By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
The Department of Defense is always working to solve issues that concern military families, many of which were highlighted in a recent survey.
Nearly 6,300 service members, veterans and military spouses responded to the Blue Star Families’ 2015 Military Family Lifestyle Survey. The biggest takeaway was that there’s lots of uncertainty.
Some experts, including Brad Carson, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, recently held a panel to discuss some of those concerns. Here were the Top 5 issues.
1) Military Pay and Benefits
This was the biggest concern to families; 65 percent of active-duty members and spouses listed it as such, while 57 percent of veterans did. A lot of the concerns stem from DoD funding cuts, sequestration budget caps and transitioning out of the military.
While 60 percent of active-duty survey respondents said they felt financially secure, those who did not had more uncertainty about their benefits. Those respondents were least confident that they would get their post-retirement health care and disability benefits.
2) Changes in Retirement
The military retirement system is likely moving away from a defined-benefit system to a blended-benefit plan, and that was a big concern to 63 percent of active-duty military respondents, 51 percent of their spouses and 58 percent of veterans.
Carson said he knows the DoD has made significant changes to retirement, but he’s confident military members will receive the benefits promised to them.
“These are not changes that are easily understood by even the most financially literate of people, so no doubt some people in the force can be somewhat confused by the intent behind the reform and what the results will be for them,” he said.
Survey respondents said their retirement planning was complicated by uncertainty surrounding future benefits; however, it was strengthened when a spouse was also employed and they could contribute to their civilian retirement accounts. But that seems to be an issue, too.
3) Military Spouse Employment
According to the survey, military families with employed spouses experienced greater financial security, better mental health and higher satisfaction with the military lifestyle. But it’s not easy for military spouses looking for work. All the moves their families make can hinder the process.
Of the active-duty spouses surveyed, 75 percent said being a military spouse had a negative impact on their ability to get a job. Forty-five percent have some form of job, while 58% who weren’t working said they did want to be employed.
On the opposite spectrum, Carson said many military members are choosing to leave the services because of the challenges that come with their spouse’s career.
“Many of them say, ‘My wife or husband is a lawyer or doctor or businesswoman. I can’t live this life and have my wife find their place as well,'” he said.
4) Veteran Employment
While the survey showed that 36 percent of veterans are working, 47 percent of post-9/11 veterans were not doing so in their preferred career fields, and 46 percent said it took longer than they thought to find employment.
Many veterans and transitioning service members reported that they didn’t know much about the transition resources available to them. That concerned Carson a lot.
“The transition programs are one we’re deeply committed to,” he said. “It comes back to communication. We have to explain what we’re doing better, even to just make people aware of the programs.”
The survey found that the transition could be improved by focusing resources on employment and financial transitions, targeting those that separate involuntarily and lengthening the post-service eligibility period for resources like Military OneSource.
5) Service Member/Veteran Suicide
Mental health is still a major issue. Research shows that financial and employment stress and transition experiences can be some of the most prevalent stressors related to suicide among service members.
Seven percent of active-duty spouses and veterans, 10 percent of active-duty service members and 14 percent of post-9/11 service members who responded to the survey said they had seriously thought about committing suicide during their military experience. Seventeen percent said they didn’t use a mental health program or benefit because they had concerns about confidentiality.
Recommending Service to Younger Generations
This wasn’t in the Top 5 on the survey, but it is concerning to experts. While 94 percent of survey respondents said a desire to serve their country was the reason they joined the military, only 57 percent said they would recommend military service to a young person close to them. Experts thought that number was low.
“Even military families are increasingly doubting whether they want to wish this same life on their children,” said Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “That’s, I’m sure, not out of any lack of patriotism or a sense of public service. It’s an awareness of how hard it can be.”
“This is a family business we’re in,” Carson said. “More than 80 percent of the people who join up have a family member who served. … So, this notion that families themselves aren’t recommending service augurs very ominously for what the future might bring.”
Carson said the survey results will allow him to focus on communicating these issues to the Pentagon to make them clearer and better for families.
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