From the Homefront: Making sure your voice is heard

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for nearly 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.

Shelley Kimball (second from left) and fellow participants at the 2013 Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Shelley Kimball (second from left) and fellow participants at the 2013 Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Written by Shelley Kimball.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

So, you remember on the first day of my column, when I said I would not sugar coat things? Well, today is the day.

A little background: I was honored with an invitation to the White House to attend the Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit, which took place the day before the government shutdown. The invitation was the result of my work with the Military Family Advisory Network. And as the 2013 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, AFI kindly assisted in getting me there.

Just before I left, I reached out for some input from fellow Coastie families through social media. I asked for the answer to one question: What is the most pressing issue facing Coast Guard families today? In a matter of days, 50 people responded. I’m going to tell you what I learned, but first I need you to keep a bit of perspective with me.

This is in no way scientific. This is more like me sitting with you having a cup of coffee and saying, “How is everything with your family?” So while it is not official, it is truly heartfelt. Second, I asked the question on the eve of the government shutdown. At that moment, we were not sure if it would happen. But, seeing as it has, I don’t really think the concerns would be any different than what I am about to report to you.

The worries you all have resonate with me. I get it. I am not bringing this to you to make you feel bad about Coastie life – you know I love this life. But I ask that you look at all of this through the lens of how we can make things better for ourselves and those around us. So, here we go. The top 10 issues of concern, in order, among the Coast Guard family members who shared with me:

Shutdown and sequestration: This was the most common response, which is not a surprise. The unpredictability and fear of the unknown seemed to be on everyone’s minds. One spouse said, “The threat to hold military pay when the budget isn’t balanced is a very scary thing for us when it’s already a challenge to keep our own budgets balanced on military pay.” Another said, “How can we stand strong when nothing is certain and we are treated as nothing more than a number and political talking point?”

Effects of PCS-ing: Spouses are worried about the mental health effect among themselves and their children as a result of repeated moves. Added to that worry is the frustration about what happens to their kids’ education when moving among school districts, as well as the financial burdens we incur as a result of the moves. One spouse said, “I do realize this is part of the military life we have chosen, but the frequency of moves will always be the number one detriment to the happiness and stability of the Coast Guard family who serves alongside their active duty member.”

Support for families: First of all, spouses would like more communication from their duty stations, especially when they first arrive. Families would like more morale events. They would also like more opportunities to learn about the services available to them.

Support for Coast Guard: I hear this one a lot. Spouses feel the Coast Guard does not garner the same respect as other branches because we do not get the same discounts and benefits provided to military branches that are part of the Department of Defense. I will say here what I say to everyone who asks me about this – this is not an example of agencies thinking less of Coasties. It’s a symptom of budget allotments. When you see this happen, it is your opportunity to educate companies and government agencies on Coast Guard life, and to see how we can get those same benefits for our families. A spouse summed it up by saying, “They say they have a military discount and when I mention that we are a Coastie family, I get ‘Oh, sorry, we don’t offer our military discount to Coast Guard.’ I think if the people of the USA are better informed about what our men and women do, it will vastly help us all.”

COLA/BAH/Housing: The high cost of living in some of the seaside towns Coasties live in may not meet the COLA and BAH provided. There is also concern about being mandated to live in housing.

Spouse employment: Military spouse unemployment is at about 26%, which is almost triple the national average. I would have been shocked if this one had not appeared in responses. Spouses are also concerned with the difficulty they have with employment licensure. According to one spouse, ”My biggest complain about being married to a Coastie is that my career is in the toilet. I am [occupation removed to protect anonymity], licensed in two states, and I cannot find a job to save my life. I wish that was not the case.”

Slow promotions and high year tenure: There are fewer opportunities for advancement, and families are feeling it. The frustration about how long it takes to move up is taking a toll on them, as well as the reinstatement of high year tenure. For example, one Coast Guard spouse said, “I gave up a career, including earning potential and retirement benefits, for my husband to serve, but now our retirement is in jeopardy because he risks being kicked out because of high year tenure.”

Struggles with EFMP: The paperwork to get services is overwhelming and daunting. Families also report feeling a stigma for enrolling their children in the Exceptional Family Member Program. “I have a child with special needs, and I feel like I have to fight for every part of his care to be covered,” one spouse said.

Deployment and reintegration: The repeated deployments Coasties experience can wear on a family, and the reintegration can be challenging. Families are looking for more support in going through the deployment/reintegration cycle. One spouse said, “There needs to be more training for members and their spouses and dependents. The transition home can be even harder than the deployment. Then a few months later, the member leaves and the cycle starts over.”

The future of healthcare and retirement: These are almost an extension of the first one – will healthcare and retirement benefits be intact when we need them? How will the new healthcare system affect Tricare services? One spouse said, “The feeling of insecurity. Constantly having our housing, health, and childcare benefits threatened and our pay suspended. We live in absolute service to our country and in return for our sacrifices and hard work, we are met with an uncertain future and financial distress.”

A few of you ended your answers by telling me that what you need, what worries you, is not as important as other things I can advocate about. I beg to differ. You are the most important issue to me. What worries you worries me, and I need to be the one to help you. I can only do that when you level with me. So to those of you who took the time to let me hear you, I am grateful.

So let’s move forward with a sense of purpose. I always say that military families know what they are doing – they are strong and resourceful. Share your thoughts with me below – does this match your experience? What ideas do you have to ease the frustrations Coasties have reported here?

I’ll take all of your input to Mrs. Linda Kapral Papp, Coast Guard ombudsman-at-large and wife of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp, and I will share her responses with you in November.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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