Veterans are routinely thanked for their service in November and many other times throughout the year. Most Americans recognize and appreciate all they have sacrificed. But, what of their families, many of whom stood by their side throughout all the challenges of military life and continue to support them as they navigate new challenges of veteran life?
Family members of veterans deserve more comprehensive support and recognition for all they do. The service we thank our veterans for is made possible by their family members’ stability, resilience and sacrifice.
Family members make significant personal sacrifices during their loved ones’ military service in support of their country, including routinely relocating around the world to support the sometimes unclear, potentially dangerous missions of the U.S. armed forces. Military spouses “hold down the fort,” become single parents for the time being, maintain family stability and make ends meet on meager salaries.
It is true that Texas has become home to the largest veteran population in the country and is a leader in supporting veteran families through its Texas Veterans + Family Alliance Grant program, passed into law in 2015 with Senate Bill 55. The program provides grants to organizations across Texas for them to deliver care to veterans and their family members. But more states must follow Texas’ lead and prioritize this type of funding support to veteran family-serving organizations.
To start, we need more recognition of veteran spouse and family member status. Veteran family members continue to serve when their loved ones leave military service, and those who marry veterans after service are an essential support system. They offer veterans daily emotional, social and health care navigation support. Yet, most are unrecognized and unsupported in these roles.
Spouses of veterans are usually referred to as “military spouses,” which does not recognize their change in status after military life, where they face a new set of challenges (and opportunities) that arise when their partners become veterans such as helping navigate access to care, developing their careers, and finding new supportive communities for their families.
Veteran spouses are often the first line of defense in addressing the challenges that veterans face during the “military to civilian transition” — what some have called the deadly gap for veterans due to the high rate of suicide during this time. To fully recognize the new roles that spouses take on after service, we should start referring to them as veteran spouses.
Using language that identifies veteran spouses in their new roles highlights their change in status alongside the veterans and indicates the need for tailored programming to meet their post-service needs.
We also need better support systems that address their specific challenges. The Veterans Health Administration delivers care only to veterans, by law. Yet, during military service the Department of Defense delivers care to service members’ families, recognizing that family health and readiness are essential to service member readiness. When military families become veteran families, their health care needs persist and may require ongoing continuity of care as they build new lives.
Lawmakers should expand the Veterans Health Administration’s mandate to also care for veteran spouses and children. By ensuring family health and wellness, veterans will thrive in a stronger family unit.
Finally, we need to provide more material support to veteran families. Our country has made important strides in recognizing military families, but these efforts focus on words, not deeds. When veterans leave military service, we offer them new supports and programs because their service has earned them lifelong health care for those with meritorious discharge status. But we have not done enough to provide this same safety net to veteran spouses and family members. All of the benefits that veterans receive should extend to veteran spouses and their children.
As we recognize our veterans for their service this Veterans Day, let’s also thank them by improving the care and opportunities we make available to the entire veteran family.
Elisa Borah is a research associate professor and director of the Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness at The University of Texas at Austin.
Hannah O’Brien is the program manager for the Veteran Spouse Network at The University of Texas at Austin.