JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
Some aspects of being in the military can be hard on individuals and families. To gain better insight into the issues Airmen and their families face at McChord Field, Maj. Gen. Sam Barrett, 18th Air Force commander, and his wife, Kelly Barrett, visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord to learn what’s working, what isn’t and where they can help.
“The issues that spouses face here are the same, for the most part, across the nation,” Kelly said. “There is education for children, access to health care, employment for spouses and license reciprocity.
“Some spouses have careers that require a license to work in a certain state, and, if they PCS to a new one, it can take months and cost hundreds of dollars to become certified in that new state.”
License reciprocity is a rising and important issue facing military spouses.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures July 2018 research, up to 35 percent of military spouses are employed in career fields requiring licenses, and people in licensed professions were 36 percent less likely to move between states. It also showed employment of military spouses plays a significant role in the military member’s retention decision. Spouses with higher education were less likely to agree that the military lifestyle supports career opportunities for both spouses.
“When we visit bases, we talk to civic leaders about license reciprocity to spread the word. This is an important issue, not just military families, but to all families,” Kelly said. “Sam and I think about how to improve support; we were a young Air Force family once, too. We know family structure has an effect on the mission and retention decisions.”
There has been some progress in Washington State, which eases some of the burden for spouses who need a new license in this state.
“For example, Washington State passed a law in 2010 requiring occupational boards have processes to speed up license transfer for military spouses, including all career fields that require a state license,” Kelly said. “Although there is more work to be done, this is a big step. The state has 41,000 service members from all branches, so this is a big issue.”
In addition to new laws and regulations that are already in effect, there are several proposals being petitioned to all the states that, if passed, would reduce the time, hassle and cost of gaining a new license.
One proposal is to offer a license of endorsement, where a board issues a permanent license if one is already held in another jurisdiction with similar standards. Another avenue is an expansion of temporary license, where the temporary license period is expanded or allow one to be held for the full time they are in that state as a military spouse. There is also the possibility of waiving or reducing fees associated with obtaining a license, which has already been implemented in Florida, New York, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, or expediting the application process so military spouses are put at the front of the line.
Air Force leaders have spoken to elected and civic leaders about the effects reciprocity has on military families. Last year, the Air Force, Army and Navy secretaries wrote a letter to the National Governors Association asking state leaders to address reciprocity. The association responded by agreeing to work on portability of licenses across state lines, comparing current processes by state to make them less burdensome, and ensure future license requirements aren’t overly restrictive.
In a letter responding to the service secretaries, the NGA encouraged the DOD to proactively forward data and recommendations to improve reciprocity. Additionally, the DOD has representation on the NGA’s panel educating leaders on the effects to military families.
“The leadership in particular is talking to the legislatures,” Kelly said. “All the military in general have the same issue and we’re trying to figure out a way to mitigate this so our spouses can work and not be underemployed. We’re working on it, but it’s a slow process. It’s mainly education and talking to the legislature so they understand spouse employment is a big deal.”
While educating off-base communities on why this issue needs to be addressed is important, it is just as important to reach the spouses themselves so they are aware of their options. Despite Washington State law requiring a speedy transfer of licenses for the last nine years, it has not been used fully by spouses even in recent years.
“In the medical community in Washington, only 20 spouses transferred licenses in 2016,” Kelly said. “Although this number represents 2016, I hope more spouses will optimize their resources.”
There are many resources available to spouses to help them navigate through the process of license reciprocity, the main one being readiness centers. They have information on where spouses can go and how they can get a new license.
“I want spouses to know they are valued and listened to,” Kelly said. “One of the reasons I’m meeting with them is to say “thank you.” Why? Because families are a key factor in enabling the mission, the member’s happiness and their ability to do the mission.”
During an all call for Team McChord Airmen, Maj. Gen. Barrett encouraged Airmen to be innovative, have squadron vitality and keep their focus simple. During an interview with Public Affairs, Kelly recalled ways that she, as a military spouse, was able to help her husband achieve these goals.
“I remember when Sam and I were a young couple in a squadron when he was a lieutenant and captain,” she said. “He was routinely pulled away to the Middle East to fly while I was home working and taking care of our children. It was hard – many families are going through that today. Know you are not alone.
“What helped us through it was the camaraderie we built,” she continued. “We made a concerted effort to get involved and support families whose Airmen were away. In turn, we were supported when Sam had to go. That had a huge impact on squadron morale, and it helped families.”
Support from family makes a difference in morale and productivity of Airmen.
“This is a family business,” Maj. Gen. Barrett said. “My wife, Kelly, and I were married 30 years ago. She has been with me every step of the way, and I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for 30 years as a representative of all the spouses out there who support us. Without the spouses and without your support, we can’t do this mission and we can’t be effective.”
Kelly had a few words of encouragement for spouses who want to know ways they can help their Airman be the best they can be for the Air Force.
“Supporting events in the squadron and creating a family atmosphere makes vitality happen – Sam and I lived that, and it made a difference,” she said. “You can too! That atmosphere helps Airmen reduce distractions, keep their focus simple and look for ways to make the mission easier.”