Clinton Says Military Life Tough But Essential to Freedom
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 4, 1999 Most people don't know how hard service members work, or how stressful military life is for families, according to the nation's commander in chief.
"I don't think Americans who aren't involved with the military have any idea how rigorous most of the training schedules are and what is involved," President Clinton said in an interview with Janet Langhart Cohen, anchor of "Special Assignment," a new Armed Forces Radio and Television Service program.
Clinton and Langhart Cohen, wife of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, discussed a range of military issues Feb. 25 while en route to Tucson, Ariz., aboard Air Force One. "Special Assignment" will premiere on military TV outlets later this month.
Frequent deployments are especially tough on family members, Clinton said in the interview. People don't realize how quickly service members returning from foreign lands or sea duty have to go back out again, he said, and military duty can be dangerous, disruptive and sometimes even boring.
But overall, Clinton noted, today's service members can take pride in the fact that they are erecting a defense for the 21st century. Rather than opposing a single enemy, they deal with "a hundred little problems, each of which could become a big problem and swallow the world up," he said.
"They are making the world safe for genuine self-determination, for freedom, for free commerce, for free exchange of ideas, in a way that no generation has ever tried to do, or had to do before," he said.
A strong economy and high operations tempo are taking their toll on the military, Clinton told Langhart Cohen. The armed services, particularly the Navy, are encountering increasing difficulty retaining skilled professionals and attracting new recruits.
"With the unemployment rate under 4.5 percent, wages rising at twice the rate of inflation now for the last couple of years -- there are so many compelling opportunities for young people outside the military that it's harder to recruit and retain," the president said.
Clinton aims to improve service members' lot by accelerating quality of life improvements, increasing pay and adjusting the retirement system. He noted that the Defense Department is working to change pay scales to reward people who stay in the military as they reach certain levels of achievement and service.
But, the president pointed out, the military must operate within its budget ceiling. "We have to measure what we need to do for our troops and their families against the absolute imperative of being able to pay for training, which is [becoming] more and more expensive," he said. "The more sophisticated the equipment is, the more expensive it is to train on, which is why we developed so many computer simulation programs."
The president said he'd like to do more for the military's men and women, but the armed forces can't trade off readiness and modernization for quality of life. "If we're going to do more, then we need to work it out with Congress so we're not robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.
Service members would not like it if the administration made it impossible for them to fulfill their missions, Clinton added. "You don't want a bunch of equipment out there that you can't run because you don't have spare parts or you haven't kept upgraded to high safety conditions."
Since the end of the Cold War, "we've been trying to work out how to fairly fulfill our responsibilities to promote peace, freedom and prosperity, consistent with our ability to afford it, and the need for our allies to assume their fair share of responsibility," he said.
Military people are on the "cutting edge of this sea change," Clinton noted. They are part of "a profound historic transformation in the world." The United States is now the dominant military power in the world, and has no dominant military opponent, he remarked.
As evidenced by the U.S. military role in Bosnia, Korea and a prospective role in Kosovo, Clinton said, other nations trust the United States because it has no territorial ambitions; and does not seek to impose its will on other countries. "They really know we're there for peace and security," he said.
Service members should be proud of the role they've played in restoring peace in Bosnia and aiding hurricane victims in Central America, Clinton stressed. He reported receiving letters from troops who questioned why they were being sent to Bosnia and who later said it was the right thing to do after they saw the tragedy there firsthand.
When the U.S. military, the most well-organized institution in our society, goes into a war zone, Clinton said, it represents both order and goodness. When American troops see people's reactions to their arrival, most of them are very proud to be there, he said.
"I never will forget one prominent officer who went to Haiti, who told me, 'When you sent us down there, I just didn't know about that, but I'm glad we gave those people a chance to save their country."
If the United States is called upon to help restore peace in Kosovo, Clinton said, European allies will take the lead. U.S. troops will make up only 14 percent of the NATO-led force. "But it's a critical 14 percent, because it bolsters the confidence in our NATO allies that there really is a European alliance, number one, and, number two, the Kosovar Albanians want us there.
"Most Americans didn't know a thing about Kosovo or Albania until this whole thing started, but these folks knew about America," Clinton said. "They knew about the American military, and they trust them to keep their word and do what they say they're going to do."
Today's service members will have a legacy to be proud of, Clinton said. "Fifty years from now, when they look back, they will see that they didn't bring an end to an era of slaughter the way the World War II generation did, with heroism and great sacrifice, but they did put America's military might to work in building a new world, which is something that I think their children and grandchildren will be very, very proud of."