DoD's CFO Committed to Best for Troops, Families
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2003 If there were ever any doubts about Dov Zakheim's commitment to taking care of service members and their families, then those doubts were laid to rest during a May 2001 DoD press briefing.
Responding to a reporter's question about military benefits, Zakheim, while repeatedly pounding his fist on the podium, replied, "If we don't treat these people well, if we don't fix the infrastructure they work in, if we don't fix the houses they live in, if we don't provide for their kids' education, if we don't provide for their health, why in God's name should they volunteer to protect you and me?"
For Zakheim, undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and the Defense Department's chief financial officer, it was a commitment then and remains one today, as he incorporates protecting and improving military benefits in his overall transformation of DoD budget practices.
Service members saw substantial examples of this commitment in January this year, when they received a 4.1 percent across-the-board pay raise, with mid- level noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers receiving targeted pay raises between 5.5 and 6.5 percent. The basic housing allowance was increased to reduce out-of-pocket expenses to no more than 7.5 percent. And the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act continued special pays and bonuses for active duty and Reserve forces, and expanded special pays given for high-demand military occupation specialties.
Service members will see similar gains when Jan. 1 rolls around. The 2004 NDAA includes a 3.7 percent across-the-board pay increase, with mid-level NCOs and officers receiving targeted pay raises up to 6.25 percent.
Once again, the basic housing allowance has been increased to reduce out-of- pocket expenses down to 3.5 percent, with a goal of eliminating all out-of- pocket housing expenses by 2005. And the act continues funding hostile-fire or imminent-danger pay at the current level of $225 per month through December 2004, and separation pay at $250 per month for the same period.
Additionally, Reservists and their families will receive expanded access to Tricare, DoD's health care system.
While giving Congress and President Bush some of the credit for improving benefits for service members, Zakheim said the budgetary transformation efforts included not only a commitment to improve benefits, but a commitment to fence off military personnel accounts from what he referred to as "incursions" -- in other words, borrowing from one account to make up for shortfalls in another.
Recognizing the enormous sacrifices asked from service members and their families since 9/11, Zakheim said it was even more important than ever to close the gap between private-sector wages and military pay.
"We're protecting benefits, and we're continuing to put significant dollars into family housing, with a goal of eliminating all inadequate family housing by 2007," he said. "We continue to add money for DoD's education system so that military families can be assured their children are receiving the best education possible.
"We also recognize that just like in the civilian world, whether our military are male or female, it's likely the spouse is working," he continued, "and we want to minimize the difficulties for service members, especially given that they are already sacrificing their all."
While granting that increases in benefits have been a historical trend, Zakheim said he firmly believes transformation efforts in the budget arena in the last few years have helped make the large, regular increases more possible.
"I believe that's the case," he said, "and I believe if you polled military members about benefits, that would be the case. Our retention is up, and our best measure is retention. I think as a result of what we and Congress have done, service members feel they're appreciated by their country and their government. And their families fell appreciated, which is very often the determining factor for whether a service member re-enlists.