WASHINGTON -- It’s that time of year when top 10 lists seem to proliferate across nearly every web and news page in the nation, proclaiming everything from the best movies and TV shows to the most memorable photos and celebrities of the year.
Since I find it tough to encapsulate a year’s worth of information into a tidy list, I typically steer away from the concept. However, this was such a momentous year for military families that I decided it was time to hop on the list-making bandwagon.
So, here’s my top 10 most memorable military family moments of 2011. It’s certainly not all-inclusive, but I’m hoping it at least hits the highlights.
10. JR Martinez – Warrior Inspiration. This Army veteran and wounded warrior danced his way to the top spot on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” -- and inspired a nation with his strength and resilience along the way. In 2003, Martinez was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, suffering severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body. He went on to share his story with audiences nationwide. In 2008, he landed a role as an Iraq war veteran on the ABC soap opera, “All My Children,” which led to his “Dancing with the Stars” appearances this year.
“I have been able to be a role model and a voice for a lot of [troops] who don’t feel that they have a voice for themselves,” Martinez said during a Pentagon Channel interview. “I’ve been able to be a source of inspiration to the families as well, to say good things do happen and you’ve just got to be patient and have a great attitude.”
Martinez recently scored another big win: he and his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez-Jones, are expecting their first child, a girl, in the spring.
9. The Office of Servicemember Affairs opened for business. As the military arm of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this office is intended to strengthen military families financially and to serve as an advocate on their behalf. The office has a threefold mission: to ensure families are given a quality financial education, to monitor consumer complaints and the response to those complaints, and to work with other federal and state agencies to help resolve issues.
In an interview this summer, Holly Petraeus, the office’s assistant director, told me she’s thrilled to be in a position to help service members and their families.
“My ultimate dream is that no service member signs a contract that they end up regretting for years or signing one that isn’t fair,” she said. “We can write rules and enforce at CFPB, and I’d love to see the real bad actors that go after service members -- break the law to harm them financially -- I’d like to see them enforced against.”
8. Sesame unveiled “Military Families Near and Far.” These products, which include a bilingual website and mobile application, encourage elementary school-aged children to express their emotions and to communicate as they undergo challenging military transitions. The resources are a team effort by Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and are provided in cooperation with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Sesame’s previous efforts to help military children have been aimed at preschoolers. These new products will enable them to reach older children in an entertaining way, H. Melvin Ming, Sesame Workshop president and CEO, told me during the launch event in November. “One size does not fit all,” he noted. “Children learn best when the message is age-appropriate.”
7. Technology boosts support. This year, we’ve seen the Defense Department and other organizations launch a host of technology-based tools aimed at helping troops, veterans and their families. For example, DcOE’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology developed mobile apps that help users cope with psychological concerns, and aid providers in diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and TBI. One example is Life Armor, a mobile app that serves as a resource for families experiencing common post-deployment issues. Find out more about these helpful apps here.
Additionally, TRICARE and Express Scripts Inc. launched a TRICARE Express RX mobile app and mobile-optimized website in July. These tools allow TRICARE beneficiaries to manage their prescriptions and access important health information safely and securely from anywhere using their smart phone.
These are just a few examples of the leaps in technology-based military support this year. From smart phone apps to virtual counseling and support, I’ll be excited to see what sprouts up this year and in the years ahead.
6. Veteran employment initiatives. In November, President Barack Obama announced executive orders to give tax credits to employers who hire post-9/11 veterans and wounded warriors, as well as enhanced career counseling and related services for veterans.
As reported by my colleague Donna Miles, the president announced a new Returning Heroes Tax Credit that will provide companies up to $5,600 in credits for each unemployed veteran they hire. Similarly, a new Wounded Warriors Tax Credit offers employers up to $9,600 for each veteran with service-connected disabilities they hire.
