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Panetta says educating military children a national security issue

GRAPEVINE -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, leading a contingent of top-level leaders from the Pentagon to Grapevine the next two days, asserted in a speech this morning that educating the children of armed service members is a national security issue.

With 44 percent of the nation's military members called mom or dad, it is critical to attracting and keeping those volunteers by making sure their children receive the best education possible, Panetta said.

"The bottom line is that our military is better able to defend the country when we address the long-term educational needs of their children," Panetta said in one of the opening speeches at a national conference of the Military Child Education Coalition at the Gaylord Texan Hotel and Convention Center.

The Military Child Education Coalition, a non-profit based in Harker Heights outside Fort Hood, was formed in the 1990s to help school teachers, counselors, social workers and other professionals work with the particular challenges of military children. It has also raised those children's profile within the Defense Department and Capitol Hill.

A measure of their success in doing that is not just Panetta's visit this morning but a speech later today by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Thursday, the top officers of the Army, Air Force, Navy and National Guard are scheduled to participate in a roundtable discussion.

Never have so many heavy-hitters spoken at one of the coalition's conferences.

"In my 20 years in Congress, I had hundreds of lobbyists come into my office, but few of them ever lobbied for military kids," said former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, who represented Central Texas in Congress and serves as a coalition board member. "That's exactly what MCEC does. And it shows the great respect they have in the Pentagon that so many of its top leaders have shown up here."

Panetta said the challenges of military children - frequent moves, time away from parents and unequal school systems - are challenging enough in peace time. But the demands of the last decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan have made life tougher for these young people, he said.

"The last decade of war has placed a heavy burden on those who have served, but it has also placed a heavy burden on their children as well," he said. "...These sacrifices, large and small, take a toll on military children over time."