Gates Hears Military Children's Education Issues

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Gates paid his first visit here as defense secretary, meeting in a closed-door session with military parents whose children were kicking off their new school year at local Fairfax County schools.

Talking with reporters after the 45-minute session, Gates said he has a list of issues to look into after today's discussion. These include:

-- Exploring the possibility of opening more Defense Department schools on military bases, particularly elementary schools on larger posts experiencing regular troop rotations;

-- Assigning more dual-military families to the same post to reduce family separations;

-- Getting training for public-school teachers and counselors so they're better equipped to help their military children in their classes cope with the unique challenges they face;

-- Ensuring policies created for the old "garrison Army" are re-examined and updated as necessary to be more realistic for a highly deployable, highly mobile modern-day Army; and

-- Making the Tricare military health system system more user-friendly for families geographically separated due to deployments and other duty obligations.

Gates noted that 44 percent of active-duty servicemembers have children, about two-thirds of them under age 11.

Of the 1.2 million military children, only about 85,000 attend Defense Department schools. The rest attend public schools ? where their nonmilitary schoolmates often don't understand or relate to their lifestyle and the difficulties they face, and staffs too often aren't equipped to offer the support they need.

Talking today with military parents, Gates said he found unanimous support for expanding the Defense Department school system.

"These parents would love to have schools on post," he said, ticking off some benefits the parents raised. Teachers and counselors would understand exactly what their students were dealing with and be trained to help them. Kids would be surrounded by peers "going through the same thing they are going through."

In addition, parents would have more confidence in the quality of their schools, and students wouldn't always find themselves playing catch-up or repeating what they already learned as they moved from one school to another because of a parent's deployment or the family's move to a new duty station.

Gates conceded that expanding the Defense Department school system may not be possible from a financial or political standpoint, particularly at the high-school level. "But one of the questions I am going to ask coming out of this is, at least on big posts where we have a lot of repeated rotations, ... could we at least do elementary schools?" he said.

Gates added he also plans to look into what kinds of White House or Education Department initiatives can better prepare public schools to meet military children's needs.

The secretary said he's optimistic that the new Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children will help to reduce the bumps in the road for children transitioning between school systems in different states. Twenty-five states have agreed so far to the initiative, which standardizes eligibility, enrollment, placement and graduation requirements. The California state legislature has passed the bill, too, and once California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs it into law, the
 compact will cover 81 percent of all military children, Gates said.

One concern about public schools raised today took Gates by surprise. Parents told him their children had come home with stories of teachers expressing negative views of the war or the military ? insensitive to the fact that their parents were off fighting it. "So you have a child whose parent is deployed and in danger, and at the same time, [you have] a teacher perhaps being critical of what they were doing, or [of] the military," Gates said. "That is an obvious concern."

The secretary told reporters his visit reinforced his belief that too many dual-military families spend too much time apart. Among the parents he met was Army Sgt. 1st Class Sumalee Bustamante, a military police soldier and mother of two who has lived with her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class John Bustamante, just 10 months out of the last six years.

"That is just not acceptable," Gates told reporters after hearing her story. "This is something we really need to do a better job of as we work with military families." He vowed to see what needs to be changed to get more dual-military families assigned together so they don't have to be separated.

In many cases, Gates said, the problem boils down to old ways of doing business that no longer work for today's military.

"In many respects, we have really focused a lot on the stresses on our military families over the last two or three years, as we have recognized the repeated deployments and the consequences of this," he said he told the parents in closing. "But in many ways, I think many of our policies are a legacy of an Army that was essentially a garrison Army. They haven't caught up in terms of how mobile these families are now, and how often they are moving, and the consequences of one parent [being]
 deployed and one not, or both deployed."

One surprise takeaway from today's visit involved gaps in the Tricare system.

Bustamante described to Gates the headaches she faced when she had to send her two children to live with her parents in California while she deployed to Iraq from Fort Drum, N.Y. She didn't realize that she had to disenroll the children from Tricare North, which covered Fort Drum, and re-enroll them in Tricare West for them to receive coverage. Her father, not wanting to add to her concerns while she was deployed, ended up paying out of his own pocket for their medical care.

Another parent told Gates of a similar problem when her child left home for college in New England, which is covered by a different Tricare system.

"I am going to be asking about ... what kind of changes we need to make in Tricare to make it more convenient for these families that are so much on the move," Gates said. "My view is that it ought to be seamless and automatic, but it isn't ? or at least they don't think it is. And my suspicion is they are right. So I think we have got to work on that."

Gates called sessions like today's at Fort Belvoir "incredibly valuable" in helping him get troops' perspectives straight from the source.

"I find out a lot of things I am not going to hear in briefing rooms in the Pentagon," he said. "And it is enormously valuable to me in that respect."

If there's one message Gates said he wants the families to take away from his visit, it's that "we care." Bustamante said she heard it, loud and clear.

"My heart was pounding," she said on hearing Gates promise to look into the issues she raised. "There is a voice -- somebody out there actually cares."

Army Col. Jerry Blixt, Fort Belvoir installation commander, said Gates' visit will have a ripple effect among his soldiers and their families.

"I hope they go back to their communities and let other people know that they had an opportunity to voice their issues, and that the secretary was there, wanting to hear their concerns," he said.

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