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Sailors Question Cohen on Quality of Life Issues

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BANGOR, Wash., Feb. 19, 1999 – Sailors and Marines here took advantage of an opportunity to question Defense Secretary William S. Cohen about a number of quality of life issues including housing and medical care. They also asked him about possible military operations in Kosovo and the future of the submarine force in a post-Cold War world.

In response to housing questions, Cohen told the sailors that military housing is one of the biggest quality of life issues facing the department. “We have thousands of quarters below standards and if we did business the traditional way it would take decades to fix." He said this length of time is unacceptable and that Defense officials will speed the effort to build and refurbish housing by teaming up with private companies.

 

 Cohen got a strong murmur of agreement from the sailors when he said DoD’s TRICARE health maintenance organization had growing pains in 1998. “We will continue to work to fix TRICARE,” he said. “We will work to eliminate the long lines and [work to get] doctors paid.”

 

 One master chief petty officer asked Cohen about proposals to make the GI Bill more generous. Cohen said the GI Bill is one of the best recruiting tools for the military and he would like to see it expanded. “But it's not the only recruiting tool we can use,” he said. “We are increasing the full range of special pays to attract and keep the people we need.”

 

 On the operational side Cohen was queried about the future of the submarine force. One sailor said he was concerned about news reports saying submarines were no longer needed for deterrence in a post-Cold War world. Cohen said the United States cannot afford to retire one leg of the strategic triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, manned bombers and missile launching submarines. “We must maintain that balance of sea, land and air assets,” he said. “No one in leadership in Washington is considering such a proposal.”

 

 An officer asked about Bosnia saying what was supposed to be a one-year operation now looks like having no end in sight. Cohen said he was at first a skeptic about the Bosnia mission when he was in the Senate, but became convinced of its necessity when the NATO peace implementation force made a such a difference.

 

 He told the sailors that U.S. presence in Bosnia has dropped since the original U.S. force of 28,000. “It is dropping to 6,200 later this year and we expect it to drop again after the next review,” he said.

 

 Sailors also asked about Kosovo. Cohen said the Europeans must take the lead, but the United States, in order to maintain NATO’s viability, must participate in enforcing a peace agreement.

 

 Cohen stressed the United States is serious about bombing Serb targets if it becomes clear that Serb President Slobodon Milosevic is an obstacle to peace in the province. Cohen also stressed that U.S. troops will not go into the area until a peace agreement is signed.

 

 Sailors and Marines leaving the talk said they were satisfied the Defense leadership understands the problems they face “on the deckplates.”

 

 “We don’t do this to get rich,” said one submarine petty officer. “But you shouldn’t get McDonald’s money in a Microsoft world. I think we’re headed the right way.”

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