Shelly Snell is a registered nurse. She’s been married to Navy Commander Ben Snell for 16 years. They have two boys. And as a Navy family, the Snells have moved nine times.
It’s a fact of life for military spouses — when the country calls, they step up to answer. When their loved ones are sent overseas for months on end, they’re holding everything together back home. When the PTA, the parish council, the Little League or the Girl Scouts need a volunteer, they’re the first ones to raise their hands. And when they’re asked to pack up their family and begin a new life in a new hometown, they’re proud to do it.
But for so many military spouses like Shelly, each move to a new state also means a return to a familiar headache: renewing a professional license. Shelly has renewed her license as a nurse seven times — and she’s not alone. More than 100,000 military spouses throughout America serve in a profession that requires a license or certification to work; that’s more than one-third of military spouses in the labor force. So for teachers, nurses, real estate agents, accountants, physical therapists and dozens of other kinds of professionals, a move can mean gathering old transcripts, paying new fees, filling out a pile of paperwork, and sometimes even taking entry-level classes — no matter how many years of experience they have.
It’s a process that can take months. And during that time, these military spouses can’t practice their profession, even though there are jobs open in their new communities and companies desperate to hire them. That means their skills go unused while their families try to get by without the income they need. It means they are unable to advance in the careers they trained for — often for years. And sometimes, the hassle is simply too much, and these spouses choose to quit the careers they love and choose new ones that are more friendly to a military lifestyle. So it’s no wonder that military spouses bring this issue up to me more than any other.
Luckily, this is an eminently solvable problem. Each state has the power to act on behalf of our nation’s military families. We simply need the will to do it. That’s why, in February, Jill Biden and I issued a nationwide call through our Joining Forces initiative, asking all 50 states to pass legislation by 2014 to help make it easier for military spouses to obtain new professional licenses when they move. Since then, the number of states that have enacted measures to solve this problem has grown from 11 to 23.
Governors and legislators in these states have worked together across the aisle, because supporting our military families is something we can all agree on. They’re coming up with solutions that work for their states. They’re helping military spouses get to work while they complete any remaining state-specific requirements. And they’re doing it all without lowering their professional standards one bit — they’re simply finding ways to account for the realities of military life.
So we’ve come a long way. But we’re not finished yet. There are still 27 states that have not yet enacted measures to address this issue. So I want to ask for your help. Talk to leaders in your community. Make your voice heard. Do your part to make this issue a priority.
That’s what it’s going to take to get this done. And make no mistake — we must get this done. We owe it to our troops and military families. They have done so much for all of us. Whenever our country has called, they’ve answered.
So on this issue — and so many others — we can show them how much we appreciate their service and their sacrifice. We can give back in real, meaningful ways. And together, we can serve our men and women in uniform and their families as well as they have served us.
• Obama is first lady of the United States.