Service chiefs gather to address children's conference

  • Published
  • By Lisa Daniel
  • American Forces Press Service
Service chiefs from each branch came together to lend their support to the cause of helping military children July 23 here.

Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz took part in panel and service-specific discussions, as part of The Military Child Education Coalition's 12th annual conference.

They were joined by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, Chief of Staff of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John P. Currier, Air National Guard Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III and James H. Shelton III, the assistant deputy secretary of the Education Department.

the military's top leaders took turns describing their own experiences of raising military children and, in some cases, being raised as military children.

As an "Army brat," General Casey said he has spent all of his 62 years with the military. His mother told her children to "make the best of it" whenever they moved, but attending four high schools in three countries was challenging, he said.

Still, General Casey said, the challenges Army families have faced with deployment tempos since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is unprecedented. In the Army, 600,000 children currently are separated from a deployed parent, he said.

"We've always had a professional, committed military and the support for families has only increased," General Casey said. "The difference now is that we're asking so significantly more from our families."

General Casey said he is hopeful that Soldiers will begin getting more "dwell" time at home since the military is drawing down from Iraq. Until then, he said, programs to support military families are especially important.

Some of the programs the education coalition and other groups provide may seem small, but they add up, General Casey said. Local-level programs in mentoring, homework clubs, and afterschool sports all are important in giving children smooth transitions and stability between relocations, he said.

"The most important things we can give to our children, as parents, are our values and an education," General Casey said.

In talking about his own children, General Cartwright said he had to get used to being unpopular at home during each family relocation move. Today, he said, his grown daughters are appreciative of their military upbringing, but the school-age years were hard.

"It wasn't really about academics those first few days" after a move, General Cartwright said. "It was about the girls' ability to make friends, or not. It's not about the 'who, what, where, when, and why'. It's about assimilating."

The chiefs agreed that building resiliency in military children is about setting good examples, instilling core values of honor and integrity and making their home lives as stable as possible.

"Your participation in their life has no equal," General Cartwright said. And when it came to accepting the difficult times, he said, "We bandaged them every way we could for life's experiences."

Admiral Roughead said he is concerned that many places Navy families are stationed are in urban districts with challenged school systems. It's therefore important, he said, for the coalition and others to look at those schools and do tailored programs in those areas.

"We know there are significant challenges in the schools and we need to look at how we balance programs to get the most out of them," the admiral said. "It's important to have liaisons from the military to help move those programs that help our kids."

General Schwartz said the coalition has crossed a "major milestone" for military children in getting 35 states to sign on to a contract that enables schools to award credit to military children for classes they have taken in other school districts and/or in other states.

General Schwartz said he wonders what the next step is in improving the education of military children. He said there are good arguments for reversing the trend of not building schools on military installations. Also, charter schools should be considered for military children in districts where public schools don't meet Defense Department standards, he said.

Marine Corps officials have doubled their family services budget to deal with today's challenges, General Conway said. The average Marine Corps child, he said, moves six to eight times over the course of 12 years of school -- often without a parent -- and into schools that are struggling financially and don't have staff members who understand the burdens for today's military children.

Two of the  Marine Corps' most important family programs, General Conway said, are its school advocacy groups, which are at all major installations, and its Exceptional Family Members program, which provides up to 40 hours of respite care for children who qualify.

"When a Marine goes to war, knowing his family is taken care of makes him a better trooper," General Conway said. "We recruit Marines, but we retain families."

General Wyatt and Admiral Currier, for the National Guard and Coast Guard, respectively, said their servicemembers' families often live in small towns, rural areas, or too far from a military installation to benefit from military-sponsored family assistance programs or be surrounded by people who understand their challenges.

Asked how to prepare children to be tomorrow's leaders, the chiefs again went back to values - an area in which General Conway said industry leaders say today's high school graduates are coming up short.

"As role models, you have to be scrupulous," General Schwartz said. "You have to live those values. If your examples fail, the consequences are severe."

General Cartwright said he is concerned about how to communicate those values in today's high-speed culture, and how to do it in such a way that young people see it as relevant. One way, he said, is for the coalition and other groups to spread the message of core values through the technology young people use.

"If we don't stay relevant, they stop listening to us," he said.