How Military Families Put Their Stamp on the Pentagon

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An airman and his son work together to create a Christmas card.
An airman and his son work together to create a Christmas card at the 403rd Wing children's holiday party, Dec. 3, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

Few people take the time to read through the 1,772-page bill called the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Department of Defense's annual policy legislation.

It's a "must-pass" bill that outlines spending priorities for the DoD for the following fiscal year. The NDAA often affirms pay raises -- the 2023 raise was 4.6%, military family programming requirements, Tricare health care policy adjustments impacting both active duty and veterans, and more. It's one of the pieces of legislation destined to directly impact millions of American lives, specifically in the service member, veteran and military families communities.

Much of the coverage of the bill focuses on grassroots advocacy performed by military spouses, veterans and nonprofits or slick well-paid industrial complex lobbyists hoping to score lucrative government contracts for their clients. We read the summary, learn what compromises have been struck, and move on to the next year's budget requests and priorities. What is less understood is how the sausage actually gets made.

As it turns out, it is military spouses and veterans, and the organizations that represent them, who deserve the credit for the at-times incremental improvements to military family quality-of-life programs contained in the pages of this bill. While on the surface that sounds like representative democracy at its best, it's not. It is an accidental, or intentional, outsourcing of DoD program evaluation.

Military Families Seek DoD Policy Changes

"The only spouses who were working were women who either didn't have any children, or their children were older, so they were already in school," said Kayla Corbitt, military spouse and founder of Operation Child Care, a referral agency that helps military families connect to child care services. Corbitt was shocked. Despite not yet having her own children, she recalls feeling bombarded by DoD messaging touting the existence of quality DoD-sponsored child care. "So I dug into some of it, and I realized how overly complicated it was. Yes, the resource existed, but the accessibility to that resource did not." So she informally began to help connect families to care.

As her efforts became more formalized, she reached out to installation leadership to offer solutions to help families find care in their area via an online search tool, buttressing -- but not replacing -- existing efforts. "It seemed like I only had valuable things to say in this field because I was a spouse, but not valuable enough to elicit change, just valuable enough for them to hear the words that I was saying," Corbitt said. "Which is ultimately why I created a business, to get some strength behind it since my name alone wasn't enough to make the progress that I was trying to make."

Corbitt is not alone in her observation of a problem and feeling as though she has no other choice but to take her solution outside the chain of command to see real action on a military quality-of-life program. Grassroots efforts are all around. Military spouses, like comedian Ashley Gutermuth and nutritionist Heather Campbell, publicly advocate to reduce food insecurity among military service members. And there are countless established military family and veteran nonprofits that began just like Operation Child Care.

Established nonprofits like the National Military Family Association (NMFA) follow similar patterns of advocacy. The NMFA "was founded by a handful of military wives who wanted to make sure their widowed friends were properly taken care of." Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) founders "hoped that by joining together they could provide assistance and advice to other military officers." These two organizations were instrumental in sharing family stories that led to the repeal of the SBP-DIC offset known as the "Widow's Tax" in the 2021 NDAA. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) "was founded in 2004 by Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff to provide resources to and community for post-9/11 veterans" and was a leader in advocating for the PACT Act that addressed expanding care for veterans exposed to burn pits. Blue Star Families was "founded by military spouses in 2009 to empower these families to thrive as they serve" and annually produces data on military family quality-of-life topics that are frequently cited in DoD program updates and congressional testimony.

What does this have to do with the NDAA? Everything.

In the civilian world, when a government program fails, the citizens can vote to correct it or run for office to fix it. If the solution to the problem proves profitable, for-profits can swoop in with solutions. But in the world of the military, if DoD programs fail military service members and families, it takes an act of Congress to correct it.

Fiscal 2023 NDAA Military Family Highlights

In case you missed it or came here for a summary, here are some highlights from the 2023 NDAA.

  • 4.6% pay increase for service members
  • Child Care reimbursement Pilot Program: Families can be reimbursed for travel expenses for a designated child care provider (read: flying out grandma) if they are unable to receive care within 30 days upon relocation to a new duty station. (Sec. 627)
  • Paused reduction on military medical billets: This phased reduction was proposed back in 2016, but has seen pushback after the COVID-19 pandemic reduced provider availability (Sec. 741)
  • Tricare Prime Referrals: Specialty referrals can be obtained prior to PCS moves, alleviating long wait times reported by families. (Sec. 703)
  • Basic Needs Allowance: Income bump raised from 130% of the federal poverty guideline to 150% and even up to 200% if deemed appropriate by branch secretaries to allow more families to take advantage of this benefit. Advocates are unconvinced this goes far enough to make a difference. (Sec. 611)
  • Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP): Child Development Centers will now have special needs inclusion coordinators to provide more tailored care for children with special needs (Sec. 576)
  • Expansion of reimbursable expenses for spousal business costs resulting from a PCS move to include moving and technology costs. It further extends licensure reimbursement to 2029. (Sec. 622)

The Role of Nonprofits

In order to be considered a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization, you have to agree to limit activities that could be considered lobbying. This would be a good idea if our government officials could speak to everyone they represent, but they can't and they don't.

