Naval Lt. JG Rachel Thomas, 25, didn't take her mother seriously when she warned against attending the US Naval Academy. "She said, 'you're going to meet some guy, fall in love and want to get married'," she recalls. "I laughed because I didn't think that would happen." Of course, things happened exactly as her mother predicted. Three years ago, Rachel married Aaron, a classmate from Annapolis, and the couple has a seven-month-old daughter, Eve.
Rachel and Aaron have been stationed together in Norfolk, VA for two years but have been separated for months at a time with more to come. Aaron has an upcoming deployment that is scheduled to last for seven months. When Eve celebrates her first birthday, Rachel will once again be eligible for deployment.
Dual-military couples like Rachel and Aaron are required to prepare a Family Care Plan (FCP) as are the more than 43 percent of all active service members who are parents to nearly 2 million children. The FCP establishes a policy, assigns responsibilities and prescribes procedures for dependent children when a servicemember is away for drills, annual training, mobilization and deployment.
"We've talked about it a lot but haven't come close to making a decision," says Rachel of creating their own FCP. "His mom works and my parents are really busy. I think we're putting it off because I hate the whole idea of leaving my baby!" The FCP requirement was implemented after the first Gulf War 20 years ago precisely for people like Rachel and Aaron. When active duty military members were deployed for Operation Desert Storm, hundreds of single parents and dual-military couples had no contingency plan for their children. In July 1992, the military barred the enlistment of single parents and made FCPs mandatory for parents of dependent children in all branches of the military.
Among other things, your FCP must name a caregiver and an alternate caregiver, detail the financial and logistical arrangements for the transportation of dependent family members and designate a guardian in the event of your death or incapacity.
Many servicemembers mistakenly believe they can transfer temporary custody of a child to a stepparent or grandparent during a deployment. But state courts have unanimously ruled that when another biological parent is in the picture, his or her custodial rights take precedence. The increase in custodial disputes between biological parents who no longer live together prompted the Department of Defense to modify the two-decade-old policy in May 2010.
Now military parents with custody of children from a previous relationship are also required to file a FCP. Army Col. Shawn Shumake, director of the Pentagon's office of legal policy, noted that although it's helpful, the FCP is not a legally binding custody agreement and should be taken to a court for enforcement.
With only five more months separating Rachel from a possible deployment, she has promised to stop procrastinating about the FCP. "It's a good idea to have one because it's very likely that both of us will be deployed around the same time and we have to make arrangement for our daughter," she says.
- Get tips on finding support for military families