“I don’t worry about Michael. I don’t know why,” second lady Karen Pence tells me.
Her son, Michael Pence Jr., is a pilot in the Marine Corps.
It helps, she says, that she has faith in his flying ability — and God.
There is one caveat, though: “He hasn’t been deployed. So that’s going to be harder.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Mrs. Pence have been military parents for three years, but they had long expected their son would opt for a career in the military. Before joining the Marines, Michael Pence, now a captain, studied flight at Purdue University in Indiana while his father was governor.
A love of flying runs in the family. Mrs. Pence’s father was an Air Force pilot and the second lady has her pilot’s license, though it’s not current.
“I don’t have the money … or time,” she laughs. “It’s very expensive!”
Mrs. Pence learned to fly in college but only took her kids up once, she says, deciding it was too dangerous of a hobby once she had a family.
Having a familiarity with aviation when your son is an aviator “helps a lot,” she says.
“When [Michael] takes the VP up in a plane, his dad is like ‘OK, OK, I’m ready, OK let’s go down.’” Mrs. Pence tells me, playfully. “And I’m like ‘this is great! I’m having a ball!’”
Mrs. Pence says Michael has even been candid with her about some of the scarier moments he’s had flying, including one close call while he was in college. Before beginning a descent to land he did a visual check beneath his Cessna. There was another aircraft directly below him.
“He’s very, very cautious. He’s had times where this little light was blinking and so he just didn’t take off. Maybe it was nothing, but maybe it was something,” Mrs. Pence says. “And maybe being married helps him in being more cautious.”
Michael met his wife, Sarah, in a political science course at Purdue and the couple married in late December 2016.
“She … holds him accountable,” Mrs. Pence says, smiling.
“I learned about being a spouse from my daughter-in-law. She insists that [Michael] has his responsibilities in the house and she has hers. And I tend to say, ‘Oh, you know, the vice president is really busy, I’ll do this for him,’ and — really — it’s better if you don’t.”
The challenges of being a military spouse
As Mrs. Pence considered a cause she could champion as second lady, she also found inspiration from Sarah, who she says has embraced the role of military spouse and helped open her eyes to the challenges faced by the men and women married to service members.
“I think people don’t understand the sacrifice the spouse makes. They really don’t. Usually it hits home when I say, ‘what if you had to move in two years? And then you had to move in two more years … packing everything up, finding another house, finding a school?’”
With so many moves, finding a new job is one of the most challenging aspects of being married to the military.
On average, military spouses are significantly more educated than their civilian counterparts, but much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed.
The unemployment rate for military spouses in 2017 was a staggering 24%, according to the most recent statistics from the Defense Department’s Office of People Analytics.
A US Chamber of Commerce survey conducted the same year found that half of the almost 32% of military spouses working part time said they wanted to work full time.
Those statistics tracked with the concerns that military spouses living around the world raised with the second lady and her staff. She visited with military wives and husbands at several military installations around the country, as well as Yokota Air Base and the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan.
“We’d sit in a room with about 20 spouses and I would tell them, pick one thing that maybe I can help fix,” Mrs. Pence says. “The one that rose the surface the most was employment and licensing.”
From nurses to cosmetologists to veterinarians to attorneys, one-third of military spouses who have civilian jobs need a government license for their profession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
States oversee most professional licensing and requirements and application fees often vary from state to state.
With every move, a military spouse may need a new license. For an aesthetician that might mean additional education or passing new cosmetology board exams. For a lawyer, it likely means taking the bar in a new state.
These grueling and time-consuming processes eat up a considerable amount of time in a two- to three-year assignment. Coupled with the reticence of many employers to hire someone who will be on the move again in a couple years, military spouses are often forced to abandon the profession or field in which they are trained to work.
Some states have reciprocity policies, but many do not. Some waive licensing fees or expedite licensing for military spouses but frequently, a recent study in Minnesota found, licensing boards are unaware of the policies in place to help military spouses.
As one of the highest profile military family members in the country, Mrs. Pence is trying to raise awareness of these issues so states and businesses can tackle the problem.
“If [military spouses] reach a point where they say, ‘I tried in the last three posts to get a position in my field. It’s my turn now. You need to retire the next time you can and I’m going to go work for a while.’ Then there goes all our military members.”
When the Pences had governors and their spouses to the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory earlier this year, Mrs. Pence took advantage of the captive audience, discussing individual state licensing issues with many of the governors.
Last week, she was on Capitol Hill supporting the Portable Certification of Spouses Act, unveiled by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The PCS bill, a play on the military acronym for moving, “Permanent Change of Station,” aims to make the transition of finding a new job easier for military spouses.
This week, the second lady is meeting with dozens of businesses to discuss the actions they can take to address the high unemployment rate of military spouses.
“Our military readiness is dependent on these spouses being happy as military spouses,” she said.
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CNN’s Veronica Bautista contributed to this report.