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Military Spouses Thank Gates for Support

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2009 – Since he took office two and a half years ago, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has traveled the world talking with troops about their service and sacrifices.

At each meeting, the secretary is careful to thank the troops’ families, recognizing their sacrifices as well.

Today, the spouses thanked him back.

Gates was awarded the Support for Military Families Award by the National Military Family Association at the annual Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ Luncheon at Bolling Air Force Base here.

“It is a difficult thing to look a family member in the eye whose spouse or father or son or daughter is being deployed again – sometimes on a second or third tour, or even more.” Gates told the 150 or so spouses gathered for the event. “And it is harder to do with the families of those who have been killed or wounded.”

Even so, Gates has looked them in the eyes during his travels, and listened to their concerns.

In fact, the idea for the recent changes to the GI Bill, allowing servicemembers to transfer their benefits to the families, was presented to Gates by a spouse during a meeting with families at Fort Hood, Texas.

This was a “huge” issue for families, officials with the association said.

In his speech to the group, Gates acknowledged the strain of the frequent deployments to two wars on the families.

A higher percentage of parents is serving in this conflict than any time in recent history, the secretary said. More than 40 percent of the military is made up of parents, and more than 230,000 children have a parent at war.

A recent Pentagon survey of more than 13,000 active-duty troops found that the children most affected by deployments are between 6 and 13 years old.

“A generation of kids has had a parent deployed for war at least once --- if not many times,” Gates said. “The empty seat at the dinner table night after night is a constant reminder of a child’s worry for the safety of his or her parents.”

Because of this, Gates has championed some of the most significant changes to the way families are supported within the department.

The fiscal 2010 budget is the first budget to include funding for many family support programs. Before, the programs mostly were funded with supplemental requests to Congress, but Gates wants to make sure these programs won’t go away should the heavy deployment cycles ease.

“One of the most important things we did was enhance and institutionalize the support of troops and families fighting in the current wars – to see that these programs have a bureaucratic home and sustained, long-term funding,” Gates said. “Our all-volunteer force represents the United States’ greatest asset. We must reorient in this direction, because … if we don’t get the people part of our business right, none of the other decisions matter.”

Last year the Defense and Labor departments launched the Military Spouse Career Advancement initiative. More than $35 million was invested in the project’s initial phase across 18 military installations. The program promises to help military spouses get professional training, licenses and certificates they need for high-growth, portable careers in fields such as technology and health care. Now more than ever, spouses are choosing to have careers, and those careers often are interrupted by duty-station changes and deployments.

Gates also heralded the Warrior Transition Unit as a success. The unit helps wounded troops and families work through the bureaucratic maze of health care and recovery. Coordinators are assigned to each servicemember and family and they serve as a single point of contact for help.

Gates cited the increased incidents of divorce and other signs of wear on military families, but offered some hope.

“There are a number of measures under way that are designed to ease the strain on the small portion of the American people who have borne the burden of these conflicts,” he promised. “I hope and trust these measures make a difference.”

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Robert M. Gates

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National Military Family Association

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