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Troops Applaud Pay, Benefits Proposal

By Linda D.Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, Dec. 28, 1998 – Pay raise? Fifty percent retirement? Service members here say a resounding: Yes! Its a great move. Its a morale boost. Its the right thing to do. They hope Congress approves it.

Service members at remote sites on the Arabian Peninsula and at sea in the Persian Gulf hailed the Pentagons proposed pay and benefits package as a long overdue step in the right direction. They said it proves military leaders are listening and that someone cares.

Thats exactly the message Defense Secretary William S. Cohen hoped to send when traveled to the region in late December. The secretary said he wanted to thank military men and women for Operation Desert Fox, the successful air campaign against Iraq, and personally tell them about the compensation package hed announced a day earlier at the Pentagon.

Troops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and aboard the USS Enterprise cheered when the secretary declared the Pentagon is seeking the biggest pay raise since 1981. The goal is a 4.4 percent pay raise for fiscal 2000 and a 3.9 percent hike per year through fiscal 2005, Cohen said.

The proposed package will also change the redux retirement system. Under the proposal to change redux, service members retiring after 20 years of service will receive 50 percent of base pay rather than the current 40 percent. The redux system affects all service members who joined after Aug. 1, 1986 -- approximately two-thirds of the force.

At Prince Sultan Air Base, Cohen addressed several hundred of the 4,000 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing troops who enforce the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Air Force Capt. Debbie Meserve, of Shaw AFBs 79th F16CJ Fighter Squadron, said that later that night talk around camp focused on the pros and cons of staying in the military.

People who were considering getting out -- airmen finishing up their first term and nine-year guys considering getting out before that 10-year mark -- are now going to wait and see, the Severn, Md., native said. The monetary benefits are definitely getting them thinking. A lot of them are just waiting to see how it works -- the details.

Several F15C Eagle crew members from Eglin AFBs 60th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, said news of the proposed pay raise definitely sends service members a signal.

Thats a big sign to our young folks that the leadership is committed to the military, said Chief Master Sgt. David Gless, squadron maintenance superintendent. Our young folks need that signal from the top level leadership that says they do care about them.

Because of the pay gap, eroded benefits, and particularly, frequent overseas deployments, Gless, a 21-year Air Force veteran from Warren, Ohio, said his biggest concern is retention. Experienced people are walking out the door, he said.

Pointing to an F15C avionics technical sergeant standing nearby, Gless said, Guys like him, you cant replace. He has lots of experience. It takes four years to train avionics specialists, the chief noted, and at that point, you just get somebody where theyre capable of being on their own.

Despite the sacrifices involved, most career service members love their jobs, Gless said. The number one reason why we do the things we do, its not about money, it has to do with pride in performing the mission. Its all about doing things for the American people. Thats what it all boils down to.

But lately, Gless confessed, even he sometimes questions whether its worth the long hours and separations from his wife, Cynthia, 17-year-old son Derek, and 15-year-old daughter, Brandy. This year, squadron members have spent more than seven months away from home on deployments in Turkey, Bahrain and now in Saudi Arabia.

Quite honestly, Gless said, I dont want to leave this job, but theyre going to force me into doing it based on the pace. I want to balance my family with the Air Force. Ive never worried about the money, if that was the case Id have gotten out a long time ago. I love the accomplishment at the end of the day.

Pointing at the sophisticated gray fighter jet to his left, Gless said, Theres nothing better than to take something like that and put it in the air. Thats a kick in the pants.

Staff Sgt. Billy A. Kerr, an F-15C crew chief from Des Arc, Arkansas, with 13 years Air Force service, echoed Gless concerns about the loss of experienced people and frequent deployments. He hopes the pay and benefits proposal will boost morale and retention rates.

This trip over here is my sixth trip to the Middle East since 1994, Kerr noted. All totaled, Ive spent seven months in this part of the world this year, and Im not the only one whos done it. Its very hard on family life and its very hard on personal life in general.

Kerr said hes fortunate that his wife, Katherine, is understanding. My wife has learned to deal with it, he said. Shes not thrilled with it when I leave, but its become an accepted part of our lives. Shes been very helpful and supportive and I praise the Lord for that. But its hard for the wives or husbands who stay behind and take care of all the things their spouse would normally take care of and take care of their children.

The Air Force has changed dramatically since Kerr first enlisted, he said. Then, you went to work each day and came home each night. Now, there are fewer overseas bases, fewer people, and far more overseas deployments.

Still, the NCO said, he plans to continue his military career. To be totally honest with you, I enjoy serving my country. I like getting out there working on aircraft and getting dirty. I dont like the long hours too much, but generally I enjoy what Im doing.

I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, worked as a farm hand as a teenager, Kerr recalled. To come out here to work on airplanes -- its a better job and better benefits than being a farm hand ever was. But, there are down sides to it. I can understand why people want to get out. Its a difficult life and its not for everybody.

Tech. Sgt. Shaun Churilla, an F-15C avionics specialist, assigned to the squadron, is a 12-year Air Force veteran from Pittsburgh. The fact that his wife, Julie, is an Air Force staff sergeant, means she understands the demands of his military duty.

For a long time, I never thought I could be married, Churilla commented, not until I could find someone whod understand me being away from home so much and the long hours that we put in on the aircraft. She understands the mission comes first, but theres a lot of wives who dont.

Pay alone isnt going to take care of the retention rate, Churilla advised. You have to look at the amount of time were gone from home and the opportunities people miss with their children -- their son or daughters first words, their first step. Trying to further your education thats hard to do when youre away from home five or six months a year.

Senior Airmen Jonathan Spencer, an F15C crew chief from Carmel, Ill., has six years service. He hasnt yet decided whether hell stay for 20 years and the proposed changes will be a factor in his decision. This shows that theyre thinking about us, he said.

The main factor affecting his future is a quest for security for himself, his wife Sonja and 2-year-old daughter Alison. I like the security of the Air Force, but on-the-other hand, I can find security elsewhere, too. Plus the deployments - this is my third deployment this year. Im not really getting to see my daughter a lot. Its a hard decision as far as the family is concerned.

Senior Airmen Brad Lapelley, from Laconia, N.H., another six-year veteran, plans on staying in the Air Force and welcomed the talk of more pay. I got out in 92 for about six months. I did the young airmen thing, thought I could do better, but I had a hard time finding good work so I came back in. While I was out, I joined National Guard. I like working on airplanes but it wasn't enough just working on airplanes once a month.

Overall, Lapelley said, the moneys not that bad. There are a lot of jobs where youre not going to get paid as well as this, especially if you dont have a college education. Without that youre not going to find a decent job. The Air Force gives you the training and benefits and youre doing more challenging stuff. If you like to travel, its definitely the career field to go into.

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