Troops and their families continue to feel very uncertain about the future of the military as a career and their own military benefits, according to the results of an annual survey set for release today.
Among active-duty service members and spouses, each group ranked "military pay and benefits" and "change in retirement benefits" as their top two issues, just as they did in 2014.
However, unlike last year, the third most important issues identified by active-duty respondents were also related to family financial security. Service members for the first time said that "veteran unemployment" is their third biggest issue, while spouses labeled "spouse employment" as theirs.
"It's a theme of uncertainty that seems to be there," said Cristin Orr Shiffer, the deputy director of research and policy for Blue Star Families, which conducted the study. "What we are really seeing this year is the extent to which the military family plays a role in the sustainability of the all-volunteer force."
Throughout the sixth annual survey, military family members consistently pointed to a sense of nervousness not just about the financial wisdom of staying in the military, but about whether making the military a career was a good decision to start with, Shiffer said. The survey was conducted between April and May of this year and polled 6,200 respondents.
"There are really two aspects of the uncertainty -- one is financial as in 'it's hitting my pocket book right now,' and the other is 'maybe the military isn't the good deal I thought it was that I worked so hard to get,'" she said. "The thing that was really evident for those who took the survey is a feeling that 'I'm not so sure this was a good idea and now I'm stuck in a system that is changing ... and I'm starting to wonder if what I did was really worth it.' "
The report also found that policies like frequent moves make military life expensive for families and hurt financial security. Seventy-three percent of active-duty families reported having unexpected expenses as a result of military life, with the vast majority of those blaming frequent moves for the costs.
Transition issues -- including benefits and employment -- were also ranked among top concerns. Among post-9/11 active-duty members and veterans who took the survey, just over half were aware that they could file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs a full 180 days prior to their discharge from active duty. Yet 74 percent of post-9/11 veteran respondents said they had attended some transition assistance programming.
As a result, the report recommends that officials do a better job of communicating transition resources, including expanding the period after separation for which former troops and their families can use Military OneSource resources from 180 days to at least one year.
"DoD, VA, and Congress can work together to teach service members, veterans, and their families how to locate and utilize transition resources and programs, such as filing VA claims, VA health care eligibility, and DoD changes to [transition assistance], the report states. "Career transition 'maps' from military skills to civilian jobs can be developed and provided to veterans and transitioning service members."
Shiffer said she hopes lawmakers and military officials use the report's findings as fuel for more family friendly policies that encourage stability. While many officials consider family issues to be not as important as other problems facing the military, those are the policies that make an all-volunteer force work, she said.
By making DoD family policies more in line with what Americans experience in a civilian setting, the military can ensure that troops want to stay in the service, she said.
"A lot of the issues that people look at as soft life issues go back into the sustainable force issue," she said. "DoD has a really neat opportunity to try to knit the military better into the civilian community. ... I hope our survey is an information source that gives them a starting off point to say 'here are some trends.' "
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.