Editor's note: After this "CBS Mornings" investigation, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth announced on Oct. 10 that "we now have plans to build a new child development center (CDC) at Camp Bull Simons in FY 25 for our 7th Special Forces group families."
The United States Army 7th Special Forces Group takes on some of the most challenging missions overseas. But for more than a decade, these families say they have struggled with a major challenge close to home—finding safe and accessible child care.
Based in the Florida panhandle, Colonel Kevin Trujillo, who leads the 7th Group told CBS News that 60% of his soldiers live in Crestview, where real estate and rents are cheaper. The soldiers train at Camp Bull Simons which is 20 miles south of Crestview. Unlike most army bases that have child care on-site, the 7th Special Forces Group designated child development center is another 20 miles away from their training camp at Eglin Air Force Base.
"The number one issue when I talk to service members and their family is child care," Trujillo told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge who led the four month investigation. "It's just not a viable option to drive over an hour a day for childcare, and then to repeat that process going home.
Chelsea, who asked us not to use her last name for security reasons, drove us around Crestview describing deep frustration at the hours long commute for child care.
"Wasted time. Minutes in the day that could be spent actually living your life," Chelsea said.
Both in Special Forces at the time, Chelsea, and her husband juggled up to three hours of commuting each day for child care.
With heavy traffic on Route 85 and bottlenecks at the base gates, Chelsea was always running late, which she said made her feel like she was letting a lot of people down.
"You feel like, am I failing my guys at that point as a squad leader? Am I causing them hardship while trying to take care of my family as well? Because they're both your family. They're just different families," she said.
Molly Toobin faced other child care challenges with her daughter Olivia, as a civilian married to a Special Forces commander.
"When we moved here in May of last year, she was on 17 wait lists when we moved into our house here," Toobin said. "Seventeen waitlists. I received an email saying, 'We have an alternative care option for you.' And I checked it, and it's an hour and 10 minutes from my house."
Now as a family advocate, Toobin shares the community's concerns with base commanders. Toobin told CBS there are "countless" Special forces soldiers like Chelsea out there.
According to Defense Department data, more than 11,000 children are waiting for military-provided child care.
The 7th Special Forces Group told CBS News that it has approximately 400 children waiting.
Dr. Tracy Beegan is a captain in the United States Army and is the unit's psychologist. Beegan said that not having quality child care can have lasting effects.
"We see that children that don't have access to quality child care and educational opportunities, they have a lifetime of difficulties to include depression, anxiety, learning, disabilities, attachment issues," she said.
Beegan emphasized lack of childcare and lost income, for the parent staying home, are stressors that impact readiness and morale.
"I've seen this probably 20 to 30 percent of my patients have had spouses that have gone back home specifically because of child care issues and difficulty with finances related to not being able to work and have that second income…It's really a bigger problem across the DoD. And I think it's very much magnified here at Camp Bull Simons," Beegan said.
The Air Force provides the 7th Special Forces Group child care because Camp Bull Simons is within Eglin's boundaries. According to the Air Force, it has not built a facility on the Army base for safety reasons because it falls within a testing range.
But internal military records reviewed by CBS News suggest the Air Force has already made changes to "remove all risk" from the area.
"How can it be a safety issue when you've got, a shop at a gas station, you've got a Subway right here and a church," Herridge asked.
"Those are the tough questions that family members ask me," Trujillo said, adding they have a site earmarked for temporary trailers next to the base Chapel if approvals come through.
Trujilo said not having child care can impact the overall readiness of a soldier and the special forces mission.
"Yeah, so their mind is not focused on the mission. And they're not operating at an optimal level. If they're worried about concerns, whether it's family or finances," he said.
In 2015, Chelsea hit her breaking point and left the Special Forces to care for their two boys.
"Was it hard to step away from your military career?" Herridge asked.
"Very. I miss it a lot. The group motto is 'The Family Business.' They have 'La Familia' on everything. And yet the family is being left behind. There's a disconnect in what we're putting out and portraying and what's happening in as far as child care is concerned," Chelsea said.
In a statement to CBS News, the Army and Air Force secretaries said they have been working together over the summer to identify short-term options and a long-term fix. They have agreed on a final location for a new child development center. The families told CBS News it should be on their base, like the other services. Specifics on location and how many years it will take are expected later this month.
You can read the full statement from Secretary Wormuth and Secretary Kendall here:
"Over the summer, the Secretaries of the Army and the Air Force and their staffs have worked closely on near- and long-term solutions to address the childcare needs of Soldiers and Airmen in the area north of Eglin.
In the near term, the two services developed the following collaborative action plans to expand the available network of childcare: first, to hire a child and youth outreach specialist dedicated to the 7th SFG to improve communication and coordination for childcare services including making fee-assistance subsidies readily available to eligible families for off-base childcare facilities; to explore commercial childcare provider options for additional child care facilities in the Crestview and Navarre area in the next year, and finally, to implement the DoD pilot to increase eligible in-home child care providers.
Secretary Wormuth and Secretary Kendall have agreed to a final location for the construction of a new military Child Development Center to support the families in the Crestview area that will be announced later this month and built in the coming years. In the lead up to construction of this CDC, both services will continue to review the needs of families to ensure there is sufficient childcare capacity."
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