Nominations are closed. Come back February 3 to meet the candidates!

Cara-Lee Alford

Branch: Space Force

Duty Station: Buckley Space Force Base

Number of Deployments: 2

Number of PCS's: 8

Share your military spouse story:
I am an Active Duty Military Spouse of 18 years (Air Force & Space Force), accountant, volunteer, mentor in the moment, mom of three and jack of all trades as are so many military spouses. My military story began 20 years ago when I met my husband. He wasn’t scared away by my love of Harry Potter books and other fantasy authors, and that summer he proposed on a bridge over the Riverwalk in San Antonio. We married that year, and two years later joined our Air Force family. Our first assignment was at Cavalier Air Force Station, ND, a very close-knit community. I strive to provide that same support to others as we move. My accounting career was limited as we were never anywhere long enough to license, and most employers don’t want an employee who moves frequently. After we had children, both our sons were diagnosed with autism, one with additional medical needs. I became a stay at home caregiver, de facto medical/behavioral therapist, and online school aide. I also started mentoring and advocating as I try to be for others what I needed and did not have. It is so easy to feel lost and isolated in a new diagnosis, navigating finding care and services for a loved one. Our family has greatly benefited from our military service, and I am so proud of how amazingly strong, happy, adaptable, and resilient our children have grown through it all. They have handled numerous moves, and two years of separation from their father, better than I could imagine. My children and I moved to Arizona in 2020 to be near my family while my husband was assigned to Thule AB, Greenland, where he also transferred to the Space Force. Now that he is stateside, we decided the kids and I will stay in Arizona while he is stationed in Colorado. He is to focus on the mission and the stability of remaining in Arizona is important for our boys and their medical challenges. Although it can be hard, we find ways to be together, like virtual movie nights, and we are closer than ever as a family.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
I learned from the Military Spouse Leadership Development Program that we can lead from wherever we are in life. I mentor in the moment, in doctor or therapy waiting rooms, online support groups, and anywhere in the community, sharing our story and connecting families with resources. I serve on the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Group Women’s Initiative Team (DAFBAWG WIT) Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) Line of Effort. I lead on the Autism Care and EFMP Education efforts where I give guidance and strategy on how to affect change from front-line supervisors to policymakers. I also volunteer with Exceptional Families of the Military(EFM), where I create strategy for advocacy efforts and brief DoD leadership, state representatives and other groups. I love detailed work which led to me drafting the EFM Autism Care Demonstration family survey report, which is important because it gives a voice to military autism families that is being heard by decision makers.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
Getting involved in the military community is so rewarding. I've led planning for a base Halloween party for 32 military and their families, and served as the Key Spouse for the USAF Warfare Center. I earned a Graduate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder to advocate for military children with special needs. I attended the House Armed Services Committee Hearing about the Exceptional Family Member Program in 2020, to support reform and to describe issues important to the special needs community. I participated in a virtual call with Senator Mark Kelly’s staff (AZ) for The National Military Spouse Network to advocate for measures to improve military spouse employment. I wrote an OpEd in April 2021 published on militaryspouse.com describing the need for fair evaluation of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for military children, and graduated from the inaugural Military Spouse Leadership Development Program in 2021 to learn to be a better leader and advocate for military families.

Describe how you support your community:
I want to bring visibility to as many issues as I can to support as many families as I can. I gave an interview with "The Spouses Angle" podcast (Episode 52: "What Life is Like as a Space Force Spouse") in February 2021 to help explain the mission and organization of the Space Force. I am leveraging my experience and knowledge related to Special Education issues, the Exceptional Family Member Program(EFMP), and Autism to provide leadership and support to areas of urgent need. I also initiated and facilitated coordination and cooperation between Exceptional Families of the MIlitary and the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Group Women’s Initiative Team EFMP Line of Effort to address the time sensitive needs of these military families. I will continue to advocate for the diverse issues that affect military spouses and their families. I feel making issues visible and connecting the right people with the right efforts can have a big impact on the quality of life of our service families.

What do you advocate for? Why?
I advocate for military family issues because in many things military families are not given representation in the policies and programs that greatly affect their lives. Spouses seek out or create groups to fill needs instead of being part of the discussion on care for their families at the outset. Military spouses are strong, brilliant, and amazing, and they come up with effective and elegantly simple solutions to problems they and their peers face everyday. They are an asset to any group that they join. Issues affecting the military spouse community have deeper impacts than most realize. For example, I explained to Senator Kelley's staff that military spouse employment is not just about a spouse having a meaningful career and second income. It is the ability to provide for their family if their spouse makes the ultimate sacrifice. Spouses who had to give up their career or struggle to maintain it are suddenly breadwinners and may not have equal ability to provide for their family.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
In addition to word of mouth, I gave an interview with The Spouses Angle podcast as a spouse of the newly formed Space Force. I wrote an Op-ed detailing circumstances unique to military families that are not accounted for in the metrics being used to decide if ABA therapy is effective for military family members. I participated in a virtual call with a Senator’s staff regarding military spouse employment, I am assisting in the creation of a white paper to share with leadership, and I am facilitating a new partnership between advocacy groups. I also played an integral role in EFM's Autism Care Demonstration Family survey by compiling and analyzing the data, writing a 39-page report explaining the results, and creating a word cloud of families' feelings and concerns. These have been used by EFM to raise interest and schedule numerous meetings with State Representatives to discuss the changes and family concerns. I also participate in these meetings to share the needs of fellow families.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
I hope to raise awareness of issues affecting all military families. Their sacrifices are different but just as significant. They are a diverse group with diverse needs and deserve a representative seat at the table on issues, policies and programs that affect their lives. When a program is hurting families, they need a way to make their voices heard. I want to highlight this need for representation, and work with the organizations that can make this a reality. I hope that my selection as AFI Military Spouse of the year would ensure my children's voices and those of fellow spouses and their families, are heard. While my current focus is the urgent needs of EFMP and Autism families, I am enthusiastic about lending my voice to issues affecting all military families. Issues that concern their families affect the service member too. That means performance, mission readiness and retention are all impacted, and all improved if we support military spouses.

Nominations

Selfless, hard working, kind, dedicated, difference maker. These are just a few words used to describe Cara Lee Alford, military spouse extraordinaire. 18 years of military spouse service, three children, countless moves--this could apply to so many of us. But what sets Cara Lee apart is the way she helps, guides and advocates for her fellow spouses and families. As a spouse in our newest service branch, Cara Lee has been featured on The Spouses Angle podcast and helped raise awareness about the USSF. As a mom of an EFMP family, with support from Partners in Promise, she published an OpEd on MilitarySpouse.com in response to the flawed metrics being used to evaluate the effectiveness of ABA as a therapy for military children. In addition to being a full time caretaker, she is working with DAF's Barrier Analysis Working Group WIT AND the Exceptional Families of the Military as a volunteer on their Autism Family Advocacy Committee. Hands down, Cara Lee is MSOY22.
- by Jessica A Norsky