For military families who often are not registered to vote in the locations in which they live, their opinions may not hold much sway when presented to a public official. And even if the representative does care about the nonvoting members of their communities, they understandably may not be sure that the singular experience of one service member or military family is representative of the larger group.

This is where nonprofits come in. They often gather data from those they serve in order to inform their programming. A byproduct of this work is it is also used to inform congressional decision-making, decisions that ultimately find their way into the NDAA. But these nonprofits don't have the same access to families that the DoD has, leaving many military family experiences, and solutions, on the sidelines of reform discussions.

While a number of excellent nonprofits continue to fight for military families, they're incredibly hard to sustain.

A 2015 IRS report found that "of the 1,184,547 nonprofit charitable organizations recognized by the IRS in 2015, some 298,440 filed Forms 990 and 990-EZ for that tax year," referencing an annual obligation for nonprofits that bring in more than $50,000 annually. The remaining 75% didn't collect that much money.

For nonprofits that are established by military spouses, who move every two to three years, that uphill battle to find funding often means years of unpaid work.

While going unpaid or paying out money at the start of a new business is expected, it is especially discouraging for military spouses who know that others are being paid millions to fix issues for the DoD through existing federal programs or grants/contracts.

Military families with solutions may be set up to feel like they are facing two Goliaths, the DoD and those with DoD contracts. In a 2015 report, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) published Charting the Sea of Goodwill, a deep dive into pre- and post-9/11 military and veteran nonprofits focusing on measuring success by revenue. One pattern that emerged was the relationship between nonprofit organizations and official recognition by the DoD. This recognition preceded a flood of funding and support.

"The DoD funding for this stuff is a relatively small part of the total funding for the [nonprofit] community. The majority of the dollars are coming from corporate or individual donors," Doug McCormick, co-author of Changing Tides in the Sea of Goodwill, said in an interview. This funding, while not substantial enough to sustain veteran nonprofits served as a stamp of approval, opening the door for private funders. 

But if nonprofits need the DoD to legitimize them, what happens to individuals like Corbitt who also have ideas to fix the military's quality-of-life issues? They go to their installations with actionable solutions. But when they are faced with shrugged shoulders and told there is not much that can be done at the installation level, they are forced to give up, share their concerns and ideas with an existing nonprofit, or turn to Congress for aid via the NDAA.

So Where Does the DoD Fit in the NDAA Process?

The DoD submits budget requests outlining its needs based on mission requirements and family initiatives. In times of plenty, DoD memos tout the importance of military families and link support programming directly to military readiness efforts. In leaner times, like the one predicted to follow the recent change in leadership of the 118th Congress, family quality-of-life programs may be the first sacrifice the DoD places on the congressional altar.

In 2012-2013, the United States was facing a government shutdown and defense spending caps. Despite the fact that the DoD funded service member salaries, the rest of the federal budget was frozen, sending employees and leaders into a tailspin. The services had high-ranking officials testify, asking Congress to unkink the firehose, allowing funding to flow.

"As we go forward to the maximum extent possible, we will minimize impacts on family and sailor readiness programs," said Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, then-deputy chief of naval operations, during his testimony before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the House Armed Services Committee on March 13, 2013.

Others warned of what stalled funding might do to families, despite the services' best efforts.

"We anticipate many programs will be impacted, such as child abuse preventions; intervention programs and other family advocacy programs; support to families with children with special needs; resiliency training that assists soldiers and families in building stronger relationships; post recreation centers; bowling alleys; libraries and such," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, then-deputy chief of staff of the Army, testifying before the same subcommittee tasked with reviewing the "impact of the continuing resolution, sequestration, and declining operations and maintenance budgets on military personnel and family-related programs."

The technique of threatening to cut popular, heartstring-pulling programs to avoid budget cuts and retain organizational control is pervasive at all levels of government. Luckily, the DoD does this knowing that military family nonprofits will be there to pick up the pieces.

However, if funding is cut and a military family no longer receives essential services because they are not offered by an existing nonprofit or the nonprofit that once filled this gap no longer exists, they are stuck. Unlike their civilian counterparts, they cannot elect a new installation commander or vote with their feet by moving to a new location where they are better served. They need an act of Congress, and the accompanying funding, to correct a lack of service provision -- because when budgets are cut, family quality-of-life programming is the first thing to go.

Families don't care about the politics of defense budgets when it comes to programming. They just want quick solutions to the problems they face. And they want to see their leaders' support displayed in actions and program changes, not just words that fail to jump off the page.

While some don't care that they have to go to Congress to see programmatic change, they shouldn't have to. Military spouses like Kayla Corbitt should not feel as though it is their responsibility to fix the DoD. They should form their own organizations as a matter of choice, not because they feel they have been left without one.

-- Follow Jennifer Barnhill on Twitter @more_than_mommy.

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