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Family Matters Blog: Air Force Husband Works for Future Families

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2012 – Military families have gotten a lot of attention lately for their sacrifices for the nation and for their volunteerism, which research shows runs well above the general population. And while it always is hard to focus on just one person, even in a crowd of 1.1 million, Jeremy Hilton stands out.

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Jeremy Hilton, the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year, poses with his wife, Air Force Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, and their children, Jack, 2, and Kate, 9. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Hilton was recognized as the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year at Marine Corps Barracks here yesterday – becoming the first husband to receive the award -- at a ceremony that included five other service-level finalists and many senior military officials’ spouses. Deanie Dempsey, wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, presented the award, which was founded by Military Spouse magazine in 2008.

Hilton is married to Air Force Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, who serves with the Office of Special Investigations, and the family is stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Renae nominated Jeremy for the Air Force Spouse of the Year award for his work in advocating for military family members with disabilities, while being a stay-at-home dad to their two children: 9-year-old Kate, who has severe disabilities, and 2-year-old Jack.

In addition to handling the child care, doctors’ appointments, school issues and everything else he has to do, Jeremy has become a force on Capitol Hill, coordinating a national push for legislation to help military families. After countless letters and phone calls, he has spoken before the Congressional Military Family Caucus and with numerous congressional delegations and staffers on the Armed Services committees, HELP Committee, Judiciary Committee and in the White House – all to ensure that military families are treated fairly in spite of any special needs.

But public policy, advocacy and disability issues are not in Hilton’s background. He and Renae graduated together from the Air Force Academy in 1995, he with an aeronautical engineering degree. He then cross-commissioned into the Navy and the couple went their separate ways in their respective training pipelines.

In 1996 they managed to be stationed near each other in Washington state – he at what was then Naval Submarine Base Bangor, she at what was McChord Air Force Base –and got married in December that year.

The couple was stationed together in the Washington, D.C., area in 1999, and their first child, Kate, was born in 2002. Amid the joy of welcoming their daughter, there also was despair. Kate was born with hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid that causes brain swelling and multiple medical conditions.

Facing Kate’s severe medical needs, the couple knew one of them would have to leave the military. Because Jeremy was a submariner facing a high rate of deployment, they decided it would be him who separated.

“We knew with the extent of her injuries that it would be that much more stressful if someone were gone all the time,” he said.

To say the next five years were rough is an understatement. The couple left Washington in 2004 and moved five times before returning in 2008. Renae had two deployments in that time, and through it all, Kate had multiple, major surgeries.

“The first five years of Kate’s life were about surviving,” Jeremy said.

It was during one of Renae’s deployments that Jeremy’s advocacy work began. He disagreed with the conditions of Kate’s care at a child development center and took the case to the Air Force inspector general. The experience gave him a window into the self-advocacy of parents of children with disabilities, connected him to others, and made him aware of their rights.

Jeremy fought successfully to get more staff for the Air Force exceptional family member program and provided feedback on whether policies adopted in Washington were benefitting families the way they were meant to.

“I became a professional letter writer,” he said, and “I’ve had to become a special ed expert.”

In 2009, Hilton turned his attention to Congress. “We’re a federal institution,” he said of the military. “The only way we’re going to get these issues solved is to go up to the Hill and get laws passed.”

Hilton has seen progress:

-Every service has an exceptional family member program and increased staff;

-Most installations have child development centers;

-Families increasingly get respite care;

-The Defense Department Office of Special Needs was created out of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.

Like so many spouses with competing demands on their time, Hilton struggles to strike a balance. “It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you know how important this is, and how many people are impacted – thousands of families, tens of thousands of children.”

He remains frustrated by the slow pace of change. “We have to have ways to change policy faster than every five years,” he said.

But Hilton has accepted the fact that not everything will change during his wife’s military career. “We’re not going to fix these things for ourselves,” he said. “We’ll be gone. But we have an obligation to fix them for the people who come behind us.”

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