Health care, housing, permanent change-of-station moves, child care and spouse employment were cited as the top five concerns of Army personnel and family members at the service's annual meeting and exposition Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Roughly 500 soldiers, family members and Army civilian employees said the issues, along with operational tempo, were problematic enough to raise questions about the Army as a career.
And they wanted to know what the Army is doing about them.
The responses were taken in an instant poll of attendees during a town hall featuring Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer.
Roughly 83% of Army recruits hail from military families, and with the service expected to fall 10,000 recruits short of its 55,000 recruitment goal for the fiscal year that just ended, Army leaders have made quality-of-life issues a top priority.
At the Association of the United States Army annual meeting, the Army's top civilian, officer and enlisted leaders, along with others, updated personnel on the steps they are taking to improve soldiers' family lives. These were the top concerns, in order:
Acknowledging that the number of providers that accept Tricare has dropped since the COVID-19 pandemic, panelists said that, although the military health program remains "very competitive with civilian health care," the Defense Health Agency needed to maintain the Tricare network and work harder to staff military treatment facilities.
Dr. Brian Lein, Defense Health Agency assistant director, said the Pentagon is working to address long appointment wait times in the civilian sector in some locations by bringing more patients back into military treatment facilities.
The DHA is requesting changes to its hiring capabilities to make the Defense Department more competitive with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is vying for the same providers and is able to pay them more, Lein said, and it is broadening virtual care to keep patients in military health facilities.
"I fully agree with [Secretary Wormuth] that we have to get more people into our hospitals -- doctors, nurses, technicians," Lein said.
Family Housing and Barracks
In 2021, as inflation rose and military personnel struggled to cover the cost of increased housing prices, the Defense Department authorized temporary boosts to the Basic Allowance for Housing in 56 high-demand geographic areas. The following year, the DoD raised BAH rates by an average of 12%.
But, as one soldier attending the town hall noted, when BAH rates rise, landlords increase rents to the level of the BAH.
"Is there anything we're going to put in place to protect service members as they get these pay increases to counter the cost of living so that we can actually not live paycheck to paycheck anymore?" the soldier asked.
George said that, when he was commanding general of I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, he was able to implement Basic Allowance for Housing increases off-cycle, which saved soldiers money because they already had leases in place. The installation also worked with local realtors to cut housing deposit requirements and ease the burden of credit checks.
He also encouraged soldiers to complete housing surveys carefully, and said housing officials should remove locations where soldiers will not live from the survey area to get an accurate read of the cost in a local area.
"It's up to the senior commanders to make sure that the surveys reflect that there may be a cheaper place where the rent is cheaper outside, but it may not be where military families want necessarily to live," George said.
On barracks, Wormuth noted that the Army has a $6.5 billion maintenance backlog and the service is trying to "bring all of our metrics up to the kind of standards we'd like them to meet." But, she added, that is "going to take some time."
One option the Army is exploring, she said, is privatization, citing the 941-apartment Pacific Beacon complex in San Diego that houses single enlisted members.
"There's a lot of issues potentially with privatized barracks. That would be a big shift, but it's something we're looking into because it may work in some places," Wormuth said.
She added that the service is increasing oversight of all housing -- barracks and family housing.
"I would ask that you be patient with us because we do have a pretty flat budget, and we want to make sure obviously all of our soldiers have the equipment they need, the training hours they need," Wormuth said. "We obviously want to make sure that we're investing in salaries and all of the other things that we have to pay for."
Permanent Change-of-Station Moves
The leaders did not directly discuss the strains of military moves, but the service is developing an app it hopes will give Army families the information they need about an installation before they arrive. Similar to what is available for Fort Cavazos, Texas, called the Digital Garrison app, the new Army app will provide families the resources they need, George said.
"You can have all the programs out there that are great, but if you don't know how to access them, you don't know how to find them, that's very frustrating," George said.
One soldier, who described himself as a "technologist and a reservist" said he would welcome modern information-sharing across the service.
"I can speak for my wife: She'd rather deal with Comcast than try to find information from the Army," he said.
George said he gave his software development team roughly 30 days "to come up with something good."
In the past year, the Defense Department and the services have taken steps to ease the financial burden of child care for personnel and make it more accessible.
As a hiring incentive, the Army is giving a discount of 50% for the children of its Child Development Center employees and also discounting child care costs for soldiers who make less than $130,000, according to Wormuth.
"We're really trying to get after that because I know child care is a huge issue. And I know for me as a mom, that was one of the hardest things I had when my kids were young was really trying to find child care for them," Wormuth said.
Fresh off what she considered a victory for Army spouse employment -- signing an agreement with Italy to allow military spouses to engage in remote work in the U.S. -- Wormuth said the service must explore its options for directly hiring spouses and facilitating their employment.
But, Wormuth said, more states should follow a law that requires them to honor the professional licenses of other states.
And the service must encourage more spouses to take advantage of licensure reimbursement, George added. He said 800 spouses have requested the reimbursement, but he was sure there were "a lot more than 800 spouses that have gone through the licensing process."
"We've got to get better at getting the information out," George said. "And as the secretary mentioned, state to state. We don't control what each individual state does ... but trust us -- we are talking here on the Hill to congressional members and I also encourage all the installation commanders ... to talk to their local [governments] because that's really what will make a difference."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.