Long before Patricia Barron was sworn in as head of military community and family policy at the Defense Department, she was well aware of persistent challenges for military families.
She’s lived the life. During her husband’s 30-year Army career, they made 14 permanent change of station moves, and she has nursing licenses from seven states.
The most lasting impact was the effect their military experience had on their three children, she said. “I recognize how hard it was for them. It affected my oldest child the most. I am very sensitive to the challenges of PCS moves and starting all over again,” said Barron, in a recent interview with Military Times.
Their most difficult PCS move was a short-notice move from Germany to Washington, D.C. “I had a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old; and a 3-month-old. Both older kids had a mid-school-year move that came at the worst possible time.”
Barron — a long-time military family advocate who has served in many volunteer and paid roles — said the most important experience she brings to the new position is as the spouse of an active duty soldier. Her husband, Mike Barron, retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010. She’s one of the few traditional military spouses who have been appointed to that top DoD family role.
“I’m a normal, regular military spouse,” she said. “I’m one of the community… I came into the job and didn’t have to learn the issues. I know them intimately. I’ve lived them. My daughter is living them.” Her daughter is an Army veteran who served for seven years, and is married to a soldier stationed in Germany.
In this role at the Pentagon, Barron oversees policy for many quality-of-life programs for military families, such as child care and youth programs, spouse employment, Military OneSource, non-medical counseling programs, morale, welfare and recreation programs, commissaries and exchanges, family advocacy programs, casualty and mortuary affairs and others.
While experience as a military spouse is definitely not a requirement for the position, “it definitely has its advantages,” said Kelly Hruska, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. “Patty’s experience as a military spouse, as well as her experience as a long-time advocate for military families, certainly makes her exceptionally qualified to be the [deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy],” Hruska said.
Barron has worked as an advocate for military families at a variety of non-profit organizations. Most recently she was head of the family readiness directorate at the Association of the United States Army, AUSA. She was also director of outreach for military family projects at Zero to Three; and was director of youth initiatives at NMFA, overseeing NMFA’s Operation Purple Camp program.
Bringing in the voices of military families
Barron thrives on her connections with military families, and is continuing to cultivate those connections, because she feels it’s important to understand their perspective. “That’s really what I bring with me,” she said.
Bringing the voice of more military families to the Defense Department is one of her goals. She’s doing that partly through her relationships with many military service organizations because of her prior work.
But there are also a number of military spouse voices already in DoD. There are many military spouses working on the staff of the Military Community and Family Policy office, including some whose service members are on active duty, she said. She’s been impressed by the dedication and hard work of the staff at MC&FP, she said, and their willingness “to help me get to Yes.”
The office can help other parts of DoD include the voice of military families, she said. They’ve already helped officials in some other areas of DoD who have asked for suggestions for a family member to serve on a panel or focus group.
Barron noted a recent commentary in Army Times from an Army spouse urging Barron not to be complacent, and to seek change and address cumbersome processes for families. “I want to make sure that spouses — all spouses, all military families — know that I absolutely do hear them, and there are lots of discussions going on now to simplify processes for families to make their lives a little easier, to leverage technology more, and to leverage databases more,” Barron said.
Another priority is to “explore the art of the possible,” with her department as well as other departments in DoD. “I’m a big picture person. I love big ideas. Sometimes when you come into an organization like the Department of Defense that’s this huge organization, you have the opportunity to kind of impact that organization in a way it hasn’t [been] before, especially someone like me, being ….. a traditional spouse to have this role.”
COVID may have brought the possibility of positive change. “There’s an opportunity now with COVID having changed the way we all work within the department, to reimagine processes. And that’s exciting to me, too,” Barron said.
Another priority is focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I know what it’s like to straddle two cultures and try to fit in where you can,” said Barron, whose family came to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 6 years old. “But it’s more than just race or gender. It’s really about the modern military family. Our modern military family is very diverse,” she said, citing the example of transgender children in the Department of Defense Education Activity school system. “I want to make sure that the voice we use is inclusive of everyone.”
