  • TRICARE Reform: Although its primary mission is keeping our troops healthy and strong when in harm’s way, the military health system also has an obligation to deliver high quality care to military families, retirees and their families, and survivors. Too often, as military families tell us, DoD has failed to meet this obligation. Any discussion of TRICARE Reform must start with how DoD can fix the problems it knows exist in order to improve military families’ satisfaction with their access to care and the quality of that care.

In its FY17 budget proposal, DoD did acknowledge many of the issues military families face in accessing health care: the shortage of same-day and urgent care appointments, the time-consuming and cumbersome referral process. But, it stopped short of committing to specific improvements.

Instead, DoD chose to focus first on controlling costs. They propose eliminating TRICARE Prime, Standard and Extra and replacing them with two new plans: TRICARE Select (a managed-care option that sounds a lot like Prime but with higher out of pocket costs, particularly for retirees) and TRICARE Choice, a preferred provider option that would allow families to choose their providers. What’s in the fine print? Increased costs for Choice users across the board, including higher catastrophic caps and co-pays for out-of-network care, as well as a new annual participation fee for retiree families—but no expansion of the network or improved benefits.

  • Force of the Future: Lots of good ideas in what’s been released thus far: good ideas that will help many military families. But, will these enhancements and recognition of some of the demands military life places on families be enough to offset the constant budget threats to pay and support programs, downsizing, more missions to be performed with a smaller force? Where in the fine print are those things mentioned?

When I testify on Capitol Hill today, I will talk about what’s important to today’s military families. How does the Department’s proposed budget address their needs? Does it make a mom feel her sick child’s health is a priority? Does it ease fears about downsizing? Does it ensure support will be available for a family during their service member’s deployment, whether it’s the first or the fifth? Does it support a spouse eager for a career? Does it promote smooth transitions, whether to a new duty station or life after the military? Does it support families financially? Does it keep our military families strong?

I want to thank all the military families who share their stories with us, complete our surveys, and comment on our web and social media posts. You help us tell your story to people who not only want to hear, but who are in a position to address your concerns. Our message is stronger because of your trust in us. Together we’re stronger.

Watch the hearing today at 2:30pm ET and hear our full testimony on behalf of our nation’s military families.

joycePosted by Joyce Wessel-Raezer, Executive Director

“Look for the Helpers:” Encouragement After Devastation and Uncertainty

I’ve felt a bit stressed out lately. Things have been crazy at work–I’ve come the grim realization that I’ve said “yes” to entirely too many things! Closer to home, we’re adjusting to my husband’s retirement and my parents’ move from the farm where they’ve lived for almost 60 years to a retirement community. My kids have loving partners and happy lives, but I don’t see them often enough.

Then there’s all that craziness in the world today: terrorist attacks overseas and threats here, uncertainty for military families because of those threats, military budget pressures that are prompting downsizing, continued deployments, and the fear of too many unknowns.


A speaker at a conference I recently attended said, “Stress is not always bad–it’s how we respond to stress [that matters].”

This is not the first time I’ve felt stressed; I felt stressed when we moved every couple of years while my husband was on active duty, when my kids had to switch schools, when I had to put my career hopes on hold, and when my husband deployed. And sometimes other events intruded and added to the ‘out of control’ feeling: Desert Storm, September 11, natural disasters, school shootings.

When my kids were young, our TV viewing included some Sesame Street, lots of Looney Tunes, with some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Disney videos also in the mix. But every once in awhile, when things were particularly harried, we’d spend some quiet time in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The slow pace, courtesy, and obvious love calmed even the most frenzied four-year old and his mom.

During Desert Storm, and again after the September 11 attacks, Mister Rogers reassured frightened children that grownups would take care of them, despite the things they saw on TV that seemed scary. He provided guidance for their parents. We still seek out his words when we’re on overload because of scary things happening in the world, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts, and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

In tough times, Mister Rogers would often say, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”


And so, that’s what I’m trying to do these days–look for the helpers. It’s comforting to know they are everywhere for my family, for me, and for our military families. One of my ‘helpers’ is a friend–a widow–who meets me for dinner before choir practice. She thinks I’m helping to ease her loneliness, but the chance to relax after a long work day with a good friend over a glass of wine and a good meal is such a break for me!

