Dual-Military Families, Junior Enlisted Find Sponsorship Inequality

Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Brett, standing on left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Rachel Thao wait to ask questions at an open forum with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael Stevens at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Tyler Hlavac/Stars and Stripes
Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Brett, standing on left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Rachel Thao wait to ask questions at an open forum with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael Stevens at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Tyler Hlavac/Stars and Stripes

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan -- Dual military couples and married, junior service members based overseas say they face obstacles to normal family life that do not exist for most of their co-workers.

The military requires civilian children and family members living with service members to obtain "command sponsorship," a concept with varying rules among services and overseas locations.

Command sponsorship confers legal residence abroad and gives families access to military benefits and services. Without it, some family members may be left behind in the U.S., or face difficulties when they arrive in a foreign country.

In Japan, where about 50,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed, service members married to others in the service have found they can't always get command sponsorship for their newborns -- even though babies born to service member-civilian marriages are granted command sponsorship at birth.

The same Navy regulations grant command sponsorship to spouses of sailors in grades E-4 and above, while a subset of lower-ranking sailors may face separation from their spouses for three years, based on a ship or unit commander's discretion.

Commander U.S. Naval Forces Japan has relayed the difficulties faced by its sailors to officials at higher headquarters in Hawaii and Washington. Meanwhile, it is issuing waivers to affected sailors and studying the problem to see what changes it should make to regional policy.

"What we can do here at CNFJ is try to make sure we have processes that can quickly fix what we can, so that we take care of the sailors," said Cmdr. Ron Flanders, command spokesman.

Dual-military, different process

Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Brett was deployed when her husband, also a Navy chief, received paperwork necessary to bring their family on orders to Japan.

Since the Navy's rules won't let two units sponsor the same children, Brett's husband became the sponsor.

For more than two years, Brett wasn't able to obtain school, medical and other basic services for her children without presenting a power of attorney document that allows her to act on her husband's behalf.

"Sometimes I feel like a second-class citizen," Brett told an audience of fellow chiefs during an assembly with Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens at Yokosuka in June. "I don't understand why command sponsorship can't be a dual thing."

If it were, the Brett family wouldn't have faced its final command sponsorship hurdle. When Brett last spoke with Stars and Stripes, her husband was set to retire in eight days. His command still hadn't yet transferred the paperwork to release sponsorship authority to her command.

If either of the Bretts was a civilian to start, there wouldn't have been any difficulty. One would be the civilian "dependent" and both would be able to tend to their children's needs under Navy regulations.

"If a service member's spouse is command sponsored, children born of that marriage during the current tour of duty are command sponsored at birth," according to regulations published online by the Navy Personnel Command.

The CNFJ regulation on command sponsorship quotes the same sentence, but later states that "children born of a dual military family are not command sponsored at birth."

The reasoning goes back to the Navy's servicewide regulation, Flanders said. Service members and civilian spouses go through an overseas screening application process before moving. Since the family has been screened once, they don't need to go through it again when the family gains new members overseas.

In the case of an active-duty military couple living on their own, neither has ever had to go through command screening.

"If they don't have any other command-sponsored dependents with them, then the first child is the trigger for that process," Flanders said.

The same couple having a second child wouldn't have to reapply for command screening, officials said.

However, in some cases, dual-military couples with newborns are automatically denied command sponsorship when they do apply, according to policy.

Navy regulations bar command sponsorship to new family members whose dual military parents have less than a year left on their tour.

Sailors must instead apply for an exception-to-policy waiver.

However, until and unless they obtain the waiver, the regulation bars their noncommand-sponsored family member from living with them, and threatens service members with punishment "including but not limited to eviction from government quarters."

While there is no one at CNFJ advocating kicking parents out of their house for taking care of their babies, sailors say the regulation creates anxiety because their accompanied family members must be listed in their personnel records.

"Pretty much everybody says, 'What am I supposed to do with my newborn?' " said Petty Officer 1st Class Rachel Thao, whose spouse is also an active-duty sailor.

Thao gave birth to her child before her tour wound down to the one-year mark, but her family still deals with the same difficulties as the Bretts.

Making command exceptions

Thao said she has also witnessed the negative effects of a provision within the regional command sponsorship regulation unrelated to dual-military couples. The regulation bars sailors E-3 and below from gaining command sponsorship for their spouses and children "unless an unusual circumstance exists."

Ship commanding officers and other unit commanders have enough leeway to interpret that as they see fit. However, Thao has known sailors married during "A school" -- where sailors gain advanced skills after basic training -- but after they've already been selected for orders to Japan.

"We have junior sailors often not granted command sponsorship because they came on unaccompanied orders," Thao said. "They go home on leave, but they can't bring their spouses out, even paying out of pocket."

The Navy sparingly assigns overseas orders to married sailors E-3 and below, based on service needs at different locations, Flanders said.

Younger, newly married couples tend to have a greater family and financial support structure around them in the U.S. than they would in Japan, Flanders said.

"But we are also in the business of approving waivers, and we are doing that. ... We do not wish to split up families, especially young families," Flanders said.

Within roughly the past year, 27 requests for command sponsorship waivers have reached the desk of the two-star admiral commanding CNFJ, and all were approved. The waivers included sailors with less than a year left on their tour and married junior sailors.

Navy officials acknowledged that not all affected sailors might have known about the waivers in the past, or may have been wary of pursuing them after being denied by their commands.

CNFJ is also reaching out to unit commands and ombudsmen to explain how to help dual military families and married junior sailors seeking sponsorship for their families, Flanders said.

Sailors with less than 12 months left on their tour, or whose tour is less than three years, can receive an automatic review of their command sponsorship request from regional headquarters after submitting the necessary paperwork, officials added.

For dual military families, one parent will still need a power of attorney to obtain services for their child; Flanders conceded the inconvenience, but noted that the document can be provided by base legal services for free.

Flanders added that parents like Brett and Thao shouldn't have been denied the ability to take their children to the base hospital, since regulations do not require command sponsorship to make appointments.

In the meantime, region Command Master Chief Joe Fahrney is assembling a working group on command sponsorship that will include CNFJ's chief of staff and a mix of single and married sailors.

The group will assess the scope of command sponsorship-related problems before CNFJ considers changes to regional policy.

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