WAHINGTON - Priorities within the 2018 National Defense Strategy include lethality, partnerships and reform. After assuming office in August 2019, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper added his own fourth priority: taking care of people.
While the impact of COVID-19 has been an unexpected challenge to implementing the NDS, it hasn't stopped the department from prioritizing its people and families, Esper said.
"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," Esper said today during a recorded address to participants of the 2020 Virtual Military Family Caucus Summit. "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."
During the pandemic, Esper said, the department has especially prioritized the protection of service members, families and Defense Department civilians.
When the pandemic began, he said, the department initially suspended international travel as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. Later, that suspension transitioned into a conditions-based, phased approach to allow units and personnel to move as needed.
The department also gave installation commanders the authority to deal with COVID-19 restrictions as they saw fit, to ensure the best balance between health protection and mission readiness, he said.
Across the force, and to ensure the needs of families were met, he said, commissaries and other support facilities were deemed "mission essential" to ensure they could stay open. Military pharmacies also offered curbside prescription pickup to ensure service members and families could continue to get important medications.
While DOD civilian employees are already authorized to telework, that wasn't the case for military personnel. The department addressed that as well.
"The department expanded telework opportunities for active duty and reserve component members to mitigate risks associated with the virus," he said.
To protect military children, he said, the department is also working to provide safe learning environments for dependent children returning to school. This also includes virtual learning opportunities.
Not everything the Defense Department is doing for its people and families involves COVID-19, however.
"The NDS recognizes the importance of recruiting, developing and retaining high-quality service members for our warfighting success," Esper said. "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 percent, he said. That's the largest pay raise in more than a decade.
To make childcare easier for uniformed personnel and their spouses, Esper said that in February he directed a change in departmental policy to give service members priority access to childcare. During the coronavirus pandemic, he said, the department has kept a majority of child development programs open to better serve mission-essential personnel.
The employment of military spouses is also a big issue for military families — and the department continues to make progress in helping spouses find employment, he added.
"The department has also placed special importance on the employment and licensure of our spouses," he said. "Many of you know well the difficulty of sustaining civilian careers, particularly when faced with moves every two to three years."
Through the Military Spouse Employment Partnership program, nearly 175,000 spouses have been hired over the past nine years, according to a DOD press release dated August 27.
And because many military spouses are employed in jobs that require state licensing, the department has worked to help make it easier for military spouses to work after making a permanent change of station to a new state, said Matthew P. Donovan, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, who also spoke at the summit.
"We're working very hard on military spouse licensing laws in between states ... and we've made some good progress, even to the point where that could become criteria for making basing decisions in the future," Donovan said. "So, if we were fielding a new squadron of airplanes, say, and we're trying to decide where to put them, that would be a scored basing criteria — the spouse licensing."
Donovan also said the department is working on another issue related to military spouses — drivers licenses. While service members can keep their home state license when they make a permanent change of station, the same is not always true for their spouses.
"Some states don't recognize a spouse and their driver's license and force them to get a new driver's license at a new location within a certain period of time," Donovan said. "Our Defense State Liaison Office works hard on all these issues."
On the medical front, Donovan said, the department has made it easier for military families to get access to care through the use of telemedicine.
"We have expanded telehealth greatly during the pandemic to accommodate folks ... including tele-mental health," he said. "We've actually waived the co-pay requirements ... to make it easier for folks to do that, and also incentivize folks. We understand that during these pandemic conditions that some folks are leery of going ... physically into a hospital or to a clinic to be seen. So we want to make sure that we provide every avenue we can."
Within the Exceptional Family Member Program, Donovan said, the department is looking to smooth the transition for family members as they move between installations due to permanent changes of station. When that happens, sometimes there are hiccups, he said, as families move from one provider to the next.
"Some of the challenges that we see are when people move from one location to another, they end taking a long time for referral medical appointments for their special needs family members," Donovan said.
Now, he said, the department is making changes to TRICARE so that when families move between Tricare regions, their referrals will follow them. The implementation of that, he said, will happen over the next couple of months.
In addition to that, he said, the department is also working to ensure there will be a "warm handoff" between EFMP case workers as military families change stations. That means case workers from the losing location will contact the case worker at the gaining location to make them aware of the incoming family.
"The secretary and the entire Department of Defense have an unwavering commitment to taking care of our service members and their families," Donovan said. "In personnel and readiness, we work tirelessly to lead the way in this effort and meet with the secretary weekly to update him on our progress. We understand how much our service members and their families rely on the resources we provide. So this is a no-fail mission for us."