Helpers are everywhere and I’m fortunate to find them in the course of my work. Our helpers include our service members, and their families, who answer our Nation’s call every day. Our National Military Family Association Volunteers are helpers to us, and their communities, as they link military families with resources and help us speak up for those families.

I met other helpers, veterans and veteran-serving organizations, at a summit on Bainbridge Island, Washington at Islandwood. These helpers developed recommendations for Washington’s Governor on promoting the health of military families and job readiness for veterans through programs in the outdoors. Most recently, I met hundreds of helpers in Fayetteville, North Carolina; they are the teachers, counselors, community organizations, and medical providers who gather each year at the Forward March conference to learn more about supporting military families and veterans.

Helpers are everywhere, and connecting with them not only helps reduce our stress, but also the stress others feel. In this crazy, scary world, let’s celebrate the helpers and join with them to make our part of the world a little less stressful.

Are there ‘helpers’ in your life who help relieve your stress? Share it with us in the comments and give them a big THANKS!

joycePosted by Joyce Wessel Raezer, National Military Family Association Executive Director

Celebrating One of the 99 Percent Who Cared for Us–the 1 percent

Dick-Steinberg1Sometimes, when we’re tired, frustrated, or lonely, military families feel that no one outside our military world could possibly understand our lives. And if they can’t understand us, there’s no way they could possibly know how to support us.

We, the 1 percent of the Nation’s population who serve or have a family member who serves, look at the 99 percent and ask “Don’t you know we’re fighting a war—on your behalf?”

We suspect there are supporters among that 99 percent, but struggle to find them.

We lost one of those champions on March 4. Richard “Dick” Steinberg was a businessman whose company, S&K Sales, helped companies sell products at military commissaries. But Dick wasn’t interested only in selling things at the commissaries—he wanted to make sure those products were sold at the best prices possible. Why? Because he understood how much commissary savings meant to military families struggling to make ends meet.

In an email to me less than a week before he died, Dick denounced the proposed budget cuts to the commissaries because they would decrease the current 30 percent savings to only 10 percent. He wrote:

“Commissaries are about the savings!” When savings disappear, so will the commissaries.”

Years in the business of selling to the commissaries taught Dick—even more than his stint in the Air Force—about the challenges military families face. So, twice a year, Dick, his colleagues, and business partners at S&K Sales created promotions that would feature even lower prices and they would donate some of the proceeds from those promotions to charities supporting military families. For the last four years, the National Military Family Association received that support. We’re grateful for the grocery savings the promotions provided to the military families, which topped $5 million last year alone. We’re also grateful for the donations we received, which have helped us reach out to support families, send military kids to our Operation Purple® camps, and speak up on behalf of military families.

Dick was a patriot who valued the service of our military members and their families and always looked for ways to support them. He believed in us and in all military families and in the responsibility all Americans have to those who serve our Nation. He was hiring military spouses and veterans before everyone else figured out how valuable they could be as employees. He fought with determination to keep the commissaries strong and to protect the savings so important to military families. In his last days, he cheered us on, telling us to “keep up the good fight” for military families. His regret? That he wouldn’t be around to “man the barricades” on their behalf.

Military families may not know the name Dick Steinberg, but their lives are better because of him. All of us at the National Military Family Association will miss him and are grateful to his family for sharing him with us.

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

Fighting for Military Families for 45 Years and Counting!

joyces-voice-11514The year was 1969. Our troops were far away fighting a war that was becoming more unpopular at home. Women’s lib was catching on, but military wives were dismissed as “dependents,” whose place was in quiet support of their husbands’ careers. Their roles were as hostesses and volunteers, equipped with the right hat, shoes, and gloves for each occasion.

Most of those “dependent wives” didn’t know there were no Department of Defense survivor benefits and that their income would stop when their retiree spouse died. Tired of watching their friends become destitute, a small group of women met around a kitchen table in Annapolis, Maryland and formed the Military Wives’ Association (later the National Military Family Association). They decided to wage war on these inequities and pledged to fight for the same pension for military widows that widows of retired federal civilian workers received.

