Military can’t be ready if children aren’t ready

Rear Adm. Eleanor Valentin (retired) is a Puyallup resident and Seattle native.
Rear Adm. Eleanor Valentin (retired) is a Puyallup resident and Seattle native. courtesy photo

The next time you meet a teenager who dreams of sailing or flying around the world as a member of the U.S. military, you might reflect on just how difficult that can be.

In fact, the second annual national Citizen Readiness Index released recently shows 70 percent of young adults here in Washington won’t have that chance because they can’t pass the entrance exam, which tests math and literacy skills, or because they have been in trouble with the law, or are too physically unfit.

The Index is published by Council for a Strong America, which represents five organizations including Mission: Readiness, a bipartisan group of retired admirals and generals working to improve national security. There are more than 700 of us around the nation.

As a member, I see three ways lawmakers can ensure more young people in the next generation develop the educational and physical qualities that will enable them to serve our nation if this is the path they choose.

First, we have to expand access to high-quality early education. That’s because the first five years of a child’s life are the greatest period for brain development — a time when kids are literally wired for success or failure when it comes to developing literacy, math and social-emotional skills.

As Congress prepares to act on appropriations bills, they should ensure enough funding for early-learning programs that include Head Start, Child Care and Development Block Grants, and Preschool Development Grants, which enable states to expand access to preschool.

Second, we have to ensure students have healthy school meals and snacks because many kids consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school. Retired admirals and generals spoke eloquently of the obesity problem when they championed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. In the years since, we’ve seen a tremendous improvement in the nutritional quality of school food. We need to stay the course.

Third, we need to strengthen families by ensuring parents are prepared for the challenges of raising kids. The good news is that there’s tremendous bipartisan support for voluntary home-visiting programs that enable young, inexperienced mothers to receive guidance from trained mentors and nurses who help them understand how to deal with stressful child-rearing situations.

These home visitors also demonstrate ways to make homes safer for children, and promote the value of reading and talking to kids so they’re truly ready-to-learn when they start school.

Research shows participation in these programs can reduce child abuse and neglect and the need for special education while increasing the likelihood children will graduate from high school, succeed in the workforce and not become involved in crime.

The bad news is that the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program that has provided Washington state with $44 million for home visiting is in limbo. So is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance to 50,000 Washington kids whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but cannot afford private insurance.

Ample research shows CHIP is a major factor in keeping families out of poverty and providing mental health services that prevent young people from becoming involved in crime.

At a time of unprecedented political bickering, securing both programs would be a big win for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — and a smart step toward improving our Citizen Readiness in the years to come.

Rear Adm. Eleanor Valentin is a Puyallup resident and Seattle native who held several medical administrative positions for the U.S. Navy before her retirement in 2014.