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Changing military families require more flexible support, Army secretary says

By C. Todd Lopez December 12, 2016

WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning believes the Army needs to change how it provides support to Soldiers and their families.

Speaking at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Thursday before representatives and members of the Blue Star Families, an organization founded in 2009 that performs one of the largest surveys of military families and directs them to sources of support, Fanning noted the number of military families with stay-at-home spouses is shrinking.

"The Army needs to recognize that more military spouses are working now," Fanning said. "We must adjust to a reality where it's no longer expected that married Soldiers will have a stay-at-home spouse who takes care of the family and homestead and does volunteer work on the side."

The Army must invest more in programs that support families, Fanning said, in recognition that a growing number of military spouses will want to pursue their own career paths, independent of their serving partners. Additionally, in order to remain a competitive career option, the Army must be able to attract men and women who have career-oriented spouses.

Fewer Americans will choose to join the Army if progressing in their careers requires having an "infinitely flexible, stay-at-home-spouse."

"We need to work on employment opportunities for spouses that aren't in the military," Fanning said. "And we need to do more to make career paths for dual-military families workable. All too often, it works for a little while, and then one of the two has to make a decision to get out to support the other one. We need to make daycare more available."

Fanning suggested that it might also be time to rethink career paths in the military to offer more support for families. For instance, it might be possible, he said, for the Army to extend the number of years it takes for Soldiers to chart a successful career.

"We have these pole years, and you have to hit a year every single year," he noted. "In fact, in many of the services to really excel you have to hit that year early. There is no reason we can't, for example, stretch things out a little bit more to give people more time ... for developmental opportunities and to make decisions for their family that doesn't take them off the track to get them to general officer."

Fostering such stability in family life would go a long way toward helping Soldiers cope with deployments and the stress of being separated from family for extended periods, he said.

BEHAVIORAL HEALTH PARADIGM SHIFT

The Army must also continue to advance its approach to behavioral health, Fanning said. Currently, behavioral health assistance must be initiated by Soldiers, meaning the burden is on the Soldier to proactively seek help after a deployment.

That behavioral health paradigm needs to change, Fanning said.

"We should expect, [and] you should expect you're going to need it," he said. "So you're going to have to go through it when you come back."

Special Operations Command has already implemented successful measures to provide behavioral health services to all its Soldiers immediately upon returning from deployment.