Helping Military Families isn’t Red or Blue
By Rep. Sanford Bishop and Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers
Military spouse Michelle Aikman has lived through five moves with her husband and their two young children. Currently living at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, she has made each new town “home” for her family while her husband has served overseas during 13 deployments. The moving boxes, the unfamiliar surroundings, the new schools, teachers and friends; all are the norm for Michelle, her family, and thousands of military families across the country.
This November is Military Family Appreciation Month, and we thought it would be appropriate to spotlight some of the challenges our military families face and some of the solutions we are working on together in the United States Congress to help make life easier for military spouses and their children.
Five years ago, as friends and colleagues, we reached across the aisle and joined together to form the bipartisan Congressional Military Family Caucus. Its mission is to advocate for military families like Michelle’s and draw attention to the challenges they face daily. Over the years, the Caucus has reached out to the entire House of Representatives to address such issues as education, health care, combating stress from multiple deployments, mental health, and military spouse employment. We also educate military families on available resources and promote related legislation before the Congress.
Our caucus membership hails from coast to coast, and crosses political boundaries as well. Additionally, a corresponding Military Family Caucus has been formed in the Senate. Together, we work with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s “Joining Forces” project, as well as interface with numerous service organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project, Blue Star Families, the Military Child Coalition, and the Military Officer Association of America in order to successfully support military families.
Both of us have personal experiences with military families. One of us married the daughter of a 20 year career U.S. Army veteran, and one of us is married to a retired 26 year career U.S. Navy officer. Both families have a deep understanding and connection to the struggles faced by spouses and children coping with continual deployments and rotations. Through living these experiences and hearing their stories, we have garnered a deep appreciation for the tremendous responsibilities that military families like Michelle’s take on every single day.
Michelle knew that life as a military spouse would bring its own unique set of challenges. She did not realize, however, that finding a new job in her profession would be nearly impossible as her family moved across the country. Trained as an engineer, Michelle needed state-specific certification to work – meaning each time she moved, she needed to apply for new certification before even looking for a job. Eventually Michelle was forced to change career paths in order to provide for her family, and now works to draw attention to how difficult it can be for a military spouse to find employment.
Michelle’s challenge is not unique to her. Half of working military spouses need licensing or certification for their employment. Since almost 80 percent of military families have moved across state lines at least once in the past five years, it’s no wonder military spouses have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
In Congress, we are working to better understand the trials military spouses like Michelle face. In May, we offered an amendment to evaluate the Military Spouse Employment Program’s (MSEP) progress in helping military spouses find jobs. It is vital to better understand how MSEP is being used, who is using it, and whether the jobs obtained match applicants’ skill sets, education, and experience, to address unemployment and underemployment for our military spouses.
In this polarized political environment, it is not often that you hear of Democrats and Republicans working together – yet every year we host a Military Family Summit where we hear directly from military families in order to keep our ear to the ground and better understand their challenges. We also connect them with local employers, health care providers, support leaders, and advocates. We listen, and we learn. We bring their voices back to Washington D.C., and share their stories with our colleagues.
These families have given so much and have gone through more than most of us can imagine, and so this Military Family Appreciation Month – and every month – we will be doing all that we can to stand behind them and honor their sacrifices, so they may in turn continue to keep America strong.