The First Lady -- Mrs. Michelle Obama
c/o Joining Forces
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
April 4, 2016
Dear Mrs. Obama,
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is T. and I am the wife of a US naval submarine officer and a new mom. I struggle to balance keeping my family happy and healthy, with continuing my career.
For this reason, I appreciate your work to make careers more feasible for military spouses by relaxing professional licensing requirements as spouses move from state to state, for example. Although I have been able to continue in my full-time position after a cross-country relocation this past month, my family and I continue to lack fundamental services and resources sorely needed by military families, including those with stay-at-home parents: lack of access to health care, child care, and compensation for relocation expenses; lack of basic respect for military spouses and children; lack of information on the rights and entitlements of military families; and lack of access to recourse in cases when the government and the many private contractors to which it outsources responsibility fall short of their commitments. I plan to devote the next years of my career to advocating for better treatment for military families, and I would appreciate guidance from you, as an experienced advocate on many of these issues, as to how to do so.
The problems we have encountered resemble those faced by other military families we have met during three different commands to which my husband, Sam, has been assigned during our time together. I will summarize them below by telling our family’s story:
No access to information or recourse, regarding assignment decisions: In fall 2014 I left my life in New York City to join Sam in Virginia, where he had been assigned to two years of an office job. Shortly after I gave birth to our first child, a boy named M., Sam received a call from a military detailer letting him know he would leave his post six months early, spending those months away from his family training for his next command. He was also told that this command would be located in Washington State. This meant that three months after M.’s birth, I would effectively be a single working mother. To keep our family together, I would need to move away from my job and our friends and family on the east coast. While Sam trained on different bases and submarines for months, I was the only person caring for M.
Sam had told the detailer that my career and our childcare support network were all located in the northeast. He disclosed that I suffer from a chronic medical condition, and require the support of family, friends, and my doctor to care for our family in his absence. We requested a placement in Groton, Connecticut. Washington State was last on our list. Despite the fact that Sam was ranked at the top of his nationwide cohort of officers during his last command, and would have capably executed any job, he was given his last choice of placement. I recognize that placement of service members must be determined first and foremost by national security needs. However, the government should also understand that it will retain good service members more easily if it balances these needs with that of their families.
Most critically, Sam was the only family member able to speak with navy officials regarding our placement preferences and was the only one to receive notice of the navy’s decision. I neither received information in writing notifying me of the placement nor did I get the names and contact information of those making these decisions that impinge on my family life and career.
The military has no difficulty reaching me when personnel need things from me: names and contact information of friends and colleagues of mine who may pose security threats due to their nationality; and volunteer work for my husband’s command, to name a few examples. However, I have never been contacted with information that I need in order to manage the stressors of military family life.
Lack of adequate childcare. In Virginia, Sam and I planned for his six-month absence. We located a daycare facility that would accept an income-based childcare subsidy for which all military families living far from a military base are entitled through the Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood (MCCYN) program. However, the MCCYN program had designated this facility as eligible for subsidies only for military families of deployed service members – not those who are absent for training purposes. An MCCYN representative said that we did not qualify for the $400 monthly subsidy, despite the fact that Sam was as absent and unavailable as he would have been if deployed. Because I lacked adequate childcare, I routinely turned down opportunities that would have allowed me the chance to advance in my own career; as well as medical appointments to help me recover from a birth injury.
Likewise, when we tried to line up subsidy-qualified childcare in Washington State, we only found childcare facilities near the base and far from the graduate program I plan to attend. My husband works hours that are too long and unpredictable for him to assume responsibility for daycare pick-ups and drop-offs. Therefore, the provisions afforded to our family are useless.
Lack of access to information on health care; lack of specialized health care; and lack of respect by military healthcare officials. During and after M.’s birth, my family and I have been unable to get clear and consistent information on the services available to us under Tricare Standard, the military insurance system for which we pay extra in order to choose providers in the community. For example, I spent 10 weeks of my pregnancy gathering required documents in anticipation of being approved for coverage for an urgent medical treatment that would have mitigated risks to my baby’s health and my own, after an administrator at Walter Reed Medical Center told me that I would receive coverage for this treatment. I learned very late that I would not. After this several-month delay, we paid $14,000 of out-of-pocket expenses that we took from our retirement savings, to obtain a service to which military families receiving the basic insurance package are entitled.
Our dealings with Tricare Standard have also been fraught with disrespect, lack of professionalism, and sheer bureaucratic incompetence. During May 2015, I called Tricare Standard’s customer service line to inquire about coverage of breast pumps. The Tricare Standard representative asked me why I needed a pump, and I informed her it was because I planned to work and needed to pump breast milk to send with my baby to daycare. This representative told me that if I were going to go to work, I could pay for a breast pump. At this point, I told her most insurance companies covered breast pumps and that it was none of her “damn” business what I did with my income; this was about a basic standard of care. The representative threatened to refer me to a disciplinary committee and that my husband’s job would be at stake because of the “rude” way in which I had spoken to her. She then hung up on me. Upon calling Tricare Standard again, Sam and I later learned that no such disciplinary committee exists. However, we also learned that we had no place to file a complaint about this representative’s unprofessional behavior, which cast me not as a person bearing rights and responsibilities, but as an accessory to my husband and his career.
