Military Teens Try Their Hand at Policy Making
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 13, 2009 Like adolescents around the world, U.S. military dependents in Europe crave more independence.
They want to explore and study in the countries surrounding their base, learn to drive cars and have more flexible accommodations between the United States and their family’s quarters.
This is the message a group of 10 teens stationed overseas delivered in Garmisch, Germany, yesterday at a forum known as the U.S. European Command Quality of Life Conference. The conference convenes spouses, teens, military members and civilians deployed on the continent, allowing them to shed light on common issues in hopes of steering budgets and policy.
And for the first time, teenagers were given their own soapbox as one of five participating focus groups. Over the past week, these adolescents brainstormed the key issues facing military dependents and whittled it down to a list of their top concerns.
“What we’re seeing is that these teens are highly educated, great communicators, strategic thinkers, and they’re more technologically advanced than I ever was,” Wayne Boswell, the chief of Eucom’s Quality of Life branch, said in a phone interview from the conference.
Molly Kisner, who resides with her family at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, is a teen delegate who’s been keeping the group’s minutes in teenage technophile fashion -- on a blog.
“So far we have succeeded in narrowing down our issues into our Top 10,” reads an entry she posted onto the Eucom-sponsored Web site March 10. “These were submitted to ‘the guys upstairs’ for approval.”
One of the group’s proposals is a rather novel idea -- an exchange program that would swap students in good academic standing from one Department of Defense Dependents School in Europe to another.
“As for the foreign exchange, basically we are asking that DoDDS implement an exchange program between schools allowing students to completely experience other cultures in their theater,” Kisner blogged yesterday. “Said student needs a minimum of a 3.0 [grade point average].”
Even though the teenagers missed a week of school to attend the conference, they received a crash course in civics while catching a glimpse of how policy evolves.
The “guys upstairs” -- the panel tasked with reviewing initial proposals -- recommended the teens shift their focus from DoDDs to more appropriate organizations within the Defense Department – namely, the military’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation department and the Child, Youth and School Services division.
Displaying the intuition of seasoned and sure-footed government policymakers, the teens established a blue ribbon committee to refocus their proposal, regrouped, then issued a progress update.
“The exchange program needed to switch the organization from DoDDs to MWR or CYS,” Kisner wrote. “So we spent most of morning establishing [the Student Cultural Exchange Orientation Program]. After an hour or two of work on that we are all very proud of the end result.”
In the case of these precocious teenagers, their desire to be in the driver’s seat is both figurative and literal. One of the big complaints among dependents in Eucom is that a lack of driver’s education on military installations is an unfair handicap that their peers across the Atlantic don’t have to endure.
Fees for roundtrip airfare and driver’s education in the States often exceeds the price of taking instructional courses in one’s host country, which can come with a hefty price tag for the six months of lessons needed to drive abroad, according to one Eucom official.
“I’ve heard everywhere from about $2,500 to about $4,200 for the full program,” Boswell, the Quality of Life branch chief, said. “And that only gets them their license so that they can drive on the Autobahn or off the garrison.”
Boswell said Installation Management Command Europe already has hooked up live driving simulators that let teens take the safety training portion free of charge. While completion of the regimen doesn’t license them to drive, it does check one of two necessary boxes.
But as eager as some teens might be to hit the open road, the top issue the focus group identified suggests they’re not ready to leave the nest for good.
“Our Number 1 topic submitted was getting plane tickets for college students who live in the U.S. to visit their family [in Europe] twice a year instead of the current once a year,” Kisner wrote on the blog.
The remarkable debut by the teen group has helped officials see an entirely different perspective of life on base, Boswell said.
“When we ask them a question, they help us look at issues very differently than we would have looked at them ourselves,” he said.
Karina Viesca, a teen delegate who lives at Ghedi Airbase, Italy, lauded the opportunity to share her experience as a military dependent.
“These good and bad experiences have been heard and considered for the future we hold within ourselves,” she wrote on the blog yesterday. “These experiences may not be taken into action overnight, but someday we will see it happen.”
Boswell suggested that some of the teens have taken such a vested interest in the dialogue because it could have a bearing on the quality of their adult lives.
“In large part, in the military we’re basically growing our own,” he said. “So as we talk to them and get their perspective, they’re really helping us shape their environment for when they enter the military.”