Where the Army is Sending Us Next

We found out last week where the Army will be sending us this summer. I normally wait until we have orders in hand before announcing our next adventure because so much can change between learning such information and actually arriving at said duty station. But this time around, the information was published as part of board selection results, so Army friends were contacting us throughout the day offering their congratulations. It felt a bit surreal to have so many people know right of the bat – we’re used to keeping the information to ourselves for at least a little while and having it be our little secret.

So where are we going next?

Known for great food, amazing music, and arguably the best architecture in the United States, Chicago will be the place we call home for the next two years. Truth be told, we were hoping for a West Coast assignment because it is the one region the Army hasn’t sent us in the continental United States. But we can’t really complain about the Chicago area – our assigned location, Fort Sheridan, is on the bluffs of Lake Michigan in the Highland Park area, which is about 25 miles north of downtown Chicago.

Beyond a layover at the airport, the kids and Clay have never been to Chicago. I’ve visited as a kid and again for a girls weekend a handful of years ago but barely scraped the surface of the famed city. I can’t wait to take Clay and the kids to the Museum of Science and Industry, which blew me away as a sullen teenager. We’ll cheer on our beloved Nats when they play the Cubs at Wrigley Field and I’m sure we’ll spend hours wandering the city and enjoy the various parks sprinkled throughout the city. We’re looking forward to living in a northern climate again – I’m already stocking up on sweaters as they go on clearance down here. And Clay and I will be closer to our extended families in Michigan and Ohio, which will be pretty cool.

A friend joked that the Army is technically sending us to a coast – it just happens to be Lake Michigan on the North Shore. We’re super excited to live so close to a major body of water and plan to use our paddle boards and kayaks as much as the weather allows. I’ve shouted from roof tops just how amazing Lake Michigan is – especially up in the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, where I vacationed every summer growing up – so I’m sure we will spend the majority of our free time on the water, which is how it should be.

We’ll make the most of our time left here in the Washington DC area but we’re ready to move on – maybe because this is the second time we’ve been stationed here or perhaps it is because we’ve never lived in a place longer than 35 months. The thought of staying in a place longer than three years feels so foreign and if we’re being honest – not for us. Clay and I have found comfort in a somewhat nomadic lifestyle but we realize the the kids may not feel the same way as they get older. However, they’re both excited for this move and the opportunities that moving to a new place can bring. Only time will tell what Chicago has in store for the four of us but we’re looking forward to finding out!

“She is novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.

Mark Twain

On top of the Willis Tower Sky Deck on the Ledge in 2014.

Education and the Military Child

It’s the time of year when the barren branches of trees glisten with lights and the everyone seems just a smidgen more friendly toward one another. It’s also the time of year when many military families embark on an adventure filled with broken promises, crazy turns, and changed orders that is not-so-officially titled, “Where Will We Go Next?” While some such families will be able to share with their families during holiday gatherings what their new adventure will be, others may not find out until spring or even later. Yes – it can be an exciting time, but it can also be filled with anxiety as visions of sugar plum fairies in a variety of potential new locations dance in our heads.

We’re due for another move this upcoming summer. And no – we don’t know where yet. This move will have our son attending his fourth elementary school and our daughter attending her second, which are standard numbers among military children. We have a list of potential places we could go next (not that any of them are guaranteed) so I’ve been casually researching and anxiously awaiting to hear where we will spend our next two years. Now that our children are getting older, the impact of our frequent moves is greater than ever before. And now more than ever, we’re factoring the quality of schools into our research. I’ve spent most of my professional career working in the education field via one realm or another. I’ve taught preschool and college courses and everything in between. I’ve designed both in-person and online courses, I’ve created content, and I’ve collected and interpreted education data. And I have some thoughts on the education system as a whole and how military children are impacted by the status quo.

According to the Department of Defense, there are more than 2.7 million active-duty military family members who are well-versed in the outdated adage, “If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a family, he would’ve issued you one.” When I married my husband 15 years ago, I literally became a card-carrying member of an organization that is seemingly both celebrated (“Thank you for your service!”) and somewhat misunderstood (“You’re lucky you get free housing!”) by the general population. My husband is at the point in his career where retirement is within manageable reach, should he decide that 20 years of military service is more than enough for our family. I’ve often said that our decision to remain an active-duty family is based on a simple equation – if the perceived benefits outweigh the drawbacks, he’ll continue to serve. On paper – it appears to be a simple equation but like most things, the reality is much murkier.