After our son M. was born, it took Sam and me approximately 12 weeks to register him to be covered for prescription drugs under Tricare Standard: When M. was 11 days old, he needed medication to be treated for thrush, a painful but common mouth infection. At the pharmacy, they told me that M. had no prescription drug coverage, despite the fact that we had immediately filed the necessary documents to enroll him in military health insurance. We had to pay for the medication out of pocket. We each called the Tricare Standard hotline a total of six times, only to be told that our son was registered with the system, and to learn upon arriving at the pharmacy that his prescriptions would not be covered by Tricare. Sam made multiple visits to the office of the Pentagon Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). When M. was nearly three months old, Sam finally learned that someone had entered M.’s middle name incorrectly into the DEERS system, a detail that should have been easy to fix, except that no one at the Pentagon DEERS office or the hotlines we called was able to diagnose this problem for us. Moreover, as M.’s mother, I myself had no access to personnel or information to resolve this problem on my own. The hotlines provided to me by the pharmacist were all automated and did not help me to resolve the issue. Had Sam been underwater on a submarine, our baby would have continued without prescription drug coverage.
Requirement to pay for military social events and military relocations; arbitrary separation of service members from their families. During each of Sam’s commands, he has been informally required by commanding officers to pay hundreds of dollars on mandatory social events such as dinners out with his crew or fellow trainees. Most recently during his six months of submarine training, Sam paid approximately $200 for lunches and mandatory restaurant dinners on weekends. I could have used this money to pay for three afternoons of babysitting in order to catch up on missed work and go to doctors’ appointments. If Sam had not been required to attend these events, he could have come home most weekends to be with us and help care for M., including several weekends when I was ill and needed his help. Mrs. Obama, I would like you to try and imagine being short on cash and childcare, exhausted, ill, and alone at home with your children; while your long-absent husband must dine out with colleagues on your family’s dime. It felt demeaning and dehumanizing to me.
During December 2015, Sam had no training or command responsibilities. He could have spent the month at home in Virginia caring for his family and preparing for the upcoming cross-country move. However, the navy required him to physically report to the Washington State base each day. He made repeated phone calls to Pentagon authorities about this. Ultimately, he received their discretional intervention and Sam spent three weeks of that time in Virginia. However, we paid out of pocket for Sam to fly to the Washington military base, “check in,” and receive face-to-face permission to spend the remainder of December at home. This cost well over $1,500 in travel, room, and board expenses, as well as an additional week when my son and I could have had a father and husband at home during the holiday season.
Finally, the navy has been unwilling to pay for necessary expenses related to our cross-country move. For example, we were ineligible for either of our small cars to be shipped to our new duty station. In addition, while our furniture was in transit, I spent over a week living in an empty apartment on an air mattress and a pack n’ play with my baby, because the navy would not reimburse us for a hotel room. We paid to rent a car for over a week while we waited for my car to be shipped; while I drove our baby to daycare and myself to work in one car; and Sam drove to the base in the rental car. To be sure, the navy did afford us over $3,000 in discretional expenses, but this did not cover the many basic expenses incurred in preparing for and executing our move.
Lack of information allowing us to plan our move. The Pentagon failed to notify us as to when our movers would arrive until a week beforehand, though we told them two months in advance when we wanted to move. After we received the date, they changed it twice, notifying only my husband each time, not me. My husband, sick with worry because he is the one who must constantly relay the navy’s bad news to me, delayed notice further. Because of this lack of notice, I had to place everything on hold—work commitments, childcare arrangements, plans with friends and family, and even basic things such as doctors’ appointments. Most egregiously, the military would not provide us with a guaranteed delivery date for our belongings. An officer from the base at Fort Belvoir informed us that the latest date our belongings would arrive would be two weeks from when they were shipped. However, the shipment could arrive early, as well, before my husband could make his way across the country. Should that happen, and he was not two hours away when the truck showed up, our belongings would immediately be placed in storage rather than at our new home. We would then be responsible for moving our belongings on our own dime. I asked this officer why this is the case and he explained that the navy contracts moving services to a series of private companies who move a handful of families at a time; and that there is no process for ensuring when moves will be completed.
On the designated move date, one set of contractors arrived to pack our boxes, and left those boxes in our apartment for 48 hours while we awaited the next company to actually move them. The boxes covered our air conditioning vents, and we slept with our baby in a house that was sweltering hot and lacking in ventilation. M. woke up constantly during the night because he was uncomfortable and anxious, and there was nothing I could do to calm him. This was all because the navy was trying to cut costs rather than provide us with a streamlined and swift move by one company.
