From the Homefront: Making sure your voice is heard

So, you remember on the first day of my column, when I said I would not sugar coat things? Well, today is the day. Just before I left, I reached out for some input from fellow Coastie families through social media. I asked for the answer to one question: What is the most pressing issue facing Coast Guard families today? In a matter of days, 50 people responded. I’m going to tell you what I learned.

9 comments

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for nearly 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.

Shelley Kimball (second from left) and fellow participants at the 2013 Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.
Shelley Kimball (second from left) and fellow participants at the 2013 Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

Written by Shelley Kimball.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.
Photo by Bill Keefrey.

So, you remember on the first day of my column, when I said I would not sugar coat things? Well, today is the day.

A little background: I was honored with an invitation to the White House to attend the Joining Forces Veteran and Military Family Summit, which took place the day before the government shutdown. The invitation was the result of my work with the Military Family Advisory Network. And as the 2013 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, AFI kindly assisted in getting me there.

Just before I left, I reached out for some input from fellow Coastie families through social media. I asked for the answer to one question: What is the most pressing issue facing Coast Guard families today? In a matter of days, 50 people responded. I’m going to tell you what I learned, but first I need you to keep a bit of perspective with me.

This is in no way scientific. This is more like me sitting with you having a cup of coffee and saying, “How is everything with your family?” So while it is not official, it is truly heartfelt. Second, I asked the question on the eve of the government shutdown. At that moment, we were not sure if it would happen. But, seeing as it has, I don’t really think the concerns would be any different than what I am about to report to you.

The worries you all have resonate with me. I get it. I am not bringing this to you to make you feel bad about Coastie life – you know I love this life. But I ask that you look at all of this through the lens of how we can make things better for ourselves and those around us. So, here we go. The top 10 issues of concern, in order, among the Coast Guard family members who shared with me:

Shutdown and sequestration: This was the most common response, which is not a surprise. The unpredictability and fear of the unknown seemed to be on everyone’s minds. One spouse said, “The threat to hold military pay when the budget isn’t balanced is a very scary thing for us when it’s already a challenge to keep our own budgets balanced on military pay.” Another said, “How can we stand strong when nothing is certain and we are treated as nothing more than a number and political talking point?”

Effects of PCS-ing: Spouses are worried about the mental health effect among themselves and their children as a result of repeated moves. Added to that worry is the frustration about what happens to their kids’ education when moving among school districts, as well as the financial burdens we incur as a result of the moves. One spouse said, “I do realize this is part of the military life we have chosen, but the frequency of moves will always be the number one detriment to the happiness and stability of the Coast Guard family who serves alongside their active duty member.”

Support for families: First of all, spouses would like more communication from their duty stations, especially when they first arrive. Families would like more morale events. They would also like more opportunities to learn about the services available to them.

Support for Coast Guard: I hear this one a lot. Spouses feel the Coast Guard does not garner the same respect as other branches because we do not get the same discounts and benefits provided to military branches that are part of the Department of Defense. I will say here what I say to everyone who asks me about this – this is not an example of agencies thinking less of Coasties. It’s a symptom of budget allotments. When you see this happen, it is your opportunity to educate companies and government agencies on Coast Guard life, and to see how we can get those same benefits for our families. A spouse summed it up by saying, “They say they have a military discount and when I mention that we are a Coastie family, I get ‘Oh, sorry, we don’t offer our military discount to Coast Guard.’ I think if the people of the USA are better informed about what our men and women do, it will vastly help us all.”

COLA/BAH/Housing: The high cost of living in some of the seaside towns Coasties live in may not meet the COLA and BAH provided. There is also concern about being mandated to live in housing.

Spouse employment: Military spouse unemployment is at about 26%, which is almost triple the national average. I would have been shocked if this one had not appeared in responses. Spouses are also concerned with the difficulty they have with employment licensure. According to one spouse, ”My biggest complain about being married to a Coastie is that my career is in the toilet. I am [occupation removed to protect anonymity], licensed in two states, and I cannot find a job to save my life. I wish that was not the case.”

Slow promotions and high year tenure: There are fewer opportunities for advancement, and families are feeling it. The frustration about how long it takes to move up is taking a toll on them, as well as the reinstatement of high year tenure. For example, one Coast Guard spouse said, “I gave up a career, including earning potential and retirement benefits, for my husband to serve, but now our retirement is in jeopardy because he risks being kicked out because of high year tenure.”

Struggles with EFMP: The paperwork to get services is overwhelming and daunting. Families also report feeling a stigma for enrolling their children in the Exceptional Family Member Program. “I have a child with special needs, and I feel like I have to fight for every part of his care to be covered,” one spouse said.

Deployment and reintegration: The repeated deployments Coasties experience can wear on a family, and the reintegration can be challenging. Families are looking for more support in going through the deployment/reintegration cycle. One spouse said, “There needs to be more training for members and their spouses and dependents. The transition home can be even harder than the deployment. Then a few months later, the member leaves and the cycle starts over.”

The future of healthcare and retirement: These are almost an extension of the first one – will healthcare and retirement benefits be intact when we need them? How will the new healthcare system affect Tricare services? One spouse said, “The feeling of insecurity. Constantly having our housing, health, and childcare benefits threatened and our pay suspended. We live in absolute service to our country and in return for our sacrifices and hard work, we are met with an uncertain future and financial distress.”

