Throughout the 1990s and over the last (long) ten years Americans got used to hearing politicians, particularly conservative ones, tout marriages, families and the family support structure as being vital to society. As military spouses we hear it over and over again -- the family is the backbone of the fighting force.
And of course it is. Without the support of wives, children, mothers and fathers our service members wouldn’t be very resilient at all -- it only makes sense. Who wants to go and do the hard job far away without knowing that there is someone back home cheering you on? Strong families, officials remind us, equal strong Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors.
“The health of our all-volunteer force, our soldier volunteers, our family volunteers, depends on the health of the family. The readiness of our all-volunteer force depends on the health of the families,” said then Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, at the unveiling the Army’s Family Covenant in 2007. “I can assure you that your Army leadership understands the important contribution each and every (military family) makes. We need to make sure we step up and provide the support families need so the Army family stays healthy and ready.”
When the Army’s big family program push was launched in 2007 it boasted spending of about $1 billion. It’s now climbed to $8 billion and may go higher soon. While it’d be nice to think that spending this huge amount of money really is all about supporting families and making sure we are strong, there is another facet at play here. Hint: it’s not because they feel sorry for you.
Take a look at the former secretary’s first sentence in that last quote: “The health of our all-volunteer force ...”. Military leadership is keenly aware that having a force at all depends on people volunteering for it. And after almost 10 years of war, families are getting tired. Retaining a force you’ve spent billions to train depends on keeping their families happy. You know what they say: ‘if mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.’
So it’s not about you, really, or that they feel sorry for you. It’s about troop retention in an all volunteer era. As Army chaplain Lt. Col. Mike Strohm, the family ministries officer in the Office of the Chief of Chaplains at the Pengaton said:
“When the volunteer Army began, the Army recognized that the soldier doesn’t enlist in isolation and does not reenlist in isolation. The staying power of the military force is tied dramatically to the staying power of that relationship. That’s why you hear all the terminology of ‘strong family, strong Army.’ Those relationships are intertwined.”
It would be unfair to say that most commanders and senior leadership like Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff and his wife Sheila do not care deeply about soldiers and their families -- they do. Both went out of their way late last month at the AUSA conference, for example, to make sure they heard from and addressed the issues of Army spouses and survivors. And the same can likely be said about those in the other services as well.
But it would also be untrue to say that retention doesn’t play a major role in how the military spends its dollars. ‘Mission first,’ after all.
At a practical level, of course, the motivation behind the funding and programs isn’t important. As a spouse my main concern is that they are there at all. When it comes to the convenience of hourly care, do I really care where it came from or why?
But as a reporter I wonder if dedicating so many dollars to these initiatives is really a good idea. And, more importantly, I question the way they spend them. Is it going towards the best programs possible? If supporting marriages is important for whatever reason, is the money available being spent in the most effective way?
Lucky for me that I have all of you to help as boots on the ground, if you will. Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps spouses -- help this Army wife out. What does your service have going on to help families generally and marriages specifically -- and what can be done better?