Sam drove one of our cars out and made our new (indefinitely empty) house livable before reporting to his new boat. He meanwhile tried to book a plane ticket for M. and me through the navy, as we had no space in his small car to drive the whole family out together. Though I looked forward to the date when I could join my family, even this date was in limbo: I could not book a plane ticket myself but had to wait for my husband to arrange with military contractors to book the ticket. I was lucky enough to keep a friend with an extra car seat on standby to be ready to take my son and me to the airport, while I waited for my husband to receive information on the date and time of our flight. She in turn took half a day off from work to deliver M. and me to the airport.
Twelve unnecessary hours at an airport with an infant. M. and I arrived at the airport after the navy emailed my husband a confirmation from Alaska and American airlines detailing our flight information to Seattle. M. and I arrived at check in two hours ahead of our flight. The American Airlines representative told me that the navy had not in fact purchased our ticket, making our reservation defunct. When Sam called the navy to inquire about the ticket, the representative he spoke with told him that there was no record of the previous representative telling him the ticket had been purchased. We were unable to get on the plane, and subsequently had to pay $500 out-of-pocket to fly out 12 hours later. As a mother of two children, you can perhaps imagine what it might be like to camp in an apartment with an infant for a week while working full time, only to arrive at an airport and learn you will need to wait a day for two red-eye flights, at your own expense.
Mrs. Obama, as I begin this new tour of duty with Sam and M., I will volunteer with the command’s “Family Readiness Group” because I want to connect with like-minded spouses interested in advocating for change. Yet, in the context of Family Readiness Groups and other military organizations, these women’s critiques of the way the system is structured are often silenced by commanders and spouses who accuse them of undermining morale. I will not participate in the usual activities of planning holiday celebrations and organizing care packages for troops. A competent and accountable military bureaucracy would do far more to make families “ready” for the rigors of military life, than would party favors and care packages.
Given the abovementioned problems my family and I have faced, I have a number of specific policy goals that I would appreciate your guidance and collaboration in working towards. I want the US government to:
With regard to military moves –
- Spend money to move each family individually; guarantee arrival and delivery dates for military families’ belongings with sufficient notice, and ensure that these delivery dates occur before the service member in question must report to duty.
- Pay all reasonable moving expenses, including car shipments, flights, rental cars, and accommodations while family members wait for their belongings to arrive.
- Work directly with service members, spouses, and children to ensure that move and flight dates meet everyone’s needs, within reason.
- Work to ensure 2-3 days of mandatory paid leave for military spouses who must move their families as part of a service member’s new assignment.
With regard to military social events and travel requirements –
- Do not make service members pay for their own social events when these social events are mandatory.
- Refrain from separating military service members from their spouses and children in cases when they are already on extended absences, and no national security reason exists for maintaining family separation.
With regard to childcare –
- Follow through on the military’s promise to provide affordable, accessible community-based childcare in all circumstances, but especially when service members are absent for months.
With regard to health care –
- Allow military families access to the same quality and choice of health care available to other federal employees, including specialized health care.
- Establish an effective way for families to file complaints when they cannot get clear information on health care or face disrespectful behavior; register their family members for Tricare; or obtain the same standard and range of services as other federal employees.
With regard to accessible and family-friendly information on military decisions, rights, and entitlements -
- Make information on military decisions accessible to all family members affected by these decisions, and not just the service member. Give military family members a forum to contest decisions that are unmanageable for them.
- Provide clear, accessible, and up-to-date information on the rights and entitlements of military spouses and children.
In light of these policy goals, I am asking for your support and guidance with the following questions:
- Are you addressing any of the above mentioned issues, either on your own, along with Dr. Jill Biden and your policy team at Joining Forces, or in conjunction with community groups interested in similar issues? If so, would you please let me know what you are doing?
- Do you have additional suggestions for how to go about addressing the problems I name above?
- Which of the abovementioned policy goals are most feasible from your perspective, given the current political climate in the US?
- Do you have plans to continue your advocacy for military families following the end of your husband’s presidency? If so, in what ways?
- Would it be possible to meet with you, Dr. Biden, and your policy staff to discuss advocacy opportunities available to military spouses interested in the abovementioned issues? I will be on the east coast this upcoming May, and I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and your staff.
In closing, the bureaucratic and economic hurdles we have encountered reflect a system that is deeply sexist and toxic to American military families.
A fellow military spouse and I are working to collect the stories of other spouses with similar concerns, including spouses of enlisted personnel. I can only imagine the hardships families with less resources face in a hierarchical and status-obsessed military culture, if Sam and I have difficulties obtaining services given his rank, our graduate educations, and our salaries.
For strategic and ethical reasons, I believe that military policies towards families should be oriented towards making military spouses equal partners in major transitions.
I am eager for your collaboration and guidance on how to move forward.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your response.
T. - Military spouse