Panetta: Educating children of military members is a matter of national security
GRAPEVINE, Texas — Forty-four percent of the men and women in the armed forces are moms or dads.
One and a half million of their children are school-age. Their education isn’t just important for their own well-being. It is also a matter of “national security” because it is crucial to attracting and retaining an all-volunteer force, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who spoke Wednesday at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center.
“The bottom line is that our military is better able to defend the country when we address the long-term educational needs of their children,” Panetta said in an opening speech at the two-day national conference of the Military Child Education Coalition.
The coalition, a nonprofit based in Harker Heights, outside Fort Hood, was formed 15 years ago by former Killeen Assistant Superintendent Mary M. Keller to help teachers, counselors, social workers and other professionals address the particular challenges of military children. It has also raised the children’s profile within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill.
Its success is visible not only in Panetta’s visit Wednesday but also in the surprising number of high-level guests he led. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke later Wednesday afternoon, as did his wife, Deanie.
On Thursday, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Air National Guard Gen. Craig McKinley, all chiefs of their services, are scheduled to participate in a round-table discussion.
Never have so many heavy hitters spoken at one of the coalition’s conferences.
“In my 20 years in Congress, I had hundreds of lobbyists come into my office, but few of them ever lobbied for military kids,” said coalition board member Chet Edwards, who represented Central Texas in the House. “That’s exactly what MCEC does. And it shows the great respect they have in the Pentagon that so many of its top leaders have shown up here.”
Panetta said military children face enough challenges in peacetime. The children of a career service member will move an average of eight times during their school years. They will spend long periods away from their parents, and they will move between school systems that differ in quality, he said.
But the demands of the last decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, including thousands of children who have buried a parent or had a parent return with disabilities, have made life tougher for them, he said.
“The last decade of war has placed a heavy burden on those who have served, but it has also placed a heavy burden on their children as well,” Panetta said. “ … These sacrifices, large and small, take a toll on military children over time. But one thing that military parents should never have to sacrifice is the education of their children.”
The coalition provides schools, parents, physicians, counselors, parents and students with tools and resources for dealing with those issues.
Carol Ormand, a 10th-grade English teacher at Belton High School, has a lifetime of relevant experience. She is a Marine Corps “brat,” is married to a Fort Hood-based soldier and is the mother of a young sailor.
She said the coalition has been invaluable to her in helping some of the 226 military teenagers at Belton High, where she coordinates a peer support group.
“They’ve taught me how to recognize those kids who may be struggling and how to connect those kids together,” said Ormand, who was at the conference. “Sometimes the last thing a struggling kid wants to hear from is another adult. But just connecting them to another kid who has been there, done that really helps them understand they’re not alone.”
Besides the coalition’s work, Panetta said, the Defense Department has placed a high priority on getting states to sign a compact to alleviate problems with course credits, extracurricular eligibility and immunizations when military children move between states. Forty-three states have signed it.
The Defense Department is also awarding $60 million to public schools on military bases and tens of millions of dollars more in the coming years to improve services and facilities used by large numbers of military children. He said the Pentagon is also modernizing and improving the schools that it runs.
“In equipping our military children with the best education, the best knowledge, the best skills they need for the future, the department is investing in its own future,” he said. “Many of these young men and women will follow in the tracks of their parents and join the military themselves.”
That the defense secretary is even talking about military children seemed unimaginable when Patty Shinseki was a young Army wife during the Vietnam War. Shinseki, a coalition board member, is the wife of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff.
“We did not have any of this,” she said. “I have seen it evolve over time, and what I see now is wonderful. But there are many more things that need to be done. We need to keep focusing on what is best for the kids.”