The president also unveiled two new Internet-based job search tools for unemployed veterans: My Next Move for Veterans, where veterans can browse career options and translate their military experience to a civilian application, and the Veterans Job Bank, where veterans can seek jobs posted by companies committed to hiring them.
5. The Job Fair Movement. Also aimed at employment, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sponsored about 75 veteran and spouse hiring fairs around the country, with a goal of hosting 100 hiring fairs within a year. And the chamber has committed to hosting 300-400 additional hiring fairs for veterans and military spouses around the country in 2012, Navy Capt. Bradley Cooper, executive director of the Joining Forces campaign, told me in an interview last month.
In mid-January, the chamber will host its first military-spouse-only hiring fair and career forum, looking to bring together more than 100 employers and more than 1,000 spouses.
There’s also been an emergence of virtual hiring fairs, which is an asset to people unable to attend a hiring fair due to distance or who want to see what’s available in other locations. Milicruit hosted a virtual fair recently that included more than 24,000 jobs from nearly 70 employers with more than 30,000 veterans and spouses engaged in the process.
4. Military Spouse Employment Partnership. This DOD program is aimed at expanding career opportunities for military spouses worldwide, and to recognize the skills and talents they bring to the employment table. The program's website lists more than 70,000 jobs for military spouses.
Since its launch in June, the partnership has grown from 72 companies to 96, and has led to the hiring of more than 8,000 military spouses.
3. Strengthening Our Military Families. In January, President Barack Obama unveiled a governmentwide plan to strengthen military family support. The plan was based on a yearlong review summarized in the report “Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America’s Commitment.”
The report outlines four key areas which the whole-of-government effort plans to address: enhancing military families’ well-being and psychological health; developing military spouse career and education opportunities; increasing child care availability and quality; and ensuring excellence in military children’s education and development.
In total, Obama said, his administration is making nearly 50 specific commitments to military families. But the government can’t accomplish this mission alone.
"Government has its responsibilities,” he said. “One percent of Americans may be fighting our wars, but a hundred percent of Americans need to be supporting our troops and their families -- a hundred percent.”
2. The Joining Forces campaign. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, announced this landmark military-support initiative in April. Joining Forces aims to raise awareness of military families and spark all Americans -- from citizens and communities, to businesses and nonprofit groups -– to take action to ensure troops and their families have the support they need and deserve. The initiative focuses on three areas: employment, education and wellness.
“This campaign is about all of us, all of us joining together as Americans to give back to the extraordinary military families who serve and sacrifice so much every day so we can live in freedom and security,” the first lady said at the White House’s campaign launch.
The campaign has made tremendous inroads in tackling veteran and spouse employment in recent months, Cooper said. In about three months, the campaign went from teaming with 100 companies to more than 1,500, and from 1,500 people hired to nearly 20,000. These companies aim to hire upward of 135,000 veterans and spouses over the next couple of years, he added.
1. Iraq War Ends. After nearly nine years, the war in Iraq ended, and the final group of U.S. troops returned home Dec. 20 -- just in time for the holidays.
The nation owes a debt to all service members and their families, President Barack Obama said Dec. 15.
“This moment of success is because of their sacrifice,” he said. “More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq. More than 30,000 of these brave men and women were wounded. Nearly 4,500 gave their lives. America’s military families have borne a heavy burden.
"As we mark the end of this war, we need to show our veterans and their families that they have the thanks of a grateful nation,” he added. “Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it. It's not enough to honor our heroes with words; we must do so with deeds.”
That’s my top 10, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a shout out to military families worldwide. In this past year, some families endured the terrible pain of losing a military loved one to combat or illness. Others sat by a bedside day and night, praying for the speedy recovery of their child or spouse who returned home with the visible or invisible wounds of war. And still others held down home fronts, bolstering their children through deployments and long separations.
As in every year of this past decade of war, these families have weathered 2011 with amazing resilience and strength.
I’d like to join the rest of the nation in saying thank you for your service and your sacrifice.