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Davis: Don’t Forget the Military Families

In Congress, national defense is all too often associated with weapons systems and military hardware. We can sometimes lose sight of the most important component of our national defense — our armed forces personnel. This year may be an exception.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates should be commended for his focus on people and families in this year’s budget and for working with Congress to improve military quality of life.

In March, the House passed H.Con.Res. 64, urging the president to designate 2009 as the Year of the Military Family. First lady Michelle Obama has talked about her commitment to highlighting the sacrifices and needs of military families.

Since 2001, the expectations, pressures and needs of service members and their families have increased significantly. Changes to duty requirements under current military operations have put service members and their families to the test. And they have responded admirably.

But these changes have also put Congress and the executive branch to the test. The ongoing and ever-changing responsibility of the federal government — from recruitment to separation and beyond — is to ensure that we provide the policies and resources to take care of military families.

It must be understood that military families face unique challenges compared to the average American family. Fighting two wars has meant multiple and long-term deployments, and some service members have found themselves hop-scotching from one theater to another.

It is not a stretch to say that service members and military families are more satisfied when they are taken care of adequately. Proper support for family members can mean greater recruitment and retention, less strife within a marriage and family and better performance by service members themselves. It simply makes sense: They won’t be as effective while deployed if we aren’t taking care of their families back home. As the saying goes: “We recruit a member, but retain a family.—

Benefits and support play an important role and demonstrate the enormous challenge in keeping people in the service.

The biggest test we face is reining in the rising health care costs within the Department of Defense. The department will spend $47 billion on health care in 2010, up from $16 billion in 2002. It is clear that this cannot go unchecked. But reform also cannot be at the sacrifice of our service members.

The previous administration seemed intent on solving the bulging health care budget within the department by attempting to purge large numbers of beneficiaries from TRICARE.

Congress repeatedly rejected this approach and protected military families from increases in TRICARE co-pays and deductibles. We restored more than $1 billion in military health care funding to provide medical services to military families and their service members.

This year we are seeing a different approach. The department seems to be willing to fully fund TRICARE. However, there is no doubt that tough choices lie ahead when it comes to reforming the health care component of the budget.

Military spouses are key to maintaining the stability of families, especially while service members are deployed for long periods of time. Many spouses provide a second income. This often means a need for employment and education support.

Congress, through the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, has taken steps to help spouses further their educations and careers.

A tuition assistance program was established for eligible military spouses to develop portable careers. The secretary of Defense can also establish education and training programs for military spouses.

Jobs and classes mean a need for childcare. If military parents are going to work or educate themselves to provide for their families, they will need assistance in taking care of their children. Over the past several years, the department, with the support of Congress, has increased its child development centers to accommodate an additional 13,000 children. The economic recovery package included $80 million for the construction of several additional centers to address the current shortage.

This is just another vital area of support that Congress will have to tackle. But we have made progress in many areas. Support for service members and their families is a continuous requirement that we, as a nation, must commit to provide.

We must not forget that our military’s greatest asset is its personnel. Maintaining and improving on their benefits, compensation, and services helps them deal with the unique challenges that they and their families face every day. Just as important, it tells them that we value them and their service to us and our nation.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) is chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

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