One of the biggest drawbacks for many military families is the lack of educational consistency due to multiple moves throughout the adolescence of military children. Simple put – moving is hard and the way education is practiced in our country doesn’t seem to make it any easier for our children. While some families choose to homeschool their children in effort to maintain consistency despite moving every 2-3 years, they only represent 9.2% of military families who responded to the Military Family Advisory Network’s 2018 survey. This means that over 90% of military families surveyed have children who attend local schools (on-post, off-post, private, or DODEA).

Is education a military readiness issue?

Earlier this year, the idea that quality education for children is a military readiness issue raised a few eyebrows when the Commander of Air University, Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, stated he has difficulty recruiting faculty because they do not want to move their families away from high-performing schools in economically booming areas to the low-performing schools in Montgomery, Alabama (source). It’s not uncommon for families to choose to live apart from their service member in order for the military family to remain in a school district – whether it be for school performance reasons or secondary education reasons, such wishing not to impact GPA, class ranking, or IB vs. AP course load; all of which can affect college placement. And many families choose to leave the military earlier than otherwise planned for education reasons because maintaining two households for an undetermined amount of time is neither viable nor preferable.

What is being done about these inconsistencies?

Well – it is not a secret that education standards are inconsistent from state to state and highly nomadic populations, such as the military, suffer the most from such inconsistencies. Recently, the DoD, National Center for Interstate Compacts, and Council of State Governments developed an interstate compact in order to address the educational transition issues of military children called the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. In attempt to address the eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation issues encountered by military families, the compact “provides for a detailed governance structure at both the state and national levels with built-in enforcement and compliance mechanisms.” (source). Only time will determine the success of this coalition, but it is movement in the right direction – after all, the first step is admitting there is a problem. In the meantime, we will continue to do what we do best – research and hope we’re not doing our children a disservice.

What about school rankings?

When researching schools associated with possible places they could be sent next, many military families rely on word-of-mouth reviews and data-based websites like GreatSchools, SchoolDigger, and Niche. The websites differ in data sources and methodologies, which explains the varying systems of rating/ranking and they all have plenty of critics, who are quick to point out that it is impossible to judge the quality of education from a simple digestible number or letter. One study even theorizes that online school ratings accelerate housing segregation (source). Yes – nothing can replace the gut feeling received when touring a school and speaking with the administration, but those are luxuries many military families cannot afford, especially when moving 2000+ miles away and needing to secure housing as soon as possible. At the end of the day, it can feel like we’re rolling the dice with our children’s education – like most things military-related, many of us hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Is education a prize to be won?

I read an analogy once that really resonated with me – education in the United States is considered a prize to be won rather than a means for personal growth and professional fulfillment. Students are measured by predetermined benchmarks from Kindergarten onward and by the time they reach high school, they’re continuously ranked against each other as they compete for class placement in hopes of impressing college admissions representatives. Mental health professionals are calling the prevalence of anxiety among high school students an epidemic. While research and antidote evidence points to social media and the need to maintain a certain image as contributing factors, it’s not difficult to see how the increasing education pressures in middle school and high school also contribute to the epidemic. And when it comes to eligibility, enrollment, and placement issues that often arise when a high school-aged military child moves one state to another (or country), the anxiety is that much more heightened.

 “In a battle, it’s not the sharpness of the blade that matters but the skill of the fighter

There is a part of me that wonders if all this stress over class placement and GPA is worth it in the end. Over the years, economists have found that for most students, there isn’t a distinguishable salary boost between attending a super-selective college/university and a ‘regular’ college/university after adjusting for student characteristics (source). Simply put, the talent and ambitions of an individual student will determine success, not necessarily where they choose to pursue their post-secondary education. On the same page, an interesting Chicago Tribune article asked 10 CEOs whether they think where one goes to college really matters…spoiler – the majority said no, not really (source). Characteristics such as work ethic, people skills, confidence, and the desire to improve matter far more than the name of the school on the diploma. That’s not to say that students shouldn’t try their best and work toward an academic goal but perhaps the pressure placed on high-school students to achieve at all costs and compete against one another isn’t the best approach to post-secondary education.

My children are still at the age when going to school is not a chore – they’re excited to learn and be in the classroom environment. Both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed school and still find ourselves engaging in academic pursuits today so it is extremely important for us to encourage their passion for learning and maintain their excitement for new experiences. Perhaps it is because we both went to ‘just’ a state school for college (Go Clemson Tigers!), but it really isn’t a goal of ours for our children to attend an elite college or university. If that is their goal down the road, we will support them but we will not push them into an ivy-covered brick wall. It is much more important to us that our children have a lifelong thirst for learning, an adventurous spirit, and not live in a world where they are making fear-based decisions and playing it safe. Perhaps that is why we don’t necessarily view them attending multiple schools as a bad thing.

