Retiring Armed Services Lawmaker Unveils Plans to Change Military Family Policies

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U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), questions senior military leaders during a HASC hearing on Capitol Hill, March 7, 2017. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), questions senior military leaders during a HASC hearing on Capitol Hill, March 7, 2017. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

House Armed Services Committee Republican leaders want the Defense Department to standardize military family programs across the services and develop a communications plan for spouses that doesn't rely on active-duty service members passing along important gouge.

Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the committee's ranking Republican, and Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss.i, ranking member of the personnel subcommittee, unveiled proposals last week to reform military family readiness -- provisions they'd like to see in the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill.

The initiatives range from standardizing the Exceptional Family Member Program across the military services and improving child care availability for active-duty families to improving mental health services and studying the effectiveness of autism treatments.

At the top of the list, however, is for the Pentagon to define the term "family readiness," which the lawmakers said is "currently open to interpretation across the department."

"The Thornberry/Kelly proposal would require DoD to establish a common definition of 'family readiness' to ensure standardization of services and assistance," they wrote in a summary of the proposal.

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The two also want the Pentagon to develop a plan to communicate important information directly to military families.

While web pages, including Military OneSource; Facebook groups; and family readiness officers help fill the communications gaps between each armed service and military spouses, important information -- such as unit-specific and benefits news -- often is communicated to families through service members, an imperfect system that can leave spouses in the dark.

The legislation would direct the DoD to develop a strategy to use a "variety of modes of communication to ensure the broadest means of communicating with military families."

Thornberry has served on the House Armed Services Committee for 25 years and chaired the committee from 2015 to 2019. In addition to the family readiness proposals he plans for this year, he has floated several acquisition and industry reforms for the fiscal 2021 bill, which will be the last he will help draft before retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

"This effort is an extension of the bipartisan family readiness reforms the House Armed Services Committee has championed in the past, including a new blended retirement system, reforms to the military health care system and repeated reforms of the widow's tax," Thornberry said about his family readiness proposals.

Also included in the family readiness reform initiatives are:

  • A provision that the DoD provide 24-hour child care at locations where shift-work is concentrated, as well as an assessment of how the DoD's priority system is serving active-duty families;
  • A requirement that the DoD evaluate the transferability of Advanced Placement credits and a report on health and nutrition instruction at Department of Defense Education Activity Schools;
  • A proposal that the DoD develop standardized measures for caring and treating dependents with autism;
  • A requirement that the DoD provide Congress a plan and budget for hiring and retaining enough mental health professionals to support the military community, including active-duty personnel;
  • Language that would force the DoD to develop a tracking mechanism for opioid prescriptions and a waiver process for those patients who need treatment beyond the CDC guidelines;
  • A proposed pilot program that would create an internship for military spouses at the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, "where there are several critical shortages," according to the proposed legislation.

Thornberry and Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, introduced an initial version of the proposed fiscal 2021 defense bill March 27 to jumpstart the legislative process. With members of Congress now in their districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said March 30 the committee will craft its version of the bill on a date "announced at a later time."

Kelly said he intends to support the military family readiness provisions.

"I am proud to co-sponsor a proposal that will address many areas that have been highlighted in recent months, including the Exceptional Family Member Program, behavioral health, opioid abuse and child care," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patriciankime@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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