This article by Karen Jowers originally appeared on Military Times, the nation's largest independent newsroom dedicated to covering the military and veteran community.
What can military and defense officials do to really address long-term problems like the condition of on-base housing and barracks, shortages of child care, spouse unemployment, and the destruction or damage of property during a move to a new duty station?
Over the last several decades, these problems have been persistent, and while there have been numerous efforts over the years to fix them, it sometimes seems like a game of whac-a-mole.
But now there’s a culture change happening in the Army, to include the demise of the practice of “end-stating” when it comes to quality of life, said the Army general responsible for many of those programs.
As Gen. Charles Hamilton, commanding general of Army Materiel Command, put it in an interview with Military Times, “end-stating” refers to the final phase of an operation. According to the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, end state is “the set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander’s objectives.” But just because a project or building is finished, the responsibilities don’t end for that project or building, said Hamilton, who is in charge of many quality-of-life programs, such as housing, child care and spouse employment.
Service members and families have faced problems for decades with a number of issues affecting quality of life, as the Government Accountability Office and the Military Times have been reporting through the years. These include problems such as mold in family housing and barracks and a lack of timely maintenance; shortages of affordable, quality child care; problems with broken or lost household goods; military spouses’ difficulty in finding employment; and inadequate dining facilities.
“What I warn my team about, what I’m afraid of, is … we like to finish things, and then we go, okay, here’s my line of effort. There’s an end state. That’s the problem. We ‘end-state’ it. And then the world moves past us,” said Hamilton. “We say, ‘Okay, that barracks is finished. Okay that project’s done.’ Well, no. It’s finished for that one thing, but it’s got to keep getting maintenance, it’s got to keep getting sustainment, somebody’s got to go check it.”
Officials are working on a culture change from the top down, Hamilton said, where those projects continue to evolve, he said.
“It’s ‘Look guys, it doesn’t have an end state on it. It’s an evolution,’” said Hamilton, who enlisted in the Army in 1982 and has himself seen these issues.
“I haven’t heard a military officer say that before, so kudos,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director of the National Military Family Association. “I’m glad he’s articulating that,” she said. As a Navy spouse of 29 years who has worked with the association since 2007, and other military family organizations before that, she has seen the continuing problems.
“It seems like we’re fighting the same things. There are days when I think we’re making progress. But then I get a call from a family and I get discouraged again,” she said.
Quality of life is a big focus in the Army now, Hamilton said. “We spend a lot of time in this space … the secretary and the chief chair these meetings, with commanders in the field … We’re going location by location. So right there, that sends a clear message that this is a priority to the Army. They bring up everything. Child care. Dining Facilities. The meeting is called Quality of Life,” he said.
The fact remains, however, that military leaders are only in their positions for two or three years, so priorities can change.
Leaders must be willing to play the “long game” for the sake of the people they serve “rather than what can be accomplished during their time in seat,” said Corie Weathers, wife of an Army chaplain, and a military clinical consultant. Her latest book, “Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention, and Leadership,” will be available Nov. 14.
Weathers also cautions that there are some quality-of-life issues that “service members and families have brought up for decades, generations even, that many are no longer willing to wait for without consequence.”
While some of the services may be doing well with retention right now, Weathers believes the military is on the verge of a retention crisis. ”In order to begin the healing process, I believe the institution (ultimately leaders) will need to authentically show that they value the people over bureaucracy,” she said, in an email response.
“Our culture is at a tipping point where the community’s expectations and frustration over issues that should have been resolved (or should have an expected end date) will be fully displayed as evergreen content online until leaders are held accountable,” she said. “This is an immense amount of pressure on leaders who genuinely would like to make progress on systemic problems.”
Leaders must be able to “communicate ongoing efforts to make progress on quality-of-life issues while simultaneously casting vision for realistic expectations and deadlines that can be used to hold the institution accountable,” Weathers said. But leaders should avoid communicating in ways that sound like “kicking the can down the road,” she said.
Hamilton explained that there have been improvements on this front in recent decades, “but as you know, the world changes pretty quickly around us. Whether it be barracks, housing, the expectations from families have certainly, and deservedly so, increased over time. They’re holding us accountable, as they should.”
For example, when it comes to housing he noted that “with the dollars we have, we’re going to continue to build, to renovate and modernize, and go after getting better housing for our families. ... It all goes to readiness. And I won’t come off that dime as long as I’m the Army Materiel Command commander. We owe it to our families.”
Much of the problem, of course, has to do with money, and the competition for limited amounts of dollars between quality-of-life programs and things like weapons systems. More and more, leaders like Hamilton have been saying that these programs that affect rank-and-file service members and their families directly affect military readiness, too.
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