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Higher Pay, Better Housing Proposed for Fiscal 1997

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 7, 1996 – Forty years ago, a recruit named Bill Perry lived in a World War II wood barracks. Today, some troops still live in the antiquated, hastily constructed, wartime housing.

But Perry, now secretary of defense, intends to change that. He considers replacing these barracks, and doing it quickly, an urgent DoD priority.

"When I took basic training many years ago, I lived in one of the old World War II wood barracks," Perry said. "I thought nothing of it at the time, but you could not imagine a person making a career in the Army living in those barracks. Yet that's what some of our soldiers are still being asked to do."

Keeping trained service members in the military hinges on their quality of life, Perry said during an exclusive interview. Improving military housing is one of several quality of life initiatives included in DoD's fiscal 1997 budget proposal.

Perry said service members frequently talk to him about what he calls the bread and butter issues of compensation, housing and health care. As a result, this is where DoD is focusing its quality of life initiatives.

The budget proposal includes a 3 percent military pay raise for fiscal 1997 and the maximum raise allowed by law for fiscal years 1998 to 2001.

"People feel misused and mistreated if they don't get even the maximum legal pay raise they're allowed to get by law," Perry said. "I felt it was very important not only to get that on a yeartoyear basis, but to commit to fully funding this pay raise over all the years of the Future Years Defense Program [fiscal 1998 to 2001]."

By law, military pay raises are linked to federal civilian employee pay increases. The Federal Compensation Act ensures civilian employees get an acrosstheboard pay raise each year based on the Employment Cost Index minus .5 percent.

The Employment Cost Index is a measure of wage increases in the private sector. For fiscal 1997, the index came in at 2.8 percent minus .5 percent, civilian federal employees will get a 2.3 percent boost.

For fiscal 1997, however, DoD is requesting the higher rate for service members.

Improving military housing is the next quality of life priority, Perry said. The Future Years Defense Program calls for building or modernizing about 48,900 living spaces in 208 barracks by the end of fiscal 2001.

DoD proposes to build or refurbish about 2,300 family housing units and 13 support facilities. Another 4,100 family housing units will be improved. Five fitness centers will be built or modernized.

The need to accelerate housing improvements was dramatically demonstrated, Perry said, during visits to U.S. bases. The defense secretary has toured barracks with corroded underbellies and cramped, antiquated family housing.

"Our infrastructure is becoming obsolete," he said. "It's wearing out, and it's very expensive to replace. This is a serious problem, one that needs attention at the highest levels of the Defense Department."

Perry has also toured newly constructed and freshly renovated barracks and new family housing projects.

"When I go to bases, I'm pleased they show me the best and the worst," Perry said. "They're neither trying to make a good impression on me nor are they trying to do a sales job. They simply show me what is there.

"We've seen quite a few barracks ranging from really terrible to the more modern units we're building now, which are an amazing improvement," he said.

Perry said he's been surprised to see old, antiquated, cramped family housing on one block and modern, efficient, roomy housing on the next.

"It's just luck of the draw whether families get the old ones or the new ones," he said. "Our military families have been patient with that, but it must be galling to a family to be living in old, cramped housing, and right across the street, there's a family living in a new and much more modern unit."

The quality of life task force chaired by former Army Secretary John O. Marsh emphasized developing new ways of producing military housing, Perry said. In addition to funds for new barracks and new family housing, the fiscal 1997 budget allocates $20 million for private venture projects that will bring in additional capital. The services will run these pilot programs.

"These bring in a new resource to draw on," Perry said. "Therefore, we are able to do more quickly, rather than having to wait for the military construction funds to come along each year. We also believe it will enable us to do it more efficiently and thereby get the same quality house at a lower cost or a higher quality house at the same cost."

Maintaining service members' quality of life requires eternal vigilance, Perry said. While new initiatives to improve military life need support, established programs such as health care and retirement benefits need protection, he said.

Among the programs that concern Perry are:

- Child care.

The child care systems DoD has are good, the secretary said. There just aren't enough of them.

- Health care.

Providing better health care is the goal of the new managed health care system, he said. "We have to pay a lot of attention to make sure that it is achieving the benefits which we thought it would."

- Military retirement.

Each year, Perry said, someone attempts to reduce the military retirement system benefits. "We have to be continually vigilant to protect the retirement system," he said. "There is an issue of equity and fairness. Active duty [personnel] think about retirement. They want to believe they're being treated properly."

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