The Pandemic Exposed Shortcoming in How the Army Cares for Families

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Indiana National Guard soldier and family
Indiana National Guard soldier with the 38th Infantry Division embraces his loved ones in Indianapolis, April 6, 2020 after being deployed for nine months in the Middle East and spending two weeks in quarantine at Fort Hood, Texas. (Hannah Clifton/U.S. Army)

Capt. Nadege Benoit is an active-duty Army human resources officer. Capt. Tiarra McDaniel is a dual-military active-duty Army officer with two children.

The Army has continued to operate despite the COVID-19 pandemic. As Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville stated, "We don't telecommute to combat."

We have managed to prove to the world that the Army can continue to deploy, train and destroy the enemies of the United States.

However, this has not been accomplished without sacrifice by Army families. Two populations within the service have been severely affected: dual-military couples with children and single parents. They have had to adapt to child development centers, or CDCs, being shut down on post; school closures; and limited support from remote extended family members. Dual-military couples and single parents are forced to make difficult decisions, pitting family versus duty.

According to fiscal 2019 demographics published by Military OneSource, approximately 10% of active-duty soldiers are married to another service member. Many of these couples have at least one child, obligating them to submit a family care plan to their unit.

The plans, mandated by the Army, require that single parents and dual-military couples maintain long-term and short-term care plans for their children. In order to adhere to the mandates set forth by the traditional Family Care Plan, dual-military couples and single parents are forced to find care through other sources, such as au pair programs, Care.com and family members -- or to make friends fast at their assigned duty location to have 24-hour coverage short/long term.

However, the structure of the family care plan was not designed for the uncertainties that COVID-19 has brought. CDC and school closures, as well as Defense Department restriction of movement orders, have severely limited the execution of family care plans. Dual-military couples and single parents found themselves at odds with being available around the clock to accomplish the mission and caring for their own children amidst the pandemic.

Dual-military couples found that their care plans were insufficient as the quarantine began in March. With no ability to drop children off at schools or CDCs -- and no help available from distant relatives -- families found themselves juggling virtual calls and training exercises while managing who would provide for the children. For dual-military couples, the quarantine has not ended and will have lasting effects.

Although there was a slight glimmer of hope in the summer with CDCs and schools temporarily reopening, any significant spike of COVID-19 cases will cause them to close again. And bringing in extended family members to help with child care can be dangerous, as they could contract the virus in transit. Sending children away to stay with family is also a hard decision, as this could potentially be a long separation filled with uncertainty, with many installations still restricting movement and mandating quarantine after travel.

Not everyone has a family structure consisting of mother, father, siblings and available grandparents, so receiving help and child care from loved ones is not always an option. Single parents face the same types of dilemmas with only one parent available to provide care for children. Some single parents have resorted to sending their children to stay with relatives until the pandemic subsides just so they can go to work without disruption. They must choose between their children and work -- a bleak conundrum.

With many units still attending combat training center rotations and maintaining garrison operations, this seems the only viable alternative other than paying for a high-priced live-in nanny service. One traditional au pair program requires a one-time fee of $8,675; $195.75 per week; and an additional $500 for education costs. It is limited to no more than 10 hours a day and 40 hours a week, with two weeks of paid vacation. This will not suffice for many troops' 12-hour workdays, which means additional care and fees are required.

What are the long-term implications of limited child care opportunities for dual-military couples and single parents?

First, the pandemic has exposed the gap among genders in the service. In the active-duty Army, 7% of all men are single parents; 13% of women are. Similarly, although 10% of couples are dual military, only 7% of men are married to women in the service, while 36% of women are married to men in the service.

Working women throughout the world have been saddled with the burden of balancing home dynamics with the demands of virtual work. The Army is no exception, with female soldiers disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 environment. That environment has reinforced the need for one parent to remain available for care and for single parents to have a more flexible schedule to accommodate child care needs.

Failure to address this issue could potentially affect the retention rate for women in the Army in the coming years. Women tend to leave the service at a higher rate than men to attend to family needs. This affects the pool of future battalion commanders, brigade commanders and general officers if we cannot retain women due to challenges in child care.

Secondly, as dual working couples become the norm, the Army must provide flexibility for dual military couples in terms of child care and position opportunities. Increasingly, young professionals do not want to sacrifice the career of one spouse over the other.

Traditionally, dual couples have chosen to have one person work in a high visibility position to remain competitive for promotion, while the other presses pause on career progression to take care of the family. There needs to be more flexibility in terms of the antiquated family care plan for dual-military couples and single parents that could aid in retention rates and promotion opportunities.

Finally, the Army needs to reexamine the policies that govern family care plans. Currently, the short-term and long-term policies do not address restriction of movement orders and prohibit other soldiers in the same unit from being part of family care plans.

We must provide soldiers and families with better options.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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