WASHINGTON -- Since taking on her role as the second lady, Karen Pence has made a concerted effort to listen and learn from the military spouse community, seeking an opportunity to make a difference.

"Military spouses play a significant role in defense of our country, and that's something I want to bring attention to. I can say without a doubt, the strength of our nation does not just come from the people in uniform who fight to protect our freedoms, but the spouses and the families who serve alongside them also make tremendous sacrifices to the greater benefit of our country," Pence said.

Pence was the keynote speaker during the Military Family Forum about Military Spouse Employment and Financial Readiness Initiatives at the 2018 Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition.

Leah Esper, spouse of Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper; Hollyanne Milley, spouse of the Chief of Staff of the Army Gen Mark A. Milley; and Holly Dailey, spouse of Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, were also in attendance, showing their solidarity and appreciation for the Army spouse community.

"We know that employment issues are one of the biggest challenges military spouses face, especially for those who have jobs that require licensures, such as teachers, nurses, hair stylists, and doctors," she said. "In fact, the Department of Defense estimates that about 37 percent of spouses in the workforce require a state license."

Under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the DOD must institute a policy requiring the reimbursement of service members for their spouse's re-licensing and recertification costs during a permanent change of station, up to $500, she said.

Although the monetary support should alleviate some of the stress on military families, the more significant issue with licensing and certification stems from the "different occupational boards and regulatory agencies in each state," she added.

Additionally, state licensing and certification boards are inconsistent in passing down information to their support personnel.

"The DOD State Liaison Office is now asking states to hold their boards accountable for revising websites, training their staff and modifying license applications to comply with the revised laws," Pence said. "Our spouses these days, they don't just want a job, they want a career. And they work very hard to get their degrees. They want to be able to use them, and they want to be fulfilled."

Aside from licensing support, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May to help enhance employment opportunities for military spouses within the federal government. The new order directs agencies "to recommend new ways to improve license portability and remove barriers to employment for military spouses," she said.

Moreover, the federal government is working with American businesses to find an improved way to hire and retain military spouses employed, even when they relocate.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Foundation 'Hiring Our Heroes' just recently launched 'Hiring 100,000 Military Spouses.' It is a three-year call to action … for companies and businesses of all sizes, all across America, to make a collective commitment to hire 100,000 military spouses," Pence continued. "This initiative already has the support of some of the country's top employers."

"We know that spouses are the backbone of military readiness. We know that if military spouses aren't happy, then the military service member is probably going to get out of the service sooner, and we don't want that to happen," she added.

FAMILY READINESS EQUALS SOLDIER LETHALITY

For the past four years, Eddy Mentzer, associate director for the Office of Family Readiness Policy, has had the privilege of leading the Office of the Secretary of Defense's efforts in improving spouse employment.

In his role, Mentzer has met with many top executives from some of the nation's leading companies, to which they asked: "Why does spousal employment matter and why does the DOD care?"

"The answer is lethality, which would usually catch them off guard," he emphasized.

For example, "imagine the Soldier in Afghanistan … but that Soldier is worried about his or her spouse's employment at home or if their child has special needs is being taken care of. That Soldier may not notice the new pile of rocks alongside the road, and that can have consequences," he explained. "But if that Soldier is not worried -- if that Soldier knows that this family has the support they need -- then that Soldier is concentrating on the mission … ensuring the safety of other Soldiers and our allies."

Through the Office of Family Readiness Policy, the DOD is slated to increase the pool of company partners that directly support military spouse employment to 390 employers next week, he said. Through their partnership, each company has committed to recruit, hire, and retain military spouses.

Every year, there are approximately 100,000 new military spouses, Mentzer said. That's one reason the DOD is looking into a different way to engage with military families.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'how can we evolve from what many see as an antiquated system of brick and mortar facilities on installations where less than 25 percent of our families reside,'" he said.

Further, "spouse employment is a major factor for our families and frankly [why] the unemployment rate, which stands at 24 percent, is not improving," he added.

Moving forward, partnerships will be key. For example, the DOD partnered with LinkedIn to provide military spouses a free premium membership for a year, with each permanent change of station. So far 300 spouses have taken advantage of the service.

ARMY TO REFINE HOME-BASED BUSINESSES POLICY

As spouses venture into home-based business opportunities, the DOD and Army are working to refine their policies to support.

"The Army is absolutely committed to supporting those home-based business owners," said Col. Megan A. Gumpf, acting director Installation Services with the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management.

"Right now, the DOD has issued some clarifying guidance on what constitutes a home-based business. In most cases, the DOD's stance is that home-based businesses do not compete directly with existing morale, welfare, and recreation programs or with AAFES and the exchanges," she said.

Although the Army has some policies supporting home business, the force is working to provide more clarity to their guidelines in the near future, she said.

"However, I want to make it clear that installation commanders still have requirements, [and] responsibility to ensure safety, security, and quality of life for our Soldiers and Family members. It will still be at their authority level to determine for their respective location if a business is able to operate," she added.

Additionally, an online-only home business may not be subject to regulatory supervision, she said. "For example, someone's selling something exclusively on eBay or operating out of home for another business … (like) transcribing medical transcripts."

Moreover, the Army also acknowledges the challenge of starting a home-based business overseas.

"There may be some additional requirements that they have to look into. The status of forces agreement will help dictate what the rules and regulations are for the host nation."

ARMY EMERGENCY RELIEF CONTINUES TO BE AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE

For the past 76 years, the Army Emergency Relief fund has been a "conduit through which $2 billion in assistance has been provided to 4 million members of the Army team. A billion of that since Sept. 11, 2001," according to retired Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, Army Emergency Relief director.

"My concern is that there is some Soldier, there's some Family out there that's hurting, … in a financial way, and we could help them. They don't know about us," Mason said.

Army Emergency Relief provides more support than just emergency leave, he said.

"Every year we do about 9 million dollars in (undergraduate) scholarships. It is a needs-based scholarship; you do have to have at least a 2.0 GPA to apply. Spouses have to carry the six (credit) hours and an accredited institution. Children have to carry at least 12 hours," he said.

Average spouse scholarships are about $1,800 under AER, he said, and the average child scholarships about $2,600.

During the recent hurricane, AER provided almost $5 million in grants to Reserve and National Guard Soldiers that were not on active duty. Further, company commanders and first sergeants are authorized to sign off on an AER loan up to $2,000, he said.

More importantly, Mason said, AER was designed to provide Soldiers a grant or a zero-interest loan to keep them away from the predatory lending industry.

"There are two alarming statistics: No. 1, over 50 percent of our E-4s and below … have used these predatory lending agencies at least once -- some of them multiple times. No. 2: The average predatory loan has an annual rate between 350 and 400 percent.

"The predatory lending industry … they say is a $46 billion industry. They're located at the front gate of every military installation [including] overseas," he said. "It is our biggest threat."