James hosts family forum

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hosted a Spouse and Family Forum in the Smart Center Auditorium on Joint Base Andrews Oct. 19.

This forum provided an opportunity for Air Force leaders to address issu es, suggestions, and questions directly from Air Force spouses and family members.

“Our Airmen are doing a great job, but no Airman does the job by themselves,” James said. “Every single person is backed up with a family — many with spouses — but everyone has a family and everyone has family concerns.” 

James was joined by Air Force senior military leaders and subject matter experts as they fielded questions from the attendees and social media. The forum’s agenda — spouse employment and child care access; Air Force program for families with special needs; and schools, assignments, deployments and reintegration — was based on frequently asked questions James received during her travels. 

Spouse employment and child care access 

The ongoing mobile military lifestyle for military spouses is something that isn’t going away, according to Eddy Mentzer, the director of the Department of Defense Spouse Education and Career Opportunities Program.

“Our program is a DOD-wide program that serves all military spouses; it’s available through Military OneSource, and that’s really where spouses should go as their first stop to look for information, resources and tools,” Mentzer said. “The ability to connect with one of our career counselors is paramount. They work individually one-on-one with the spouse as often as they need at no cost whatsoever to the spouse.”

There are also thousands of military spouses who have established successful careers, whether it’s entrepreneurial, or working at the highest levels of government or industry. 

“I would call on those spouses to become mentors and work with those new and young spouses to show them how they were able to navigate that path,” Mentzer said.

Child care concerns have also risen across the Air Force, especially when child care operating hours don’t coincide with duty hours. There are options available to those who face this issue – parents may contact their on-base child development and school-age centers, and family child care program for information on Air Force-expanded child care programs, including community-based child care fee assistance through Child Care Aware of America. 

“For us, the challenge is educating our Airmen and families on the options available,” said Deb Willey, the chief of Air Force Child and Youth Programs. “That’s one thing we had already identified even before the forum. We seem to get the same questions, so we’re working on new ways to get the information out to our families.”

Working at a child care facility may be an opportunity for some spouses looking for employment. Thirty-two percent of the Air Force’s Child and Youth Programs’ work force is military spouses. 

“We’re always looking for spouses who are willing to work; that’s a challenge for us at some locations,” Willey said. “There are opportunities for advancement once you start working with us, and we really value training and education because we’re in the business of educating and developing youth.”

Air Force program for families with special needs

According to Lt. Col. Andy Cruz, the medical chief of the Exceptional Family Member Program, several EFMP pilot programs are being tested in the hopes of optimizing care for families. 

“The DOD family member travel screening pilot will help streamline forms,” he said. “We are also trying to upgrade (information technology) systems so family members can track their family member relocation clearance package at any given time to alleviate stress.”

In addition, the new expedited clearance process, which is now available at 10 locations, will be implemented at more stateside locations, so families won’t have to repeatedly go through the family member relocation clearance process.

According to the Air Force’s senior enlisted Airman, a more permanent fix to challenges within EFMP policy would have to be made by Congress.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody said any changes to legislation will require advocates on many levels. 

“We need to advocate,” he said. “We have to say there is a big enough need here, big enough challenge for our service members and their families, and there has been an evolution of what a family looks like since those laws were written.”

Schools, assignments, deployments and reintegration

Some spouses were also concerned with the educational options and resources available for their dependents at each new assignment.

“We understand schools in general are a primary concern for our Airmen and their families,” said Carl Buchanan, an Airman and Family Readiness policy analyst. “Whether families have their children enrolled in public, Department of Defense, private schools, or home-schooled… education for our Airmen’s children is a concern for many.” 

“We wanted to hear some of those difficulties, and we did,” he said. “We understand that there are many local challenges out there and this forum was designed so we could hear these concerns firsthand.”

He also recommended families engage with their installation’s Airman and Family Readiness Center for information and resources.

“There will be a school liaison or someone who can provide the resources for any questions families may have,” he said. “They don’t even have to go to the base. You can search for the Airman and Family Readiness Center online and call from home.”

In addition, male spouses voiced their concerns that not enough resources were made available for them while their sponsors are deployed.

Air Force senior leaders have witnessed robust key spouse programs across the Air Force and believe a model program should be identified and replicated across the Air Force.

“Commanders will reinforce the expectation that fun, family and culture are a mission priority,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “I can give you an example of every kind of squadron in the Air Force I’ve seen. The common theme is the command team. If they choose to make it an obligation, it’s going to be vibrant.”

While time did not allow for every issue to be addressed, the majority of questions submitted via social media and at the forum will be answered on the Air Force’s official website at a later date. 

(Editor’s note: Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett and Staff Sgts. Alyssa C. Gibson and Jannelle McRae contributed to this article.)

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