Special Forces soldiers in NW Florida still awaiting child care center

by Vern Evans

The much-debated location of a military child development center serving Special Forces families in northwest Florida is still under discussion, an Air Force official told lawmakers — nearly two years after a solution was announced.

Lawmakers are pushing the Air Force and Army to find a solution for Army families in the 7th Special Forces Group at Camp “Bull” Simons and other Navy and Air Force families in the area who have struggled to find child care in the Florida Panhandle. The shortage has pushed some families to drive nearly an hour each way to the closest military child development center — if space is even available there.

“It is incredibly frustrating that a solution for the families that need the [child development center] at Camp Bull Simons continues to be delayed, and that families still don’t have access to a CDC that is within a reasonable commute,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s military construction panel, during an April 17 hearing.

“Being expected to drive over an hour each way to drop off your child or pick them up at a child development center is not an acceptable solution,” she said.

Plans to build a CDC in fiscal year 2025 have been pushed to FY26, Wasserman Schultz said, “as it’s not executable in 2025.”

Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, energy and environment, said Army and Air Force officials are nearing an agreement “in the coming weeks” on where a permanent CDC should go.

“Bull” Simons is an Army camp but is technically part of Eglin Air Force Base. As part of base realignment and closures in 2005, the camp was carved out of a remote area of an Eglin bombing range that the Air Force uses for weapons testing. Though about 2,600 military and civilian workers live and work there, the camp has few amenities: barracks, a chapel, a medical clinic and an Army and Air Force Exchange shopette, but no child development center, family housing or commissary.

That lack of local child care has proven a major complication for the 7th Special Forces Group, one of the Army’s most elite units that handles counter-drug, counterinsurgency, foreign military training and other covert missions across Central and South America and the Caribbean. Its soldiers were also heavily deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the war on terror.

Army officials and 7th SFG families want the child development center on the camp near the chapel, where it would be convenient for soldiers. But Air Force officials have said they are concerned about the children’s safety because the camp is adjacent to Eglin’s active bombing range.

Chaudhary told Wasserman Schultz at the hearing that while the Air Force will consider building a child care center inside the perimeter of Camp “Bull” Simons, “my general sense is that the risk calculation is not favorable.”

“I don’t want to get ahead of our Army secretary and Air Force secretary, because it’s their decision to make,” Chaudhary said. But “the feedback that we’ve received from the test community [is] … that it wouldn’t be an option.”

“We want to make sure we do two things,” he continued. “We want to ensure the safety of our members who are at a CDC, and at the same time accommodate them as expeditiously as possible.”

Many thought the issue had already been decided.

In October 2022, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth announced the service had plans to begin building a new CDC at the camp in FY25. But that work has stalled as the Army and Air Force struggle to hash out the details.

Despite concerns in the Air Force that putting a child care center near a bombing range would be dangerous, Army Special Operations Command officials have said they are confident in the camp’s safety protocols. They argue that adding a new CDC wouldn’t increase that risk.

Wasserman Schultz said she is concerned that the Air Force and Army aren’t properly communicating with local families. Chaudhary said the Army has asked to relay the plan to families once the military services come to an agreement on the path forward.

“The rumors surrounding the CDC are too hard to track,” said Stu Bradin, president and CEO of the Global Special Operations Forces Foundation, who has advocated for Camp “Bull” Simons families. “The optimum solution is to have the facility on an existing military installation where parents work and that is secure. Camp ‘Bull’ Simons would be the best course of action.”

The foundation recommends that a child development center be built to accommodate 500 children; at last count, there were 436 children in the 7th Special Forces Group who were age 4 or younger. The figure doesn’t include children of troops in other units in the area.

Interim solutions

Child care has been a struggle for 7th Special Forces Group families since the organization moved from then-Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2011 to create Camp “Bull” Simons. Their situation illustrates just one example of the difficulties military families around the world often have in finding affordable and safe child care.

Crestview, Florida, where the majority of the group’s families live, is about 20 minutes northeast of “Bull” Simons — which people must pass on the 45-minute-plus drive to reach child care at Eglin. Options in the civilian community are scarce as well.

While studying a permanent solution for child care in the region, Chaudhary said, officials have added spaces for 59 children in family-run day cares, and are renovating one of the child development centers at Eglin. Chaudhary said there are CDC slots available for the “Bull” Simons families at Eglin who want to make the drive.

As another interim solution, the Air Force is renovating a facility to be used for child care in Crestview that’s closer to where more than half of “Bull” Simons families live.

The military is also considering building a new child care facility in Crestview, Chaudhary said. But families like the security that comes with a CDC being on base. Besides security, there are other concerns related to the military lifestyle, Bradin said.

“If they go for the permanent solution in Crestview, it would have to be at the DOD standards,” Bradin said. “The special operations forces at ‘Bull’ Simons and Hurlburt Field are all deployable, and that means the CDCs can have extended hours, should there be a crisis.”

A secure facility in Crestview that can accommodate deployments would be the second-best option, he added.

“What we can’t have is the government investment in a facility that is not secure,” Bradin said. “They have high standards for a reason.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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