Military Spouses Helped Write Last Year's National Defense Bill

Senator Tim Kaine worked with military spouses to introduce a bill in 2018 to help with unemployment issues. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Kaine)
Senator Tim Kaine worked with military spouses to introduce a bill in 2018 to help with unemployment issues. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Kaine)

Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the Military Family Caucus, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Military spouses are unemployed at a rate somewhere between three and five times the national average. As I travel around Virginia, military families, their advocates and the business community share with me some of the reasons for this jarring statistic.

When service members are reassigned, on average every two years, their spouses often have to leave their jobs and move to new communities. Military spouse Erin Ward, for example, pursued 15 different careers over 19 moves.

What if a military spouse's profession requires a license, as real estate agents, teachers and cosmetologists do? If an old license doesn't transfer to a new state, the costs to replace it -- both financial and in the time it takes -- may be too much, especially if the service member might be transferred again soon. Despite the public's desire to support the military, some military spouses are passed over for jobs because employers worry they will move again quickly.

For others, the issue is affordable child care. One mother I spoke to, T.T. Robinson, told me that, once she finally found a job after months of searching, she was told the waitlist for on-base child care was eight months long.

All the obstacles to finding employment lead some spouses -- like Lakesha Cole, who went through six transfers -- to start their own business. But then confusing base regulations and red tape can make entrepreneurship more difficult than it has to be. Describing the strains she and other spouses face, Lakesha once said, "Dealing with the everyday stress of being in a military family is hard enough, but being an unemployed military spouse makes matters worse."

With their stories top of mind, I wrote two bills to address this problem last year. The Military Spouse Employment Act expands job opportunities for military spouses by making it easier for federal agencies to hire them and supports military spouse entrepreneurs by requiring the Defense Department to explore how bases can best facilitate their work. It also calls for the DoD to examine multiple other aspects of spousal employment -- career counseling services, education and training, professional certification, the transfer to civilian life, the obstacles that arise from frequent moves -- and consider reforms to help military families.

The Jobs and Childcare for Military Families Act expands the number of child care workers on base and makes off-base child care more affordable. After months of work, a majority of the provisions from these two bills became law as part of the national defense bill last year.

I'm proud to say this legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but I'm even prouder to say that military families themselves helped write them. Spouses such as Laskesha, T.T. and Erin know these challenges first-hand; now, they are part of the solution.

Often, a soldier enlists on his or her own, but makes the decision about whether to re-enlist with a family. It's on us to make sure we're doing everything we can to support these military families who sacrifice so much and ensure our service members don't have to choose between staying in the military and supporting those who support them.

As the father of a Marine, a member of the Armed Services Committee, and senator for a state so closely connected to the military, working on this legislation was personal to me. Our military families are a unique link between the military and the American public. Making sure they have what they need to succeed is the least we can do to recognize and honor their sacrifice.

-- 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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