By Paul BelloSeptember 10, 2009
FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made his visit to Fort Belvoir a special one Tuesday, as he met with military families to better understand the challenges facing their children, particularly those who have both parents on active duty.
As part of an on going back-to-school initiative, Gates met with 14 servicemembers, including nine couples from Belvoir, at the installation's George Washington Village Neighborhood Center.
Their discussion included issues from the stresses associated with deployment to children transferring into a new school system and losing credit for classes already taken.
Based on current statistics, Gates said 44 percent of the nation's active-duty component has children, with two-thirds of the children under age 11. Overall, he added 85,000 of those children are in DoD schools, while the remainder attends public schools.
In moving forward, Gates said he would personally like teachers and guidance counselors to be better trained when dealing with students who have a military background. For that to happen, he said, aid would have to come from the White House and Department of Education.
"It helps to be around peers who are going through the same type of things as you.
Unfortunately, for a military child attending public school, that's not always the case," Gates continued.
"Children move around a lot and, from what I've heard in speaking with parents, teachers especially need to do a better job of understanding the challenges associated with having one or both parents deployed. That's very important, he said."
Gates said he was also surprised to hear stories of teachers interjecting their own opinions into the classroom, especially when it comes to the war on terrorism. On that topic, Gates said there's clearly a concern.
"The classroom should be about learning. That is its primary purpose," Gates said. "A teacher should keep his or her opinions private. If there's a child whose parent is deployed and in danger, and at the same time having a teacher perhaps being critical of what they are doing, you have to wonder what kind of message that is sending to the child. I just don't believe it's the place to do something like that."
Near the end of his visit, Gates told parents he would go back to Cabinet members with their concerns and would inquire as to the possibility of having elementary schools on every major installation.
He also lauded recently proposed legislation by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that makes moving to schools easier for military children. According to Gates, this legislation will prevent students from losing credits and help standardize enrollment for those going from school to school.
"Our conversation with him flowed really well. We even discussed TRICARE and how moving from region to region can be quite tedious for servicemembers," Sgt. Maj. Ian Guy, of Belvoir's Directorate of Public Works said. "A major drawback is having to re-enroll for benefits every time you move. He was receptive to looking into this and possibly having tri-care all under one umbrella. That would certainly make things easier for Soldiers."
Guy was joined by his wife, Master Sgt. Detrius Guy, who mentioned this was the couple's first assignment together after five years of marriage. With an assignment to Fort Jackson, S.C. on the horizon, Guy said she and her husband stand to be separated again - this time for at least three years.
"The secretary was very surprised to hear how many families were not actually living together. There also doesn't seem to be a support network for children with deployed parents," she said.
"Many of us had questions about what constitutes a military family and who you can assign your children to when being deployed. He seemed very concerned and repeated that keeping military families together was crucial. It felt good to hear that coming from him."
After Gates' visit, Installation Commander Col. Jerry Blixt said it was an honor to host the secretary and that his visit speaks volumes on his feelings toward military families.
"The fact that he participated with family members directly is incredible," Blixt said. "He took the time to understand their issues and concerns and that means a lot. We're happy to have him back anytime."