Employment, health care and education for military children will be the main emphases of the White House's revived Joining Forces initiative, first lady Jill Biden announced Wednesday.
The Joining Forces effort, a collaboration between government, private and nonprofit entities designed to improve the lives of military families, will aim to improve spouse unemployment and underemployment, increase access to health care -- especially mental health services -- and strengthen education for military children, Biden said in an announcement at the White House.
The focus on active-duty families will take the initiative back to its roots when it was cofounded in 2011 by Biden, then second lady, and first lady Michelle Obama, to encourage public and private entities to take action to support military families.
As Joining Forces grew during the Obama administration, its focus widened to include service members' transition to veteran status, veteran employment, homelessness and veterans' mental health.
After holding hundreds of listening sessions with military families, advocates, service members, nonprofits and corporate leaders, Biden selected the three priorities, she said, because "supporting [military families’] physical, social and emotional health is a national security imperative."
"Just 1% of our country has shouldered the burden of 20 years of war. No one has more strength and grit and resilience than our military families, but you can't do this alone," Biden said.
According to a survey conducted late last year by the military advocacy group Blue Star Families, 42% of military spouses working before the pandemic struck stopped working.
The situation wasn't much better before the pandemic: A Defense Department survey in 2017 found active-duty spouse unemployment at 24%, just two percentage points lower than it was in 2010.
Access to quality health care also remains a concern, especially in the field of mental health: The Blue Star Families survey found that 21% of those surveyed, including active-duty personnel, family members and veterans’ families, said they would like to get care but can't.
According to the survey, despite increased use of telehealth services, active-duty family respondents said they face difficulties scheduling appointments, getting time off work for treatment or finding child care for appointments.
Some military families also have said they are food insecure, meaning they don't have the financial stability to access healthy, quality sustenance consistently.
"The global pandemic over the past year has intensified these stressors. We will also work closely with service providers in the civilian community to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to effectively support military and veteran families, caregivers and survivors," Biden said.
She also pledged to increase programs for more than 2 million children of military personnel, including active-duty, Reserve and National Guard members -- kids she said face a "highly mobile military lifestyle."
Biden is an educator by profession and has made education a top priority for her work as first lady.
"We must understand and account for the lifelong impact of service on military-connected children and ensure that children in veteran families, caregiving families and surviving families will also be included in the initiative's work," Biden said in a release.
Biden has named Rory Brosius, former deputy director of Joining Forces in the Obama administration, to be executive director.
After her presentation, Biden toured a call center for Military OneSource in Arlington, Virginia. The helpline provides around-the-clock support for service members and their families.
Biden described the work for military families "important to her," and not just because she is the daughter of a veteran or the stepmother of Delaware Army National Guard member Beau Biden who died six years ago.
"Without a doubt, being part of this military community has shaped who I am. But that's not why we're here today. We're here because of you, the people behind me on these screens; because of the stories that you have shared with me -- your joys and your challenges," she said.
She also pledged to leave a Joining Forces program at the White House that she hopes will be a permanent priority for successors.
"Because you deserve nothing less," Biden said.
Former first lady Melania Trump and Karen Pence, the wife of former Vice President Mike Pence, focused on military family issues during President Donald Trump's term, but they did not use the Joining Forces moniker.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.