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

Jennifer Barnhill

Branch: Navy

Duty Station: Naval Postgraduate School Monterey

Number of Deployments: 7

Number of PCS's: 7

Share your military spouse story:
My name is Jennifer Barnhill and I have been a salty Navy spouse for 15 years. I met my now-husband in 2004 while I was working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I had my eyes on getting a Ph.D. in Art History and had a full scholarship lined up. But my best-laid plans were derailed by his dress whites. I did a highly unfeminist thing, choosing to find my relevance in this world by following my heart, not my career. What I did not fully comprehend was my marriage to the military and how hard it was for me to find my relevance within this institution. Early on in my life as a military spouse, the military was relevant to me in that it took my husband far away. It was a lifestyle that asked that I put my career on hold, leaving my family, friends and job to follow my new husband around the world, moving from Pensacola, San Diego, Japan, Fallon NV, back to Japan, back to San Diego, and now today to Monterey Ca. The military did not seem to care about me or who I was as an individual because they hadn’t “issued me” to my husband. That all changed for me when I joined my first spouse club on my husband’s very first deployment while living in Atsugi Japan. We celebrated holidays and anniversaries together during deployments, we made ourselves available no matter the time of day. We were “framily”. So, when one day one member of my “military framily” revealed a devastating diagnosis, my heart sank. Our spouse group, however well-intentioned, was not set up to support this type of situation. We were barely able to schedule fun social events and only did so if our calendars (and the stars) aligned. Luckily the family already had an established network in the area that supported their needs. But what if they had been new to the area? There was a gap between the support that was needed and the support our military community was prepared to provide. So, I began reporting on military family issues in order to see how I could help close this gap.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
Some people would call my role within the military community leadership, but I'm more likely to just call it showing up. I was first (virtually) introduced to Michelle Norman (2019 Navy MSOY) in my role as a military family reporter. As I learned more about her story, a military spouse juggling military life while her daughter was being sued by her local school district. I had no connection to disability or special education, but was so touched by her simple, yet familiar, desire to protect her child and others like her, that I asked if I could volunteer with her organization Partners in PROMISE. Luckily, she said yes and today I'm the Chief Operating Officer and have learned so much about the EFMP community. To me, leadership is not about managing people, but showing up for people who need the skills only you can offer. That is why I'm a part of NMSN, volunteer with SFI and others. It may not be my fight today, but I'm willing to stand alongside them and help.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
As a Navy spouse, I have been an active part of spouse groups, creating deployment packages, hosting spouse group meetings and the like. But my recent involvement in this community is highlighted in my role as a military family reporter. What started as a passion to "fix what is broken with military spouse groups" has expanded to helping the larger community by telling their stories; stories of Gold Star spouses who feel excluded from the active-duty community, to homeless female veterans not feeling that their needs are being represented, to families dealing with food insecurity. I write stories focused on finding reasonable solutions to fix the "people problems" faced by the military community. I also volunteer with Partners in PROMISE, NMSN, SFI, the League of Wives Memorial Project and others.

Describe how you support your community:
I tell our stories and I am not afraid to ask tough questions of our leaders. Military spouses tell me that they feel as though they are outsiders to both the military and civilian communities. As a reporter and researcher, I believe it is my duty to tell the stories of military families so that the leaders tasked with solving the problems faced by our community can better understand our experiences and initiate positive change. But understanding and change begins with information. In May 2021 I conducted an independent research project dedicated to understanding how military spouse groups actually support military spouses. I found that although social media communities are a primary source for information, only 11% would be willing to ask an online friend for help. I believe that modernizing Military Family Readiness systems is required to help keep the military relevant in the 21st century. https://create.piktochart.com/output/45112575-2021-military-spouse-group-survey-findings

What do you advocate for? Why?
I believe that the military family readiness system needs to be updated to fit the modern military community. Allen and Braun wrote in “TRUST: Implications for the Army Profession,”: “When military norms differ substantially with social norms, the potential for society to lose trust in the military increases.” Just as we can’t rely upon volunteer support structures alone, we can’t rely upon the status quo in an ever-changing world. The military must modernize the way it supports military families, and this means reexamining the Family Readiness System that relies upon unpaid military spouse volunteers.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
I was honored to be asked to present my research at the Military Family Readiness Caucus Summit, hosted by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Stanford Bishop in October 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pIz7Ury2Og (35:45) I have been able to share the data I collected at military spouse leadership trainings, on podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/flight-talk/id1524480961?i=1000521716806) and to military nonprofit organizations. As a writer, my work has been featured in Military.com, MilitryTimes, Military Spouse Magazine, Military Families Magazine, The War Horse, The Independent and others. I am in the middle of writing a book about the experiences of military spouses that I hope will give the civilian community an insight into our experiences and how the policies that impact us ultimately impact them.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
I would like to help bridge the gap between the military community and civilian community by telling military family stories on a larger scale. Civilian media outlets often look to military issues when there is a problem or if there is a military-related holiday. I would like to see that changed, as I believe inclusive storytelling is central to building community.

Nominations

As an advocate and inspiration to military families, Jennifer Barnhill is a 'must select' as AFI's Military Spouse of the Year. Jennifer serves as the COO of Partners in Promise, a non-profit supporting the educational interests of special needs military children. Her work resulted in the inclusion of provisions in the 2020 NDAA as well as having survey work she spearheaded cited by the White House in the September 2021 "Strengthening America's Military Families" report. Jennifer is also a journalist with content in myriad publications, focusing on issues pertinent to military families (e.g., Are Military Kids the Key to Fixing Special Education?). As a result, she is continually asked to speak on behalf of military families having met with congressional leaders on multiple occasions as well as top level military leadership. By her advocacy, inspiration, and leadership she more than deserves this honor. Jen is a mother of three and wife to a grateful military member of 16 years.
- by David Barnhill