A few of you ended your answers by telling me that what you need, what worries you, is not as important as other things I can advocate about. I beg to differ. You are the most important issue to me. What worries you worries me, and I need to be the one to help you. I can only do that when you level with me. So to those of you who took the time to let me hear you, I am grateful.

So let’s move forward with a sense of purpose. I always say that military families know what they are doing – they are strong and resourceful. Share your thoughts with me below – does this match your experience? What ideas do you have to ease the frustrations Coasties have reported here?

I’ll take all of your input to Mrs. Linda Kapral Papp, Coast Guard ombudsman-at-large and wife of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp, and I will share her responses with you in November.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

9 comments on “From the Homefront: Making sure your voice is heard”

  1. Moral is deff been low. Been coastie wife for two years and only had one event offered thankfully I was able to make it. Also child care, would love something offered by coast guard, in a new area it’s so hard to know who to trust, with hubby’s schedual so unreliable if I’m going to work I casing rely on hubby being home. Also dealing with frequent gone for 48 he’s then home dealing with frequent abrupt change of handing over the reigns and picking them back up is deff difficult.

    1. Thank you so much for writing in! Are you a member of a CG spouses’ Facebook page for your area? If not, I can help you find one,if there is one. That’s where I get all of my best information about reliable childcare and other community services. And as a bonus, I make friends who keep me sane when my husband is away. Also, be sure you are linked with your ombudsman — that will give you direct access to events and services. It’s always a lifeline for me, especially when we move.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with what the spouses shared with you! Luckily I was able to keep my job and work from home when I got married to my Coastie, but I see so many other spouses struggle with finding jobs. I would like to make note that EFMP is also difficult for spouses as well, especially the fact that you don’t know what the requirements are supposed to be to be enrolled in EFMP so you have to file the paperwork just to see if you are eligible. The whole process is a big jumbled confusing mess and considered it is mandatory to be enrolled if you are eligible but there are no requirements clearly stated anywhere it is not a fun place to be in when you are looking at your Coasties potential future career moves and how your medical situation may affect it.

    1. That is a fascinating example about EFMP — the spouses’ perspective. I feel like I am hearing that there is worry about the effects of registering for EFMP on an active duty member’s career. And I’m so glad your job is portable — it seems like it’s becoming a necessity for military spouses who want to work!

  3. Shelley,
    I think these are all valid concerns. I have had more experience with some more than others, but they are all really concerning. For us, slow advancement has been a major cause of concern, as has unit communication. Based on my prior active duty status, I understand much more about where my resources are than the typical new spouse might, and I have felt very lost and alone at times. I can only imagine how someone with little or no prior military exposure might feel. Lastly, I think there’s an education piece for the spouses and families of the CG to understand the “military discounts” not being equal everywhere. If a discount is based on a DOD program, spouses must understand that the CG and DHS don’t always participate in the programs–so then it’s a funding issue, not a disrespect or uneducated public issue. It is a public education issue though when there are business based “military discounts.”
    Thanks for the great blog!
    Stephanie

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your unique insight as prior active duty. I feel similarly, in that if I had not been a military child, I wonder how much I would have understood about military life, and how that would have made me feel. It’s good to know the responses I got mirror your experiences. Now we have to figure out what to do about it!

  4. I agree wholed heartedly with all these concerns. Ive been a coast guard wife for about 4 years now and I worry for my husband, simply because he is in the I.T rate in miami and we have been here for 2 and a half years and he has yet been able to advance. He is such a very intellectual and very brilliant man and even though they see that, they continue to keep him booked and swamped with so much work which prevents him from working on what he really needs to get done to even qualify for advancement, which puts him at risk of the higher tenure. There really needs to be more ccommunication and family oreanted. I was raised military, not specifically in coast guard more in the army department, but never the less they were always there for the active duty man and his family. In there minds it was if the family is happy and taken well cared for then they could expect that soldier to do his very best at his job. In my most personal opinion, the spouses should be able to get they’re voices and opinions heard and out there so we can also make a difference in the coast guard as a whole but also for our husbands and family.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Kandice. I value hearing your voice — now I’ll take it forward!

  5. TA… Tuition Assistance for our Active Duty members is Nonexistant or slow to be reactivated while other branches continue to get theirs uninterrupted or with a faster reactivation time than the USCG. My husband was in school and took two classes and then was excited to continue this month only to find that all of the other branches got their TA, but the Coast Guard didn’t. Also if the Coast Guard does get TA, they give it to ONLY the Enlisted first??? And Not the Officers or delay the Officers from getting it? I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just give it to ALL branches at the SAME TIME and if they give it to the Coast Guard, they should give it to ALL of the Active Duty Coast Guard. NOT Just enlisted. Be fair? I used part of my husband’s GI Bill to attend school and there are a lot of months left. IF he is able to use TA and Cap it out each year and then use the GI bill in between, he can get a Degree quickly. But if he isn’t able to use TA, then he will be delayed and unable to accomplish his career goals in a timely manner that will help our family continue on in the service. 🙁

Leave a Reply