By Elizabeth Lamie, USAMRMC Public AffairsSeptember 13, 2018
FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Second Lady of the United States Karen Pence, and Leah Esper, wife of United States Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper visited Fort Detrick on Sept. 4 to speak with military spouses about their experiences. The visit gave military spouses a chance to discuss issues and challenges they face.
Ten military spouses joined the roundtable to discuss topics such as on-post day care costs, food stamp assistance for active-duty families, family life, health care concerns, and other unique struggles encountered by military families. The roundtable was an exclusive chance for military spouses to voice their concerns in an intimate setting.
"Behind the scenes, we want to be able to facilitate some discussions for things like job licensure, child care and mental health. Things spouses struggle with that they don't necessarily have to," said Pence. "There might be programs out there or certain changes we can help facilitate."
When asked about any overarching themes identified as a result of her travels to military installations, Pence said, "Child care seems to be one of the biggest. We want our spouses to feel fulfilled," she continued. "We want them to be able to work if they want to work. We want them to get the financial benefit of working if they are able to find a job in their field or in a field they are happy working in."
Esper also participated in the roundtable and added her experiences to the discussion.
"When Mark got the job offer, we looked at it and said, 'We're going to do this as a team,'" she said. "And that's the way spouses and Soldiers work -- as a team."
Esper says that she knows what it means to be a military spouse -- after all, her spouse was on active duty for 11 years and in the military for 21 years total. She was with him for 19 of those years.
When asked what she thought the hardest part about being a military spouse was, she stated, "Moving around … it is hard to have a career. It's hard to have that continuity with friends … that part is hard. But the great thing is, the military is a huge family. So, you sort of have a family no matter where you go."
A major recurring topic was the issue of military spouses needing recertification or relicensing in various career fields when moving from state to state.
"Mark, along with Secretary [Richard] Spencer of the Navy and Secretary [Heather] Wilson of the Air Force, tri-signed a letter in February that went out to all of the governors asking them to give reciprocity from state to state for military spouses for their licensing, so that it's not an expense. If you were a massage therapist in Utah, you'd be able to be one in Florida. This is one thing that Mark is really working on," said Esper.
"He's working hard on spouse employment," she continued. "This is a huge issue for him -- making sure that the spouses have work opportunities. They are very well-educated, they are experienced; they are hardworking. They want to work. And we want to make sure they have the opportunities to work when they move."
One takeaway of the meeting was the need to get the word out about community assets. "The military has a lot of great programs that are out there to help people that they are just unaware of," Esper said. "Such a program is Military OneSource. Military OneSource is a great organization for military families to go to for education, counseling, for help with job resume writing. Soldiers' readiness is paramount. But in order for the Soldiers to be ready, the families have to be ready too."
When asked what the best thing about being a military spouse was, Amber Mark, wife of Maj. Tyler Mark at National Center for Medical Intelligence, said "Homecomings. Deployments are hard but the homecomings are amazing. You get that pride as they all come in. It's the best."
Despite the pride and benefits of being a military spouse, there are still many concerns.
"A common issue is day care cost," said Megan Espinosa, wife of Sgt. Jacob Espinosa, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. "I had to work 65 or more hours a week just to cover for daycare costs. There should be something put in place other than just NACCRRA [National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies] to help military families."
"So often as a spouse we are kind of brushed under the rug," said Mark. "We support our service members and don't often get a chance to voice our opinions. This was a unique opportunity. I really appreciate that Mrs. Pence was taking notes. I felt like she truly wanted to hear what we had to say."
The roundtable was successful, and when asked if they would be willing to attend another roundtable, the spouses nodded in unison. "Is that even a question? Absolutely, yes of course. We need to have more roundtables. And they don't have to be with the Second Lady of the United States. Don't push us aside. We are the force behind the force," they agreed.
Pence thinks initiatives such as this visit are important for military readiness. "If you have a service member that says they are getting out because their spouse can't take it, that's not a good thing for anybody. So, we want it to be a win-win for our spouses, for our country and for the military.
"Thank you, Fort Detrick, for allowing us to come and listen," concluded Pence. "At the end of our time, we want to be able to say we got this done, we were able to hear the concerns of our military spouses."