Military Families Need More Than Our Thanks to Flourish

FILE PHOTO -- Senior Chief Aviation Electrician’s Mate Christopher Perry spends time with his family aboard the USS Freedom (LCS 1) before his departure on a deployment, March 1. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Grandin)
FILE PHOTO -- Senior Chief Aviation Electrician’s Mate Christopher Perry spends time with his family aboard the USS Freedom (LCS 1) before his departure on a deployment, March 1. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Grandin)

Joyce Raezer is the executive director of the National Military Family Association.

November is National Veterans and Military Families Month: a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifice and service of our military and their families.

But November is more than just a month filled with discounts and freebies for those who have served -- it's the time we, as a nation, owe our military an honest look at their challenges and needs.

As we enter our 18th year of war, military families are faced with new obstacles.

Some are experiencing intolerable threats to their health and wellbeing due to unsafe conditions in military housing. All are facing a season of sweeping transformation in our complex health care system, even as we become more aware of the dire need for reliable health care, including access to mental and behavioral health care for military families.

And all deserve better.

Military Families Deserve Safe Housing

After the devastating landfall of Hurricane Florence in September, military families living on Camp Lejeune pleaded with the base's private housing manager to fix the storm damage. Assessment crews found collapsing ceilings, standing water, and walls covered in mold.

Astonishingly, very few homes were declared 'uninhabitable.' Families had no choice but to remain in their homes, amid mold, poor ventilation, and in some cases, no power.

And it's not just families recovering from hurricanes who find themselves coping with unsafe living conditions.

Military families at installations across the country report problems with mold, pests, and even lead paint in privatized base housing.

While the private companies managing military housing are sometimes responsive to their complaints, too often they are not, and families have little recourse. Standard tenant protections are not available to military families living in privatized housing, and installation commanders are often unwilling to intervene.

While only 30 percent of military families live in installation housing at any given time, most military families will live in base housing at some point in their career.

They have a right to expect a safe, well-maintained home.

The families who stand behind the uniform are the backbone of our military. When their health is not a priority, the readiness of our military suffers, too.

Sweeping Changes to TRICARE Might Put Families At Risk

Making military families' health a priority means ensuring they can easily access the health care benefit the service member has earned. However, changes within the military health care system are leaving military families confused and unsure what's available to them.

Nearly every facet of the military health care system is changing--including military hospital and clinic administration, the TRICARE health care program, as well as dental and vision programs. Military families are left trying to decipher which changes affect their family, and which don't.

The well-being of our nation's military families includes their mental health, too.

Access to Quality Mental Health Care is Imperative

Coping with the normal challenges of military life can lead to stress and anxiety for families. Often this stress is easily treatable, but a national lack of qualified mental health providers makes it difficult for families to find care.

We must encourage innovative ways to address normal stress reactions instead of directing families into an overburdened mental health system. One example of a successful approach to this problem is Military Family Life Counselors -- mental health professionals embedded within schools and military units.

And at the very worst of the mental health spectrum is suicide. The statistics are sobering. Every day, an active duty service member takes his or her own life.

DoD Needs to Publish Military Family Suicide Data

We know the same thing is happening within our military families. The fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act required the tracking of military family suicides, but we have yet to see that data from DoD.

We need to know the full scope of military family suicide to understand how we can begin to solve it. DoD has the ability to gather and publish this data. We call on them to do it.

Appreciating military families means fighting for their health and safety -- something, as Americans, we must prioritize.

Those who serve deserve access to top-of-the-line health care and housing that doesn't make them sick. Military children's health should not be in danger because of their parent's devotion to this country.

No military family should have to worry about making a doctor's appointment because they're confused about coverage and whether they can afford care. And we should never put the mental health of our military families on the back burner. It is truly a matter of life and death.

Appreciation Requires Action

Uncertainty is the norm for the family members and our brave men and women in uniform.

If we truly appreciate their sacrifices and want to celebrate those who make our military the finest in the world, we must do better in 2019.

National Veterans and Military Families Month is now. And there's no time like the present for our country to re-enforce its commitment to our protectors and their loved ones.

They protect us; let's protect them.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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