The Defense Department's commitment to military families and to quality education for military children is a strategic imperative that leaders will maintain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in remarks July 9.
During closing remarks at the Military Child Education Coalition's 15th National Training Seminar, Hagel announced that the department has selected the first round of schools that will receive DOD educational partnership grants for the upcoming school year. A total of nearly $20 million will go to 15 public school districts that serve 23 military installations across the country, he said.
"These grants to school systems from California to Texas to Maryland will bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, as well as foreign language studies," Hagel told an audience of teachers, school liaisons, program directors and other education professionals. "This year's grant selection process is continuing, and we look forward to making more awards in the weeks to come."
The secretary noted that since 2009, the department has awarded 186 of the grants, totaling more than $220 million and reaching more than 750,000 students. DOD has also awarded grants to improve public schools on military installations, Hagel said; 13 schools received grants over the past year, and 17 more are working through the grant process.
The all-volunteer force has helped build a military that is more capable, more resilient and more respected than ever before, Hagel said. To attract and retain that force, he added, "DOD has had to demonstrate that it will always do the right thing for the families, [and] that Americans don't need to choose between serving their country in uniform and being a mom or a dad. As a result, the military became a more family-centered institution."
The secretary noted the military community includes 1.8 million children, who face unique challenges based on their parents' duties. They face the stress of a parent's deployment, often repeatedly, he said, "or the anguish of coping with a parent who never returns from the battlefield. Or one who does return, but is changed in body and mind."
The secretary said that family support "is and will remain" a key part of the all-volunteer force. The fiscal year 2014 defense budget request, he noted, includes $8.9 billion in support programs, including the DOD Education Activity.
Hagel listed several other educational efforts in which department leaders participate, noting, "We ultimately share the same goal as all parents and educators – to teach our children as best we can, and make the world they inherit a better, safer place."
He said part of teaching children involves living out the values they should learn, including honesty.
"So I'm going to be honest with you today about the challenges DOD is facing, particularly when it comes to our new fiscal realities," he said.
The secretary noted that on top of $87 billion in spending cuts over the next decade imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the department faces a further funding reduction of $37 billion by the end of September, and another $52 billion in fiscal 2014. Overall, sequester will cost DOD half a trillion dollars over a decade if it's not stopped, he said.
"Sequester is irresponsible, and terribly damaging, but it is the law of the land as it stands now," he said. "We teach our children to face their problems head-on, and now we must do the same. We cannot run away from sequester. We must deal with it. Anything less would be irresponsible."
Hagel spoke regretfully about furloughs, which began this week as most DOD civilian employees have taken or will take the first of 11 unpaid days off, one per week until late September.
"This was a very, very difficult decision; one that was not made lightly," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was furlough anyone."
Hagel said he approved the furloughs, though reluctantly, because military readiness was already suffering: "Planes aren't flying, ships aren't sailing and soldiers aren't training. You don't always see or hear about some of these changes, but they are happening. Because I could not cut any more into our readiness, in the end I had no choice but to make a tough decision on furloughs."
He warned that while DOD schools have been sheltered as much as possible, and will remain open and accredited, he can't guarantee family programs won't feel some future cuts.
"We will have to make more tough choices in the future," he said. "Perfect solutions do not exist." Although efforts to replace the sequester continue, he said, there is no guarantee they will be successful.
"In my budget meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and DOD senior leadership, I always emphasize that we're going into this challenge together and that we will come out together," the secretary said. " ... I won't choose up between services. We are all one service. We are going through difficult times, which you all recognize and realize, but we will get through those difficult times together."
Adults can learn a lot from military children's resilience, adaptability and courage, he said.
"And so today, I leave you with one request -- that you continue to do what you're doing," he said. " ... Our military children look to all of us. They look to us for guidance and reassurance every day. And supporting them is the most important thing we'll ever do."