The “art of the possible” may help move the needle on some long-term issues for military families. Those include child care and spouse employment, which are also a focus of first lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces effort.
Here’s what’s going on with some key issues.
The pandemic reinforced the importance of a number of quality-of-life programs for military families, to include child care. Barron praised officials and child care staff members for their ability to quickly pivot in order to be able to provide child care for mission essential people.
Capacity in child development centers has increased to the point that they’re at 75 percent of pre-COVID capacity, she said. “That’s huge and a real testament to the staff.
“They went to work at their own risk and peril because they felt so strongly about taking care of those kids and making sure that service members, men and women, were able to do their jobs,” she said.
Barron said she is “absolutely” exploring ways to expand child care for military families. The lack of affordable, quality child care in some areas has been an issue for decades for military families. “When you talk about child care and spouse employment, you can’t talk about them separately,” Barron said. She also wants to hear from family members about what is helpful to them.
*One initiative is a congressionally-mandated pilot program offering fee assistance for child care that’s provided in the home of the military child.
“That’s very different and very new, and we’re currently working on what that looks like, and how it would be rolled out by the services,” she said. The law requires a five-year pilot program at five locations DoD determines to have the greatest demand for child care. The qualifications for the child care provider will be comparable to qualifications for child care providers in military child development centers or military family child care homes.
”The services are really thinking about what they can do” to expand child care, she said. “We’re also encouraging the services to explore public-private partnerships similar to what the Navy has done,” she said. The Navy has entered into an agreement with the Coronado Unified School District to lease part of an under-used pre-school building near the base for child care for military families.
*Her team is also evaluating the possibility of expanding an ongoing pilot program that has opened up more opportunities for affordable child care for military families in the civilian community. It expands the fee assistance program offered through the Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood program, funded by the services. To date, it’s been conducted in Virginia and Maryland. Child care providers who aren’t accredited are allowed to participate in the fee assistance program, if they’re willing to work with their state’s quality rating improvement system.
This opens up more child care spaces, along with an economic benefit for military parents because their child care cost is reduced. “We’re currently looking at all of the specifics of how that worked, but everything’s pointing to it working really well. There are currently 575 providers in that program, and that’s a lot. We’re looking to expand that to other locations,” Barron said, once they’ve nailed down the details.
Barron understands well the employment challenges of spouses who move frequently from one state to another. She’s a registered nurse, and has nursing licenses from seven states, thanks to military moves; she’s also delved into the issue as an advocate.
“So this issue is not new. What is new, is that in today’s modern military family, the spouse is more apt to want to work than my generation,” she said. She cited the many programs that have been put into place by the services and the Defense Department, long before she arrived. “But why aren’t we moving the needle more? … It’s always so surprising when people say, ‘I didn’t know this existed.’ So obviously we have to look at other ways of communicating. That’s one thing I’m actually asking our folks to explore: What else can we do to get the word out?”
DoD and the services continue their efforts in a variety of areas, such as working with states to ease the professional licensing burden on military spouses.
The office is also conducting a congressionally-mandated review of the Military Spouse Employment Partnership program, to determine whether it’s the right structure, the right employer partners, and whether they’re looking at telework and other areas that aren’t yet identified.
Barron describes her career as “zig-zagging,” a term understood by many military spouses — “all over the place. It wasn’t always in nursing. Whenever a door opened, I went through it, and I just figured out how to make it work for me under my own needs,” she said. “So when the kids were real little, when I was at West Point, I was a tour guide at the military academy because it worked with the kids’ schedules.”
That experience helped her with public speaking and engaging with people. “Everything I did led me to the advocacy world.”
The job that has surprised her, she said, “is being in this role. It’s such an honor.”
Barron is not the first traditional military spouse to be appointed to this position. The first military spouse appointed to that position is believed to be Carolyn Becraft, who served in that position from 1993 to 1998 and is an Army wife and Army veteran.
“It’s not the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Barron said. “But I want to do a really good job, so I’m not the last military spouse to come in as the deputy of Military Community and Family Policy.”