Joyce Raezer's foray into the world of military family advocacy started with a bang. Along with a group of other military parents stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the now longtime executive director of the National Military Family Association (NMFA) sued the Defense Department's school system for the right to weigh-in on the selection of their local superintendent.
The parents won the suit, the DoD Education Activity (DoDEA) settled, and Raezer's life was never the same.
Now, more than 25 years later, as Raezer heads into retirement with more than 10 years under her belt as head of a leading military advocacy organization, she has an important message for military spouses and families: Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself, your family and your community.
"Military families can do a lot more than military families think they can do," Raezer said during a recent interview in her Alexandria, Virginia, office. "And that's the big piece: Don't be afraid of taking on somebody higher up. Because if you've done your homework and you know you're right, just keep at it."
NMFA was founded in 1969 as the all-volunteer Military Wives Association, lobbying for passage of the Survivor Benefit Plan. Over time, the association worked to help create a variety of military benefits rules families still enjoy today, including laws on the treatment of military retirement pay during a divorce, the rollout of dental benefits for military family members and the creation of Tricare. The group established chapters nationwide, hired its first staff member in 1983, started producing reports on family issues to inform legislation and, in 1984, changed its name to NMFA.
Raezer said she first encountered NMFA during her 1993 work on the DoDEA suit. An Army spouse and school board member, she had abandoned work on her doctorate after a 1982 move to the now shuttered Fort Ord, California.
But working in advocacy came easily, she said. Growing up, her father, a farmer, taught her the importance of civic involvement. And once she found NMFA, she channeled her drive into assisting military families.
When Raezer and her husband, Tim, PCS'd to D.C., she stepped into full-time volunteering with NMFA. She eventually was hired to the staff to advocate on Capitol Hill and then, in 2007, took over the job of executive director.
Of the many issues she's tackled during her time in the advocacy world, she is most proud of the organization's work to extend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to military families stationed overseas. The program, which can provide up to several hundred dollars a month in food assistance on items such as infant formula and cereal and was rolled out overseas in 2000, was previously only available stateside.
With retirement slated for July, Raezer said she is encouraging military spouses to step into the advocacy arena -- but to bring with them plenty of grit and patience.
"Part of the frustration comes with ... how exhausted you get fighting big bureaucracies who move at their own pace and who are staffed by people who are probably really nice people, but who hide behind silly rules and are really good at waiting people out," she said. "You see it so much. 'If I just hang in here, they'll move. They'll leave the Army. Something will happen.'"
But engaged family members paired with advocacy organizations are vital to holding military leaders accountable, she said, especially as the Pentagon heads into an era in which leaders' focus has shifted away from quality-of-life issues.
"You have military leaders that are so focused on the material aspects of lethality, that the people who make up the lethal force and the families of the people that make up the lethal force are almost invisible," Raezer said.
Instead, she said, advocates and families need to work toward reminding leadership of the importance of family to the health of the force.
"It's creating the understanding both within and without the military community of the importance of military family well-being to our national security," she said.
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.