A local reporter asked the first president, Raye Dickins—“properly” identified by the reporter, of course, as Mrs. Justin H. Dickins—whether there was really a need for the organization. She responded:

“Our Service men are bound by a code of ethics. They have been taught to accept orders and to abide by existing laws. They bow to these conditions and don’t talk back. As a result the military hasn’t had a voice even in affairs that concern them. But, their wives are now ready to stand up and fight.”

The year is now 2014. Our troops are far away fighting a war that most Americans forget is happening. Budget cuts are making military people a target for last minute deals. Meanwhile, military spouses—male and female—continue to support their service members through recovery of visible and invisible wounds. They endure frequent moves that hurt their own careers. They deal with deployments that test the strength of their families. They support their service member and others in their communities as volunteers, caregivers, advocates, and good neighbors—hat and gloves no longer necessary, heels optional.

As the National Military Family Association celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, we remember the determination of Raye Dickins and our other founding mothers. Her words about the struggle to gain survivor benefits for military widows could be the rallying cry for today’s #KeepYourPromise efforts to persuade Congress to end the budget deal’s military retiree COLA cuts:

“We are determined to keep trying until an unreasonable and inequitable situation is corrected.”

Our Association has made a difference for military families for 45 years because of the military families who have joined us in speaking out, connecting, sharing their stories, and supporting each other. We’ll channel their voices—and those of all military families—this anniversary year to fight to end the inequities that put them at risk. We will work to ensure families can connect with the resources they need to thrive in military life, to speed military spouses’ journey to work and career, to find quality education for their children, and to gain timely access to quality health care. We will help military families find strength while dealing with deployment; the return of their service member, however changed; or a transition to civilian life.

We’ll continue our fight on behalf of military families as we remind our Nation’s leaders, and its citizens, of the obligations all Americans share to ensure that the strength of our military and our country starts with its people—and their families. There’s no better way to celebrate 45 years of service to military families than by fighting for them every day of the year!

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

Losing the Budget Battle Does Not Mean We’ve Lost the War

son-says-goodbye-to-dadSomething happened last week that made military families stand up and say “Don’t you dare!!” That something was the budget deal that provides $6 billion in “sequestration relief” for DoD out of the wallets of our youngest military retirees. As word about the deal spread into the military community, the sound you heard was “Enough!”

What followed was a #KeepYourPromise campaign on Twitter, storm the Hill visits by military associations, and letters and calls to Congressional offices all aimed at persuading Congress to reject the proposed cap on Cost of Living Allowances (COLAs) for military retirees under age 62. Despite all the best efforts, the budget bill passed the Senate on December 18.

What should military families do now?

  1. Say Thank You: While too few Members of Congress showed they understood the damage the budget deal would do to the military community, several did and stepped up to fight the COLA cap. They will be our allies in our continued fight, so please send them a thank you letter or email.
  2. Stay Engaged: Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and several other Senators who voted in favor of the budget deal are on record saying they want the Committee to look for ways to eliminate the cap—count those statements as proof that the grassroots efforts were noticed.
  3. Hold Them Accountable: Military families need to help us remind Members of Congress who said they hoped they could find a way to eliminate the cap to do so. Ask your Member, especially if he or she is on the House or Senate Armed Services Committee, to encourage the Committee to take up this issue as soon as possible. If your Member voted for the budget deal, give them a chance to make things right.
  4. Expand Your Outreach: Tell your story to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. The commission’s website has a comments section for military families and Commission’s recommendations will be taken seriously.
  5. Keep Telling Your Story: Start each letter to your Member of Congress with “I’m a proud military family member and I VOTE in your state/district.” Enlist your family and civilian friends in this fight to help Congress understand the service and sacrifice of our military families and the need for our Nation’s leaders to keep the promises they made.
  6. Don’t Give Up! The Senate vote this week was only the opening skirmish of a fight we can win if we continue to work together and make our voices heard.

