Research that makes a difference
Can we do a better job of helping our military families?
By Jim Heffernan (’96)
JMU assistant professor of political science Dr. Jennifer A. Taylor knows firsthand the hardships that military families endure — the long deployments, the multiple relocations, the emotional and financial stress, the uncertainty. As a military spouse, Taylor moved 15 times over the course of her husband’s 25-year career in the Navy, often forced to start over in a new town with no real job prospects, a limited social network and three young children in tow.
As a former military spouse, assistant professor of political science Dr. Jennifer A. Taylor relocated 15 times over the course of her husband's 25-year career in the Navy.
“Everywhere we went I kept seeing the same issues come up with other military families,” she says. “There seemed like there ought to be a better way to build connections among these families that wasn’t command-driven. As military families, we’re conditioned to provide help, not ask for help. And when you’re constantly moving someplace new and you have to develop a support system, it’s very challenging.”
"As military families, we’re conditioned to provide help, not ask for help. And when you’re constantly moving someplace new and you have to develop a support system, it’s very challenging.”
Despite her family obligations and the constant changing of scenery, Taylor managed to carve out a career as a development officer and executive in the arts, social services and education. But along the way she experienced her share of employer discrimination. “As a military spouse, your resume starts to look like Swiss cheese.”
The family’s last duty station was in Norfolk, Va., where Taylor enrolled in a Ph.D. program in public administration. There she met Vivian Greentree, co-founder and director of research and policy for Blue Star Families, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for military families on the national level. Taylor was looking to transition from the nonprofit world to teaching and research, and her experience as a member of the military community endeared her to the upstart organization. “We began thinking about how we could use our research skills to influence the national conversation and change public policies for veterans, service members and their families,” she says.
Surveys yield troubling results
Taylor joined the Blue Star Families research team as a lead investigator in 2011. The organization surveys military families on an annual basis to identify their needs and concerns and then analyzes and reports the findings to lawmakers and the administration at a hearing on Capitol Hill hosted by the Joint Military Family Caucus. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our research to make a difference,” Taylor says.
A survey asked 'Would you recommend military service to others?' "On a scale of -100 to 100, the 2013 military respondents’ score ranged from -28 percent for service members to -38.8 percent for military spouses. What does that mean for the future of our all-volunteer military?"
And it has. Blue Star Families has helped shape public policy like the proposed Interstate Compact On Educational Opportunity For Military Children, which is designed to remove barriers to educational success due to frequent moves and deployments, and portable teacher licensure for military spouses. The group has also been active with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Administration in developing opportunities for virtual employment and transferable businesses. “Military spouse unemployment hurts the whole family,” Taylor says, and often impacts the successful civilian transition of service members.
Changes to retirement benefits are also a top concern among military families, according to the organization’s 2013 survey. “More than 1 million service members will be transitioning to civilian life in the next few years,” Taylor says. “Along with the challenges of reintegration and transition like finding employment, pursuing additional education and job training, many military families will lose their health benefits. Veterans retain their health benefits as they separate, but families will lose theirs.”
In addition, Blue Star Families has been instrumental in shedding light on the fact that military spouses and dependents are at an incrementally higher risk for suicide than service members and veterans, yet programs and services for military family members are minimal and suicide rates are not tracked by the Department of Defense.
One of the findings that most concerns Taylor is the index measuring whether military families would recommend military service to others. On a scale of -100 to 100, the 2013 respondents’ score ranged from -28 percent for service members to -38.8 percent for military spouses. “We’re an all-volunteer military,” Taylor says. “What does that mean for the future?”
Taylor believes bridging the military-civilian divide is vital. “There are things that civilian families can do to support military families in their community, whether it’s making and delivering a meal, or mowing the lawn, or watching the children while the spouse goes to the grocery store. All of these simple things can make a difference.”