U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Russell Buckner, 134th Security Forces Squadron, 134th Air Refueling Wing, is welcomed by a family member after returning to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn., Aug. 8, 2010, from a six-month deployment in Iraq. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Kendra Owenby, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Voices: Military families deserve more than lip service

By Gen. James L. Jones Jr. and Sheila Casey

“Support Our Troops.” The phrase has become a staple on the campaign trail, during halftime of major sporting events and on the bumper of vehicles across America. But what does this seemingly compulsory token of support really mean for our brave men and women serving in the armed forces today?

On Independence Day on Monday, many acknowledged the sacrifices of those who serve and expressed gratitude to the men and women in uniform who protect our rights and liberties. Yet, with so many of our military forces stationed overseas, a widening disconnect between the protectors and the protected has slowly developed. And few are aware of the hardships faced not just by the members of our military abroad in harm’s way—but by their families back home.

Since the global War on Terrorism began nearly 15 years ago, corporations, non-profits and everyday citizens have looked for ways to help service members and veterans address their most pressing needs. This “sea of goodwill” has achieved some results. With improved programs in place for help service members make the transition to civilian life, veteran unemployment at an all-time low, and more readily available resources for wounded warriors, the time is right to direct our collective efforts toward filling the gaps that adversely affect military families.

The demands on military families are real and discernible. Frequent relocations and long separations make it difficult for a vast majority of military spouses to pursue their career aspirations and present unique challenges for military kids who hop from school to school. Not to mention constant concern for loved ones who are deployed. Three out of four active duty spouses report being a military spouse has hindered their ability to find jobs, and more than half are not employed.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, many military families rely on one income, putting significant strain on their finances. It also often makes the path to higher education much more difficult. With 700,000 military spouses; 560,000 service members claiming 1.1 million children as dependents; and more than 100,000 military children ages 17 to 22 in active duty households across the country — college affordability has become one of the greatest burdens facing military families.

Even so, it is an issue that has gone largely unnoticed by organizations and individuals looking for tangible ways to thank these hidden heroes for their service.

While the post-9/11 G.I. Bill has supported many veterans, service members, and dependents, it simply isn’t enough for hundreds of thousands of military families serving on active duty with multiple children and only one source of income.

A decade ago, two young girls found a way to repay the sacrifices that military families have made on our behalf. Seeing their classmate’s father return from Iraq with severe injuries, they sat around the kitchen table with their parents and close friends and created ThanksUSA, a national non-profit dedicated to providing post-secondary school scholarships to children and spouses of those serving on active duty, with preference given to families of the fallen and wounded warriors. Since 2006, over 3,700 military family members in all 50 states and D.C. have received college and vocational scholarships.

Still, hundreds of thousands of other military families need help in closing the financial gap for education and deserve a variety of other support as they set out to re-establish their roots and contribute to their communities for years to come.

Let’s not only acknowledge the profound sacrifices that military families make in service to our nation, but also recognize that supporting military families is vital to sustaining the All-Volunteer Force and a strong national defense. At a time when service members and their families will continue to be asked to do more with less, what more can we do? Helping them pursue a college education and a better future should be at the top of the list.

Jones is president and CEO of Jones Group International and a former national security adviser. He serves on ThanksUSA’s board of directors. Casey is chief operating officer of The Hill and the wife of Gen. George Casey Jr., former chief of staff of the U.S. Army. She serves on ThanksUSA’s advisory council. 

Source: USAToday.com