Several military leaders spoke of the importance of education and support for military children at the 15th National Training Seminar of the Military Child Education Coalition last week. The seminar, held July 8 and 9 in National Harbor, MD., featured speeches by several high ranking officials including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and his wife, Deanie.
General and Mrs. Dempsey
The Dempseys kicked off the event on July 8, holding a question-and-answer session with teachers, administrators and program directors from across the country, stressing the importance of a good education, but noting that military children also have educational experiences that civilian children don't get simply by living within the environment of the military.
Deanie Dempsey, who holds a master's degree in education, demonstrated the point by highlighting her own family's experience of being in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. She asked the audience, "How many kids can say they were there for that?"
Moments in history aside, there is some real concern for those children whose parents have spent the last decade fighting two wars, with repeated deployments that have resulted in serious injuries, some of which can't be seen, such as PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injuries. These parents often return home looking the same, but never really being the same. This can translate into difficulties in school for the kids.
Charles E. Milam
One of the speakers on the second day of the seminar, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Police, said that its vital that the military work with the local communities where the majority of military families live. He said that it is crucial for educators and care providers to understand the unique needs of military children.
During his speech Milam highlighted something that most military families depend upon; the support and camaraderie of the community on the military base. In decades past, most families lived in on base housing, which meant that their neighbors shared their challenges and experiences. It was like having a built in support group. However today, do to cutbacks and changing climates, most families don't live on base, which means that they don't have this valuable support system.
This has created a problem where many families are unaware of support services that are offered on installations. "We have to focus on the needs of our families who live off the installations," Milam said.
Milam challenged the audience to partner with installations and community programs to benefit military children and encouraged the use of social media to do so.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
Another of the high profile speakers at the seminar, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the DoD's education and family programs a "strategic imperative." Closing the seminar, Hagel announced that the DoD had selected the first round of schools that will receive educational partnership grants for the upcoming school year. These grants total nearly $20 million and will be distributed to 15 school districts that serve 23 military installations.
Coming on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the all-volunteer force, Hagel says that education and family programs are essential to meeting recruiting demands. In order to attract and retain service members Hagel says that the "DoD has had to demonstrate that it will always do the right thing for the families." He added that the military has become a more family-centered institution and that service members no longer have to choose between serving their country or being a parent.
The White Elephant in the Room
Top on everyone's list of concerns was sequestration. What will happen to these valuable programs with the mandatory cuts that are already in effect? The Dempseys were the first to address the issue saying that currently no decision has been made to cut military children's programs. "But if you're asking me 'Is it likely we will scrutinize all of those systems we've for the most part taken for granted over the years?' the answer is absolutely, we'll have to," he noted.
"Of course, there will have to be changes made in family support programs," the General added, but there would be an effort to reach out to understand what the community of interest believes is most important.
"We're not going to do this from Washington with the famous 6,000-mile screwdriver and -- and come to any conclusions ourselves," Dempsey said.
"So the thought process is, instead of five kinds of programs out there, why not put the resources and make two really good ones? And you've still got what you had in all five, but just in those two," Deanie Dempsey said.
Secretary Hagel also addressed the sequestration cuts and the possibility of cuts to family and education programs. "So I’m going to be honest with you today about the challenges DOD is facing, particularly when it comes to our new fiscal realities," he said.
On top of the initial $87 billion in cuts, additional cuts over the next two years will cost DOD half a trillion dollars over a decade if it’s not stopped, he said.
"Sequester is irresponsible, and terribly damaging, but it is the law of the land as it stands now," he said. "We teach our children to face their problems head-on, and now we must do the same. We cannot run away from sequester. We must deal with it. Anything less would be irresponsible."
Secretary Hagel said DoD schools have been sheltered from cuts as much as possible, but he can’t guarantee the same for family programs.
"We will have to make more tough choices in the future," he said. "Perfect solutions do not exist."
Thought efforts to change sequester are ongoing, there are no guarantees the secretary said. "In my budget meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and DOD senior leadership, I always emphasize that we're going into this challenge together and that we will come out together."