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Members of Congress affected by experience as military spouses

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 07, 2009) -- Two members of Congress who've lived the life of a military spouse say the experience has better helped them understand the military family and helps them connect better with those who serve.

"Since being married to him, I understand the stresses that military families go through," said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, congresswoman from Arizona's 8th district.

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Giffords' husband is Navy Capt. Mark E. Kelly, an astronaut, who currently is assigned at Johnson Space Center, Houston Texas. Kelly works on the space shuttle and has spent nearly 40 days in space -- he's served as pilot on STS-108 in 2001 and STS-121 in 2006, and was Space Shuttle Discovery's commander on STS-124 in 2008. He spends a lot of time training in Texas while Giffords remains in either Washington, D.C. or Arizona.

"We try to see each other if possible twice a month. That's our goal. But it's been more like once every three weeks," she said. "But I am very proud of what he does -- he serves his country with great honor and great distinction."

Giffords serves on the House Armed Services Committee, where she is responsible for helping make decisions that affect the entire Department of Defense. She said her short time as a military spouse -- she and her husband have only been together since 2007 -- has given her better insight to the lives of both military members and their spouses.

"As a woman on the Armed Services Committee and a military spouse, it provides me a unique perspective," she said. "(I'm) able to visit our troops in theater and have a conversation (with them,) not about how the weapons systems are working or not necessarily how the operation is going, but what is happening back at home. How are the kids? How is the spouse doing? "

Giffords said she believes that communities can do more to help military families, on a person-to-person level, in the school systems, and also with the mental health issues for military members and their spouses.

"I feel very strongly that counseling should be made available to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, spouses and family members that are struggling because of maybe post traumatic stress disorder, maybe traumatic brain injury or maybe the stress of just being deployed," she said. "And I am concerned about the divorce rate, about domestic violence rate, and the suicide rate. Those are problems we as a community cannot ignore."

Both Giffords and husband Capt. Mark E. Kelly are serving their country though -- she in the Congress and he in space. She said she's proud of the work he does and proud to serve.

"Both of us are really honored to serve our nation," she said.

Rep. Thomas Rooney, of Florida's 16th district, is also a former military spouse -- though it'd be more appropriate to say he was half of a dual-military household. Both he and his wife, Tara Rooney, began serving in the Army in 2000 as part of the Judge Advocate Corps, after the two attended law school together.

"We got married after law school and decided to join," Rooney said, saying a recruiter had convinced them the opportunities for advancement and exciting cases were greater in the Army than in the civilian world.

The two served first at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was part of the 1st Cavalry Division and she was in III Corps.

"She was probably the most squared-away judge advocate that I ever met," he said. "Very attention-to-detail oriented and she was a great legal assistance attorney."

The two took a second assignment in New York at West Point, where Rooney served as an instructor of law and wife Tara switched to the Reserves. While Rooney was half of a military couple, his interactions with other military families at both his assignments have brought him a perspective that many others don't have.

"Seeing what the spouses had to go through, supporting their spouse whether male or female, watching some of them deploy, and just becoming a support system with the rest of our friends that we either went through basic with or were stationed with -- especially spouses with small children -- it was very hard," Rooney said.

"I think that what spouses go through in the modern era is certainly something I am very comfortable with, which is why I want to be on the subcommittee for personnel. You want people to want to be in the military. You want spouses to be happy -- to be happy their better half served in the military. It should not be an encumbrance at all."

Military spouses, he added are "probably the most unsung hero part of the military."

Rooney said he is working on legislation now that helps military spouses better deal with some of the stresses they face when Soldiers come home -- specifically dealing with PTSD.

"Our bill would make it a lot easier to identify what the needs are of each individual warfighter when they get home," he said. "A large part of it was to assist the spouses who really have to deal with it in a way they probably never anticipated.

"I think the first or second bill I sponsored was directly written because of my concern for military spouses -- with PTSD. I talked to a lot of women who when their husband got home, whatever level of stress they may have had, they were not ready to deal with that. And so I just thought if as a Congress we can make it easier on them by making (more accessible) whatever care the returning warfighter is going to get ... then all the better."

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