(c) 2021, The Washington Post · Petula Dvorak · OPINION, OP-ED · Nov 22, 2021 - 5:30 PM
Doctors told him he couldn't lift anything heavier than a pencil after the nine-hour surgery.
So Chief Navy Counselor Grant Khanbalinov lay still, alone in his bed all day, hoping his ostomy bag wouldn't burst while his wife was at work, managing a dental office in Virginia.
"Paid family leave never crossed my mind before that," said Khanbalinov, 31, who is on the front lines of the debate this week urging Congress to act on paid family leave - for civilians.
While the Senate futzes with the $2 trillion-dollar spending bill that the House passed last week, military advocates are hoping the paid family leave requirement tucked into that legislation will help them - and the nation. After all, we're still the only developed country in the world that doesn't make paid family leave mandatory.
Why would military folks care about this?
For someone like Khanbalinov, having primo medical care from the Navy meant squat when his wife couldn't take paid time off to help him.
The four weeks of paid leave that bill proposes would've kept them intact financially while his wife stayed home to care for him.
"I was so well taken care of during my surgery. But then they sent me home, and we realized my wife had no flexibility," he said. "The lights had to stay on, and the children had to keep going to school. So she had to go back to work."
Khanbalinov's medical issues weren't from combat. But his situation is like that of thousands of other service members who were injured while in action and whose families were devastated by what it took to care for them once they returned home.
"An all-volunteer force wasn't constructed with working spouses in mind," said Virginia Del. Dan Helmer 40, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, U.S. Military Academy graduate and veteran of multiple deployments on active duty.
Helmer's not flexing with guns or talking tough about our nation's military might to win over his constituents in a district heavy with military families. Instead, he's focusing on social welfare reforms to help those families out.
"If you want to take care of these people . . . but don't do anything for the spouses, for the dual-income families to help them make it," Helmer, a Democrat from Fairfax County said, it's hard to "consider yourself to be pro-military or pro-veteran."
That's the point these vets are making - holistic support of the military includes some social safety nets that hard-right America sees as squishy, softy socialism. So much for all the talk about love of families and freedom.
Her husband's 22 years in the Air Force would've been much easier on Sue Hoppin if our nation had paid family leave for her in those rough years of deployments and moves.
It was hard to find child care, a new job, the best dentist every time they moved - which is every 18 months, on average, for military families, said Hoppin, 52, of Springfield, Va.
Once her husband retired, Hoppin founded and now runs the National Military Spouse Network to address the hurdles she faced for two decades. No. 1 on her list is shrinking the 22 percent unemployment rate among military spouses. Paid family leave can do it, she said.
If it is passed as part of the bill, every American worker could get four weeks of paid family and medical leave starting in 2024, thanks to $200 billion in federal funding.
"There are a lot of initiatives to get military spouses hired, but we also need to look at how to keep them retained in their jobs," Hoppin said.
Preparing for deployments and returns, caring for sick family members and taking all of that on by themselves kills off those spouses' careers.
Aaron Marquez, 38, was an Army officer when his father's battle with cancer began. The military gave him leave to care for his dad. But once Marquez retired and became a reservist in 2016, he didn't have paid family leave to support taking time off to be with his dad in his final days.
"Thinking back on the sacrifices my family made, the stress, the uncertainty and the fear they and so many other military families felt, paid family and medical leave would have been an immense relief while deployed," said Marquez, who is leading a veterans group in fighting for civilian leave. "This policy could be a real difference-maker in the lives of our men and women who serve."
If you've ever hashtagged #supportthetroops, shook hands at a veterans pancake breakfast or cheered loudly when the wounded warriors raised their hands from a complimentary seat at the ballgame, this one's for you:
Want to say you support our troops? Support their troops at home, too.