The White House may be putting a huge spotlight on military families this year, but at the Defense Department, a panel of senior leaders required by law to meet and discuss family issues is having trouble even getting a quorum.
Under the law that established the Family Readiness Council in 2008, it is required to meet at least twice a year. The last meeting was in December 2010, the only one held that calendar year.
At that meeting, the council voted to switch its working schedule from calendar year to fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. That made last December's meeting still the only one held in fiscal 2011.
Several subsequent meetings were scheduled, but were later canceled. Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Monica Matoush said the council could not have a second meeting in fiscal 2011 for lack of a quorum "due to high turnover among members and competing priorities for the members' schedules."
The council is made up of the services' vice chiefs of staff and senior enlisted advisers, officials from each reserve component and representatives of three advocacy groups the National Military Family Association, Armed Services YMCA and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and chaired by Cliff Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Responding to a request for comment from Stanley, Matoush said the council is only one of many ways military family issues are addressed by DoD. "The problems associated with establishing a quorum cannot be attributed to any one member or service being consistently unavailable," she said. "This does not diminish in any way the commitment on the part of the services."
At a time when budget-cutting fever in Washington is putting every program under scrutiny, the council should be meeting now to discuss what's important for families and sending input up the chain of command, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of National Military Family Association.
"Where else in the Pentagon are they going to have this discussion?" Raezer said. "We still believe a congressionally mandated council focusing on families is a good thing, but it has to be a priority."
The main problem is getting the military council members to free up their calendars to come to the meeting, she said. In part, she said, that may not be happening because the council is not tackling its primary mission.
"Everyone has a million things to do," Raezer said. "If all [the council is] doing is validating staff work at these meetings, a senior leader is not going to make this a priority."
"This is a high-level group. If you can get this group to agree on things, it's a strong message. For us, the big dynamic is getting senior leaders to the table and engaging them in decision-making and actions."
Senior leaders on the council have indicated they want it to have more of an impact. At the Dec. 14 meeting, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said that in setting priorities, the council should "come forth with something with meaning. … Everything else is a finger in the dike."
He said the overall issue for families is more time at home for their service members, and said the council could make a significant statement by bringing that issue before Congress.
At other meetings, military leaders on the council have expressed a desire to compare family programs among the services and share lessons learned and best practices.
Congress created the council out of concern that many family support programs appear to run ad hoc and independently. Lawmakers wanted to foster a coordinated approach across all services and improve Pentagon oversight.
The council's meetings in 2008 and 2009 focused mainly on finalizing a charter and bylaws, Matoush said.
The council did make recommendations to DoD in 2009; many of them call on defense officials to review existing policies and procedures on various programs.
One recommendation reads: "Review reintegration programs in light of today's operational tempo and dwell time realities."
At the December 2010 meeting, the council identified priority areas to focus on. In addition to the dwell-time issue, they include spouse employment, child care, education, health care, communication, the Exceptional Family Member Program, and the disability evaluation system.
The council agreed to form subcommittees to address some of the issues, but that has not happened.
Matoush said council meetings are scheduled for November and December.