The military spouses who founded our Association walked the halls of Congress for several years before it passed the DoD Survivor Benefit Plan. The elderly retirees who were once denied military health care once they became eligible for Medicare spent almost a decade mobilizing their peers, their associations, and their Members of Congress before getting TRICARE for Life. It took our Association almost eight years to see Congress pass and DoD implement the WIC Overseas program for military families. Our past successes prove that we can do so again IF WE DON’T GIVE UP!

Mourning a Lost President and Finding My Fellow Citizens

jfkEvery generation has a “Where were you when it happened?” event. For my parents, that event was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For my children, it was September 11, 2001. For me and my fellow baby boomers, it was November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.

I grew up on a farm outside Hampstead, Maryland, which was then just a small, rural town. On that fateful day, I was a 10 year old fifth grader. It was a Friday, just as it is this year—the Friday before Thanksgiving. THE big event held every November in Hampstead was the Elementary School’s PTA Fall Festival—everyone in town came to see the school program, play games, and buy all the PTA ladies’ baked goods.

The theme of that year’s Fall Festival, American Heritage, seemed especially appropriate given that week’s 100 year anniversary commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, only 30 miles up the road. In honor of that historic event, the two fifth grade classes would recite the Gettysburg Address and sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Fall Festival program.

An extra benefit for kids was that school closed early on Fall Festival day. So that afternoon, my brothers and I were at home, playing in the TV room while our mother ironed and watched her favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns.” All of the sudden, a news bulletin interrupted the show and Walter Cronkite announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Later, a visibly-shaken “Uncle Walter” shared the sad news that our President had died.

As the TV news reporters tried to make sense of what was unfolding in Dallas, the Hampstead Elementary PTA President and Principal were trying to figure out what to do about the evening’s program. Because of its patriotic theme, the school decided to go on with the festival in honor of our fallen President. In our classroom that night, as we waited to go on stage, my classmates and I talked about all we had seen on TV that day. We also talked about Mrs. Kennedy, little Caroline, and John John. We talked about the one dad who was going to complain to the school board because the school went ahead with the program, but concluded, “He’s new in town and just doesn’t understand.”

We filed onto the risers in the auditorium and—all 70 of us—recited Lincoln’s inspired words. Then, as we sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I began to have an inkling of how much we were bound together in our Nation’s sorrow. I noticed the mother of a classmate crying as we sang, and then saw others were crying as well. Our Nation’s loss of another President 100 years before took on a more powerful meaning because of the day’s events.

When the program was over, instead of going with their kids from one game or food table to another, the grown-ups stood in clusters, shaking their heads, and talking about our loss. Many of these grown-ups had voted for Richard Nixon in the last election, but the grief they conveyed was profound.

On Monday, when schools were closed because of the President’s funeral, everyone—my family included—was glued to the TV set watching the events. We saw the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Jackie and Caroline kissing the coffin as President Kennedy lay in state in the Capitol, John John’s salute as the coffin went by, the Kennedy family walking along Pennsylvania Avenue. Each of the four channels we got on our TV set showed the same events, binding us as part of a Nation in grief.

My elementary school classmates and I came to awareness of what government was, and did, by what we saw of the Kennedy administration. His inaugural words—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—were featured in our second grade Weekly Readers. We heard his TV speech about the Cuban Missile Crisis and experienced fear for our safety. We celebrated with him as our astronauts launched into space. We saw Jackie’s televised tour of the White House. We talked about joining the Peace Corps when we grew up, and we saved the Look and Life magazine pictures of the happy young Kennedy family.

When we took our sixth grade class trip to Washington, D.C., we wanted to see two things: Jackie’s inaugural gown in the Smithsonian, and President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. While there, we saw others who remembered where they were November 22, 1963, and who mourned the loss of something important.

Historians continue to debate the legacy of John F. Kennedy. To me, his legacy was one of optimism and the possibility for good that can come from all of us working together to benefit our Nation and its citizens. That’s what I’ll remember today as our Nation remembers him.

How Are Military Families Doing? What Researchers Are Discovering.Posted by Joyce Wessell 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