Our Guest: Jessica Strong, Director of Applied Research from Blue Star Families. I’ve been an Army Spouse for about 15 years now, and have moved several times. We have 3 kids, and I changed from a professor position to Blue Star Families. I mostly focus on the Military Families Lifestyle Survey, which is our annual survey about family lifestyle issues. 

DoD Updates: The command in Korea has a new policy letter about using commercial travel to return stateside if you have pets, since there are limited spots on the Patriot Express. You have to coordinate that through the travel office. 

The pet fees you pay when moving are not reimbursed expenses, although you can use your DLA (Dislocation Allowance) to help. The SPCA does have a program to assist military families with pet fees, because they don’t want pets to be abandoned or rehomed. So look into that if you need assistance. And remember to secure your pets in a specific room, crate, or off-site boarding location on moving day! No one wants their cat accidentally packed out with the furniture!

What is the purpose of the Blue Star Families annual survey?

It all started with a survey! Blue Star Families is a non-profit that connects military families with the communities where they live. In 2009, they started with a survey to know what the issues were. We have been doing it every year since, and now have almost 11,000 respondents each year from all branches, plus parents, siblings, and other people connected to military life. Perennially, we track issues like relocation, military spouse unemployment, pets, etc, and all the ripple effect of other things affected by those issues. Last year, COVID shifted everything, intensified many issues, and brought up some new ones. We added questions about diversity and discrimination. We want to have a comprehensive place to process all this information.

We use the information to inform people who are making decisions about policies and programs for military families: Congress, the White House, Joining Forces 2.0, local military leadership at the unit command level, nonprofit organizations who direct money to military programs. We want to help those decision-makers address the issues that are most important to military families. 

The results for the 2020 survey were just released. What were the most notable findings?

The perennial issues that we have were all intensified by COVID/ Spouses were already concerned about unemployment and underemployment. Families were already concerned about children’s education from frequent moves, but all of that became a greater challenge. With relocation in particular, we looked at BAH and Housing costs. BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) is supposed to cover 95% of your housing costs in your specific area. Across the US, the rates vary, but the DoD anticipates families will spend $70-158 out of pocket on their housing costs. When you are looking for housing, you must add utilities, trash, etc on top of your rent or mortgage payment. We discovered families are spending a lot out of pocket, especially in high cost of living areas, or places with long commutes or tolls. There are a lot of people moving and looking for houses right now. 

We also asked about pets this year, to determine why people make the housing choices they do. The majority of respondents wanted a safe community, a short distance from base, in a good school district that allows pets.  

Military spouse employment is always a hot topic. What we saw in 2020 during the pandemic was a huge pivot to remote work. Has there been any positive data about remote work?

When COVID first hit, we saw the silver lining that suddenly everyone was doing Zoom, so employers who had been resistant to remote work were more open to it. This upcoming PCS is the first time in 15 years that I haven’t had to leave a job I loved just because we moved! Remote work is definitely a positive thing for spouses.

However, remote work is not fixing everything. Because schools also went virtual, many spouses also had to cut hours or leave jobs to help their children manage remote learning challenges. Each teacher is using different apps and had different expectations, which is difficult to balance with working from home. It is a band-aid, but not a solution. We saw that 41% of spouses were not in the labor force. A large portion of those want to work, but cannot because they are homeschooling or dealing with a virtual schooling situation. 

Unemployment is much higher for those who recently relocated. COVID will impact the long-term financial effects on families and transitioning service members. If you start over every time you move, you will never make career progress and catch up to civilian peers. We know that having an employed spouse is important for the service member’s transition out of the military because it takes some of the stress and financial responsibility off the service member. 

In the past, Relocation and PCS has been the #2 stressor, right behind financial issues. How did COVID change that this year?

A lot of people did not move because of the stop-move order, and those who did had a very stressful move. One thing that was different this year is that we want to know what specifically about relocating is the major stressor. Are you more worried about finding schools and doctors? Or your stuff getting damaged? Or finding work? We asked more details in this 2021 survey that is available now. 

We have talked about ways to reduce relocation stress by moving less often or having more control. But we can’t recommend fixes without more detailed information. 

The newest BSF survey just opened yesterday! Who can fill it out?

We want to make sure that we are getting all the voices of anyone impacted by military service. It isn’t just active duty. It’s National Guard, Reserve, veterans, and family members. We have added a section for parents and grandparents of service members, because they play an important role, especially when it comes to childcare. It is open until June 6, and it is comprehensive to so many topics. This year we are asking questions about personal experiences of discrimination in the military: related to race, gender, religion, or more. We have also added the topic of family building–through traditional and non-traditional methods. So we have added questions about infertility because it impacts families in a unique way. And for the first time ever, we are offering the entire survey in Spanish! It took a lot of effort to have the whole survey translated, but we are excited to hear from a group of people we haven’t heard from before. 

What can families do if they are feeling strained during PCS and relocations?

We have Blue Star Families chapter locations so we are everywhere. There are volunteers engaged in our communities across the US. At 11 chapter locations, we have someone on the ground providing additional ways to interact with the local community and immediately connect when they have relocated, so they can get plugged into a network as soon as possible. We would like to have more chapters open up, but we have to make sure we can sustain them reliably over time. 

How can people donate to Blue Star Families?

My favorite form of contributing is by filling out the survey, but we do have a donate button on our website. There is also a volunteer tab on the website, if you want to get involved that way. And you can be a survey ambassador and tell them more about the survey so they can participate! And if you use Amazon Smile, you can donate through there with your purchases.

Speaking of volunteers, PCSgrades has a volunteer program called Spouse Sponsor which is already active at several bases and is expanding to more. Once the family PCSes, the service member is often gone or immediately back at work, and there is no one to help the spouse get settled or adjusted. That’s where our spouse sponsors come in, to help take the pain out of PCSing.