“Adventure should be 80 percent ‘I think this is manageable,’ but it’s good to have that last 20 percent where you’re right outside your comfort zone. Still safe, but outside your comfort zone.” – Bear Grylls

While fewer children are staying in one school district for their entire education than 30 years ago, military children still move three times as frequently their civilian counterparts (source) This provides them with opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and experience other cultures and traditions – whether they be regionally within our own country or outside of our borders. In a study sponsored by Student & Youth Travel Association, the majority of teachers polled believe travel is a positive influence on education and enhances understanding of the curriculum (source). Yes – traveling to a new location is quite different than moving there but perhaps the benefits of being exposed to diverse cultures outweigh the drawbacks associated with switching schools. There are aspects to military life that can’t be ignored when it comes to the mental health of military children. Each child is unique and there is no ‘right’ answer when it comes to making education choices within the constraints of the military lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean military children can’t be celebrated for their resiliency and adaptability, both of which are admirable traits that are beneficial well into adulthood. That being said, there are undeniable obstacles military children face in regards to their education and it is up to each family to decide if those drawbacks outweigh the benefits of the military lifestyle.

Our upcoming move will not be our last. It’s tough to say what we will do when our oldest enters high school in five years. Maybe that will be the perfect time to put our nomadic lifestyle behind us or maybe we’ll decide as a family to continue calling various places home around the world. As of right now, they’re excited for the opportunity on the horizon and looking forward to the new adventure. There will probably be a few hiccups when they adjust to their new school and there is no doubt that we will miss their current school but with each move, we learn new things about ourselves individually and collectively as a family. We find life in the 20% outside of our comfort zone – it can be infuriating, exhilarating, and exhausting. I’d be lying if I said that our children’s education isn’t giving me pause about where we see ourselves in 5-10 years. But for now, we’re enjoying the ride. Bumps and all.

Stretching My Mind

I’m writing this post from the waiting room of a car dealership, which is a poppin’ place the day before Thanksgiving. Last week, one of my brand-new tires on my brand-new car managed to pick up a screw on the sidewall. A new tire was special ordered and it finally arrived, which means the kids and I are spending the morning with Subaru’s finest while Clay works a ‘half-day’ (don’t you love how in the military a ‘half-day’ is still at least 8 hours..). We’re leaving for Georgia late this afternoon/evening, which means we will be in good company among millions of other last minute travelers. Nothing says the holidays like spending hours in the car, right?

Speaking of holidays – over the weekend, Clay and I watched Holiday in the Wild, a Netflix Original movie with Rob Lowe and Kristen Davis. We watched it with the intention of rolling our eyes and snarking on the amount of cheese often associated with such Hallmark-esque Christmas movies. The movie certainly wasn’t without such faults, but wouldn’t you know – the gorgeous African landscape (the movie was filmed in South Africa and Zambia) and the decent acting held our attention. Spoiler – Chris Traeger and Charlotte York fall in love, end up together, and save the elephants. Merry Christmas, indeed. And while I’ve been wanting to visit Africa for awhile, now the pull is even greater. We’ve decided to wait until the kids are a little older – it’s a bucket list item of mine to hike Kilimanjaro as a family when the kids are in college. Who needs Spring Break at the beach when you can summit Africa’s highest peak with your parents?

We spent this past Sunday afternoon hiking at Great Falls Park, which is one of my favorite places in the area this time of year. Nestled within the urban sprawl of Washington, DC is 800 acres of protected land along the Potomac. We love to climb the rocks that pepper the banks and explore the 15 miles of trails that follow Difficult Run. There is little I love more than rock scrambling and I am keeping my fingers crossed that the Army sends us somewhere next where I can really immerse myself into the hobby without having to drive hours into the mountains.

Now that the weather has turned, we’re reminded of how we will be settled into our not-yet-disclosed new location for the holidays next year. As much as we’re going to miss certain aspects of our life in the nation’s capital and the people we’ve grown to love, we’re ready for another adventure. People ask us if we’re tired of not putting down roots or if we find ourselves wanting to just stay put. Not yet. We’re still in the phase of our lives where we get caught up in the exhilarating whirlwind when embarking on a new Army-induced adventure. We’re aware of the short list of places the Army could send us next but there is no guarantee that our next locale will be one of them (the joys of the military – ha!) so I’m not devoting too much energy into research and I am actively trying not to get my hopes up (and no – Europe isn’t a possibility this time around…womp womp).

Sometimes I wonder if Clay and I’s wanderlust will negatively impact our children. We know that each move will become increasingly difficult as our children approach their middle school and high school years. While I don’t think staying in one place for that duration is the only way to raise teenagers successfully, I do think there are actions we can take that will ensure that our choices won’t have lasting adverse impacts. I suppose we will cross those bridges when and if our journey takes us there. Whenever I find myself fretting over whether we’re doing our children a disservice, I remind myself of the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes quote – “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.

