DAF leaders, spouses reflect on changes for military families at AFA panel

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  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Department of the Air Force leaders and their spouses discussed changes and challenges that have impacted military families during a panel at the Air and Space Forces Association’s 2023 Air, Space and Cyber Conference Sept. 13.

Participating panelists included Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. and his wife, Sharene Brown; Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman and his wife, Jennifer Saltzman; Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass and her husband, Rahn Bass; and Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger A. Towberman and his wife, Rachel Rush.

Lt. Gen. Caroline M. Miller, Air Force Manpower, Personnel and Services deputy chief of staff, moderated the discussion and asked panelists to share their perspectives on changes they witnessed over time as military families. She also engaged the leaders and their spouses on their personal experiences in leveraging on and off-base resources to improve their quality of life as military families.

“When it comes to change, today’s military family looks a lot different than it did 30 years ago,” Chief Bass said. “You have more dual-working families, dual military, and single parents.”

Chief Bass also said leaders should continue to support initiatives and programs on military installations that help maintain family connections.

Sharene Brown said she witnessed several positive changes throughout her experience as a military spouse, especially regarding the availability of programs to support service and family members’ mental health, as well as resources to ease transitions for military-connected students and resources to assist Airmen and Guardians enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program.

“The fact that we can talk about this openly and connect to the resources out there is huge,” Sharene Brown said. “From my perspective, what’s now available on and off our installations for our families is overwhelming.”

Some of the resources highlighted included:

  • Cohen Veterans Network: a network of mental health clinics focusing on post-9/11 veterans, active duty servicemembers, and families, to help address transition challenges before they become chronic or acute
  • Joint Service School Liaison Program: education specialists that assist with local school navigation, deployment support, scholarship, and grant resources, and more
  • Exceptional Family Member Program: a Department of Defense program offered to servicemembers who have a family member with an exceptional medical or educational need

Gen. Saltzman noted that Airmen and Guardians are expected to do more with fewer resources as the department evolves.

“It’s a fundamentally different Air Force,” Gen. Saltzman said. “What’s impressive to me is we have shifted from an Air Force of over 500,000 to an Air Force and Space Force that is far less than that.”

Panelists also mentioned another dynamic affecting Airmen and Guardian families, the “deployed in place” concept. An increasing number of active-duty Airmen and Guardians support high-ops-tempo units and missions from home station. These Airmen and Guardians often face the same stressors and grueling hours they would during an overseas deployment, yet they still return home to their families daily.

“Because of what automation and remote capabilities have allowed, we can now create effects worldwide without leaving the safety of our garrisons,” Gen. Saltzman said. “As a leadership team, we have to recognize that this comes with a different set of challenges and stressors. We need to provide ways to mitigate that.”

The speakers on the panel shared strategies like scheduling regular quality time, having open communication, and allowing space to pursue individual interests as personal approaches to maintaining strong connections with their partners amid busy lives and careers.

“You really can’t ‘turn off’ in the positions we have here,” Rahn Bass said. “There will be messages and phone calls. Being realistic about that – present in the moment and deliberate about quality time is important.”

Towberman also shared his perspectives for looking at relationships using a different lens and how to be more connected.

“[It’s] about harmony,” Toberman said. “I think that harmony comes best … in undiluted moments. There’s too much of our life that gets diluted if we are not paying attention, and diluted experiences are hardly experiences at all. I think we try really hard to say ‘this is about us,’ and this is about a real moment.”

Rush spoke about an article she wrote for Military Spouse Magazine titled ‘Your Wild and Precious Life’, in which she spoke specifically to spouses about the importance of taking time to work on themselves, build personal connections, and find purpose beyond being in a relationship with their spouses.

“I think sometimes we [spouses] can lose sight of our life,” Rush said. “When I became a military spouse, I had friendships, I had connections, but I had to work so much harder to keep [them] … I think it’s important to really ground yourself in the life that you have and to make things real and pertinent. You have to do things for yourself because although you have the journey with this person you love so much, it is still this one wild and precious life. You have to do what makes you happy, and we all have to be there to support one another.”

Due to anticipated retirements and promotions, the 2023 AFA conference serves as the final time this group of leaders are expected to be on stage together, and they reflected on their experiences supporting military families across the Air Force and Space Force.

“One reason why I’ve enjoyed [this forum at AFA] is we’re able to show we are real people just like you,” said Gen. Brown. “We’ve got to remember how important [military families] are to what we do, and the sacrifices they make are tremendous.”