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Touched by a Pilot

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 28, 1998 – Although they hadnt previously met, an Air Force captain here and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen share the same concern: Both agree the military must change its ways to keep quality people.

When Cohen called here in mid-October, the captain, a veteran combat pilot, had things on his mind he wanted the secretary to hear.

"I very much enjoy being in the military, but I'm finding it harder and harder to justify staying in," the captain said. "In my last unit, only two out of 30 pilots -- captains and majors with 12 to 15 years of service -- stayed in the Air Force."

Why are they leaving? Is it the lure of higher civilian pay? No, it's not a matter of money, the captain replied. For most, he said, the rumblings are over how they spend their time.

Pilots and other highly skilled service members are getting out, he said, because they're being deployed repeatedly to places like Bosnia, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They're away from their families up to 180 days a year, in some cases even longer.

And the aviators say they are tired of spending too many hours burning gas, flying "holes in the sky." The increase in contingency missions has decreased training time, the captain said, and pilots' skills decline when they fly endless, monotonous sorties over Iraq.

No-fly zone missions no more prepare pilots for combat than driving to work qualifies them to race the Indy 500, he said.

Another problem affecting aviators is a shortage of spare parts, he said. Aircraft assigned to these contingency missions are kept in top form while others are cannibalized for parts and left to do without.

All in all, the captain said, he believed most pilots don't want to leave. They truly love their aircraft and the military, he said, but not the high operations tempo, prolonged family separations and lack of training time.

The captain's observations came as no surprise to Cohen, who's heard the same and others in numerous meetings with troop audiences in recent months. He addressed these common concerns when he spoke to service members at Eskan Village here and at other stops during his visit to the region.

The secretary told troops in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that the president, Congress and military leaders are aware of service members' concerns about pay, retirement benefits, spare parts, operations tempo and readiness. As a result, he said, the administration is adding more money to the 1999 budget and is looking at ways to improve service members' quality of life.

The Air Force, in particular, Cohen said, is trying to deal with operations tempo by setting up 10 air expeditionary forces. Each self-sustaining, permanent force will have about 175 total aircraft and be capable of performing a variety of missions. At least two forces will be on call at any time, but each will serve only one 90-day on-call rotation every 15 months. Members will always know well in advance when they're slated to deploy.

"We've got to have better control over how many times we keep asking you to deploy," Cohen told the gathered soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. "We understand it's creating a real serious problem, especially in what we call 'high-demand, low- density' specialties."

At an earlier stop, Cohen told service members that less money in the defense coffers has resulted in high operations tempo and reduced readiness. "We have a smaller force [that] we're deploying more and more," he said. "So we're overworking that force -- we're straining that force. We've got to make some adjustments."

The new thrust is to ensure service members are deployed only when necessary, and that government leaders "resist the temptation to be engaged in every single crisis that emerges," Cohen said. "We can't afford to be in every single engagement.

"We try to be very selective on where we become engaged because of the pressure it puts upon a smaller force," he said. "We are conscious of the fact that we are demanding more and more of fewer people. It's having the impact of driving people out [of the military]. We try to exercise as much caution and prudence as we can."

At every stop during his Gulf journey, Cohen said the nation is aware of the missed birthdays, anniversaries and holidays that are part of military life. If service members' families aren't happy, service members won't be happy and they'll leave, Cohen said. It's as simple as that, and that simply won't do, he said.

"We can have the best equipment in the world, and we do, but if we don't have you to operate it, it really doesn't count for very much," Cohen concluded.

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