There is nothing I want more for my children than for them to find joy in opportunity – to seize each day and make the most of it as if Mr. Keating is speaking directly to them. I want them to find comfort in the unexpected and value in new experiences. One of our family mottos is, “We do hard things.” Just because there may be shadows doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty in the view. We have so much to be thankful for – both known and the unknown. While it’d be nice to know what our future holds, embracing the uncertainty offers its own sense of exhilaration…we might as well enjoy it!

What is the ‘Widow’s Tax’? How Surviving Military Families are Denied Full Benefits.

We’ve all heard that freedom isn’t free. But for over 65,000 military families, neither is death. Kristen Fenty, the wife of my husband’s first battalion commander, LTC Joseph Fenty, has been tirelessly advocating for years on behalf of other military spouses who are being denied their full survivor benefits because of the so-called ‘widow’s tax’.

LTC Joseph Fenty was killed in Afghanistan just 21 days short of being retirement eligible – he served nearly 20 years before giving the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Kristen and Joe’s only child, a daughter, was born one month prior to his death. I’ve written a lot about that deployment – it’s appalling to know that surviving military families are being denied benefits they rightfully earned. As Kristen said back in 2012, “It’s infuriating to think that something my husband earned is not going to his family. It demeans his service.

What is the military ‘widow’s tax’? The issue lies with how the government deals with two separate military survivor payouts – the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program. Under the current system, surviving family members (e.g. the ‘widows’) who receive both the SBP and DIC end up having their SBP reduced dollar for dollar for the amount they receive in DIC, regardless of how much the service member paid into the SPB during their career. An estimated 65,000 families are affected by this offset.

What is the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)? According to the Department of Defense, the SPB “allows a retiree to ensure, after death, a continuous lifetime annuity for their dependents. The annuity which is based on a percentage of retired pay is called SBP and is paid to an eligible beneficiary. It pays your eligible survivors an inflation-adjusted monthly income.” Simply put, the SBP is a form of insurance.

What is the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program? According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program “is a tax free monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of Veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.” It is commonly referred to within the military community as the ‘death benefit’.

Wait – so military families are encouraged to pay into an insurance program only to be legally prohibited from collecting it should the unthinkable happen? Yes. Current federal law requires survivors to forfeit part or all of their purchased SBP annuity if they also qualify for the DIC program. As a reminder, the DIC is for eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.

Is this a recent development? Sadly, no. Advocates for the repeal of the ‘widow’s tax’ have been fighting Congress to fix the loophole for decades. The military’s “widows tax” does not discriminate against age, race, creed, or branch of service. It is simply a way for the government to squeeze more money from military families once their service member has either been killed in action or has died from a service-related injury or disease.

Kristen Fenty and her daughter on Capitol Hill in 2008

What is being done about it? Due to the tireless efforts of survivors and advocates for the elimination of the ‘widow’s tax’, legislation has been introduced in the past four Congress sessions (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017). Unfortunately, despite having significant sponsorship, it continuously failed to even receive a House vote.

It has never even made it to a vote? Seriously? What about in 2019? Currently there are two pieces of legislation with sponsorship – the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act (H.R.553) in the House and the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act (S.622) in the Senate. Both proposed pieces of legislation have bipartisan support and would eliminate the provision.

So what happened on the hill yesterday? Senator Doug Jones (D, Alabama) stood on the Senate floor before the vote on the annual defense authorization measure in effort to add a repeal of the ‘widow’s tax’ (see video below). He called for unanimous consent to force a vote but Senate leaders wouldn’t allow it as an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Jim Inhofe (R, Oklahoma), and one of the 74 co-sponsors blocked the parliamentary move over financial questions and other anonymous objections. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the legislation would cost approximately $5.7 billion over the next decade. Senator Inhofe stated, “I support and will continue to support the permanent fix. It’s going to happen. We’re going to do it … but it can’t be on this bill.

What happens next? Despite advocates having fought to repeal the widow’s tax for years, this is the first time it has garnered this amount of attention in the general public. Senator Jones said yesterday that he has talked to House leaders in effort to bring up the bill in that chamber and that he will continue to fight on behalf of Gold Star families, whether it be as a standalone measure or as an amendment on an existing bill.

Kristen and her daughter in 2019

What can I do to help? Contact your representatives and urge them to support measures to end the ‘widow’s tax’. The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has a form that you can fill out to send a message through it’s Legislative Action Center. Use the hashtag #AxeWidowsTax when tweeting about the issue. Inform your family and friends about the issue. And don’t forget to say thank you to the members of Congress who have expressed their support.

Sources