As the Trump administration begins to set priorities for national security, it should take note of the continued stress and the changing expectations facing our 21st century military and their families. It is heartening Mr. Trump is concerned about wear and tear on the force, and proposes roughly a 15 percent buildup in its size, as well as increases in funds for military personnel and weapons acquisition.
Since the sum total of these aspirations may prove too expensive, prioritization will likely be required. In streamlining his wish list, therefore, Mr. Trump may wish to take stock of the concerns and observations of those wearing the uniform today — as well as their families.
Investing in technology and equipment alone is not enough to rejuvenate the force. The strength and the heart of our military excellence is the people, and evidence shows that the people are stressed to the point of discouragement — in part because many of the expectations surrounding military personnel are based on outmoded understandings of family life. The organization one of us runs, Blue Star Families, has just completed and released its annual survey on the state of military families, available at bluestarfam.org/survey.
For us, two findings stand out perhaps most prominently.
— Overdeployment. With only about 10 percent as many forces officially deployed to the nation’s active missions in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria as had been the case, most Americans believe that our forces have essentially come home from war. But in our survey, more than four in 10 families have had a service member deployed for at least six months in the past year and a half. This comes on top of the 15 years of war these families have experienced (with most having more than four years of family separation since 9/11). As a result, a whopping 72 percent of respondents consider the current pace of global deployment to be unacceptably stressful on their families. This kind of situation could jeopardize the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.
— Spouse underemployment. Military compensation is reasonably good compared to that of civilians of comparable age, education and experience, yet the nature of the military lifestyle with its frequent moves makes it very hard to have a two-income family. Indeed, there really is no comparability between military service and civilian employment, as then-Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning underscored at the event we held together at Brookings on Dec. 8. To take one measure, military families are 27 percent less likely to have dual incomes than couples/families in the civilian sector, and 21 percent of military spouses report being unemployed, with many more underemployed. On a related matter, 66 percent of families say they are unable to find the child care they need — probably a function of often being in a new place, combined with the financial constraints noted above. Today’s millennials flag that spouse unemployment is one of their top concerns with military life.
Where does this leave us? Lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate have already halted further planned drawdowns in the size of the military this year. But there is clearly more to do, as the survey findings underscore.
—Today’s force probably should grow in size at least modestly.
—In regard to military families and their income, we need to help promote employment of military spouses in and out of government. For example, we should encourage the private sector to hire and allow remote work for military spouses, perhaps with tax credits. Some military benefit reform may be reasonable, especially when guided by goals such as enhancing fairness in pensions (where those with 20 years service get good retirement packages but those with less still get nothing) and efficiency in the use of military health care. But any such reform should be at least neutral in its net effects on overall compensation per family.
—The military services, combatant commands and civilian leadership should also look for ways to replace some overseas deployments with different types of forward presence that can be easier on families. Options could include basing more forces in Europe and Korea on normal tours, with their families, rather than relying so heavily on rotations/deployments; considering a change to the size and scale of Okinawa/Guam Marine Corps deployments in one way or another; and looking for more clever ways to sustain ships overseas, such as crew swaps that allow ships to remain forward in theater while crews are rotated in and out by airplane.
Mr. Trump can take office resting assured that the state of today’s American armed forces, man for man, woman for woman, family for family, is excellent. Today’s warrior families are as dedicated to their mission as ever, and they are certainly as good at their professions as they ever have been as well. But they are also tired, and stressed, by the legacies of war, the burdens of current deployments, and the nature of military life.
We can and should do better by them — and thereby help ensure their excellence, as well as the nation’s security, in the years and decades ahead.
• Kathy Roth-Douquet is founder and CEO of Blue Star Families and was a military spouse; Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings and author of “The $650 Billion Bargain: The Case for Modest Growth in America’s Defense Budget.”