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Secretary of Defense Remarks at 2020 Virtual Military Family Caucus Summit (As Prepared)

Hello, I’m Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and it’s an honor to join you for this year’s Military Family Caucus Summit. Thank you to your founders and co-chairs – Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Congressman Sanford Bishop – for hosting this important event.

For more than a decade, you have supported our service members and their families by calling attention to the unique challenges they face, and effectively advocating on their behalf. As a former active duty soldier, National Guardsman, and Army Reservist, I am familiar with those challenges, and recognize the impact of our military families’ wellbeing on the readiness of the force. During my travels, I regularly meet with our uniformed personnel and their families to hear their concerns and make changes across the enterprise, which is critical as we adapt the force to an increasingly complex security environment.

The National Defense Strategy states that we are now in an era of great power competition, and that we must advance along three lines of effort to stay ahead of our near- peer rivals, China and Russia. When I became Secretary, I added a fourth priority – one that is personal to me: taking care of our service members and their families, our most precious resource. These men and women serve our great nation every day, bearing the burden of long deployments, short-notice permanent change of station moves, and many other challenges. We, in turn, must do our utmost to improve their quality of life and give them the support they need – and so rightfully deserve.

This is especially true during the global pandemic, which has created new and different challenges for our people. In light of the theme for this event, “Military Families in the Time of COVID,” I appreciate the opportunity to share our overarching efforts in support of our uniformed personnel and their loved ones.

From the beginning of the COVID outbreak, going back to January, the Department of Defense has been “all-in” on the nation’s fight against the coronavirus, working along three priorities:

First, protecting our Service members, DOD personnel, and their families;

Second, maintaining our national security mission capabilities;

And third, supporting the whole-of government response to the pandemic.

The department reacted quickly to stem the spread of the virus in our ranks, to include suspending international travel, and later transitioning to a conditions-based, phased approach for the movement of our units and personnel.

We also ensured that our commanders have the authorities and resources necessary to balance force health protection with mission readiness, and published guidance on topics ranging from travel and telework, to childcare and healthcare, keeping pace with an unpredictable and evolving situation. We are now on our thirteenth update to our Force Health Protection guidelines since late January, which has kept us current with CDC guidance.

We designated commissaries and support facilities as mission essential so that they could remain open throughout the pandemic, and, as part of our shift to telehealth, we instituted curbside pick-up of pharmacy prescriptions. We also provided a framework with graduated levels of protection measures, known as “Health Protection Conditions,” allowing installation commanders to flex their response measures to circumstances in their area.

Meanwhile, the department expanded telework opportunities for active duty and reserve component members to mitigate risks associated with the virus. We have also allowed our men and women in uniform to accrue up to 120 days of Special Leave into fiscal year 2021, and are working tirelessly to provide a safe learning environment for dependents as they return to school, including through virtual learning.

Moreover, more than 60,000 service members have worked on the front lines of our battle against the virus, putting themselves in harm’s way and surging equipment and capabilities into hotspots across America. Today, thousands are still hard at work, including as part of Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development, manufacture, and distribution of therapeutics and vaccines by the end of the year. I am exceptionally proud of their efforts in support of the American people, which has enabled us to maintain readiness, execute our mission, and continue to implement the National Defense Strategy.

The NDS recognizes the importance of recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality service members for our warfighting success. To do so, we will continue to advocate for robust pay, better benefits packages, and stronger support for their families. In 2020, for example, military basic pay increased by 3.1%, the largest raise in more than a decade – thanks to President Trump and the support of Congress.

We are also working to help ease the burden of childcare for our uniformed personnel. In February, for example, I directed a change in policy to give our service members priority access to childcare. And, during the coronavirus pandemic, we have kept a majority of child development programs open to serve our mission-essential personnel. I am now working to improve the availability of hourly childcare for our service members.

The department has also placed special importance on the employment and licensure of our spouses. Many of you know well the difficulty of sustaining civilian careers, particularly when faced with moves every two to three years. My wife, Leah, went through this as well when I served on active duty. However, through our work alongside organizations participating in the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, nearly 175,000 spouses have been hired over the past nine years.

We recognize that over one-third of our military spouses work in occupations that require a cumbersome relicensing process when moving to a new state. To address this issue, we developed a plan that includes compacts for full reciprocity between states, and will continue to work with states across the country on these measures. I am happy to report that many states have enacted legislation on license reciprocity thus far.

At the same time, we are also engaging with the State Department to improve on- and off-base hiring opportunities for our overseas spouses and dependents.

Meanwhile, to improve quality of life for our families residing on military installations, I designated a chief housing officer to serve as the lead for the administration and oversight of privatized housing. The military services are aggressively hiring hundreds of oversight staff to support this program, and improve customer service.

Additionally, the service secretaries and I signed the Tenant Bill of Rights to ensure that military families have access to safe, quality, and well-maintained homes and communities. Fourteen of these rights became available to tenants in fiscal year 2020, and we are committed to working with Congress, privatized housing landlords, and installations to make all eighteen rights fully available in the coming months.

These are just a few steps we have taken to care for our families. However, we know that much more work remains. For example, we are closely examining the Exceptional Family Member Program across the services to better meet the needs of our families.

We will continue to identify ways to improve the military experience for our dependents, as we create lasting change across the department, and work to attract and retain America’s best and brightest. This is my personal commitment to all of you.

In closing, I want to thank the members of the Military Family Caucus and the many support organizations for your hard work on behalf of our personnel and their families – especially during this challenging time. Our brave men and women in uniform continue to successfully execute their mission because of your continued efforts, and your tremendous bipartisan support.

Finally, to our military family members across the force: Leah and I want to thank you for your selfless sacrifice and unfailing devotion to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Space Force professionals. You faithfully serve alongside them, enduring hardships and meeting the challenges of military life. For this, you have our eternal gratitude and admiration.

Thank you for your role in ensuring the United States military remains the best, strongest, and most capable fighting force in the world, now and in the decades to come.

Thank you.