One-on-One Contact Keeps Cohen in Touch
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 1999 Give troops a chance and they won't hesitate to say what's on their mind about pay, housing, health care and living conditions.
William S. Cohen has learned just that from his one-on-one contact with America's service members. During three years in office, the nation's 20th defense secretary has traveled the globe, visiting troops in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, the Far East and elsewhere.
At each stop, Cohen enthusiastically wades into the crowd to shake hands, pose for pictures and talk with the military men and women who man the guns, sail the seas and patrol the skies. In turn, the troops say, "Thanks for coming out," and "Thanks for the 4.8 percent pay raise." They also raise their concerns.
For example, an airman on his fourth tour in the Persian Gulf told the Pentagon's senior civilian, "I'm really having a hard time coping with this because I don't see my family." A young sailor deployed nearly five months showed Cohen a baby photo. "This is a picture of my daughter," the sailor said. "I haven't seen her yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing her when I get back."
In a recent American Forces Press Service interview, Cohen said he values these personal exchanges both for the information he gleans, and more importantly, because he knows what the visits mean to the troops. Aboard the USS Constellation, for example, the secretary said he asked 12 sailors why they had decided to reenlist. They cited these incentives: pay, retirement and the fact that military leaders listen to their concerns.
"It's such a little thing, really, on my part, to take time away from what I'm doing to go out and see them," Cohen said. "But it's a very important thing for them to know that their secretary of defense and their military leadership will take time to meet with them. A handshake, a hug, an expression of gratitude on my part -- that, more than anything else, says, 'You really care about us.'"
Advocating quality of life is a familiar role for Cohen, a former Republican congressman from Maine who served three terms in the House of Representatives and another three in the Senate. And the Bangor native is no stranger to the military. From 1979 to 1997, he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Just as he looked out for state residents' welfare, Cohen now represents his new constituency -- America's 1.4 million men and women in uniform. There are, he noted, similarities between his role as a congressman and that of defense secretary. Both jobs require a lot of time on the road.
For nearly 25 years, Cohen the politician spent weekends traveling throughout Maine to homes, businesses and town meetings. His goal was to put "a human face" on current issues. "That's something that's always been important to me -- to be able to meet people and find out the kind of pressures they have to live under and live with," he said. "Then when I went back to Washington to be a legislator, to be able to articulate those concerns and translate them into legislative responses."
Since taking the Pentagon's helm, Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, have spent much of their time aboard Air Force planes. In their extensive travels, they've met numerous heads of state and senior foreign dignitaries. And they've talked, dined and even danced with forward-deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
"Both Janet and I have made a very strong effort to go out and see these young men and women where they are serving throughout the world to find out how we can better serve them," Cohen said. "It's important that we have that sort of a constituent relationship, so to speak -- that we see how good, patriotic and dedicated they are, and the kind of sacrifices they make."
This personal contact makes it easier for the secretary when it comes to signing deployment orders and allocating defense resources. "I can look to those things that they have brought to me, personally, and to Janet," he said. As a result of what the couple has learned, Cohen said, military health care and housing are now top priorities.
"I will focus this remaining year on health care," he said. "That means getting people greater access. They complain about long lines. Doctors complain about reimbursement. Rudy De Leon (undersecretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness) is working very hard on addressing those issues."
Deployed service members, in particular, need to know their spouses and children are receiving care, Cohen noted. "If their child at home has an ear ache or an eye problem, they want to know they're being taken well care of," Cohen said. "This is perhaps the single most important thing for any parent."
The secretary said DoD has put more money -- about $636 million -- into improving family housing in the fiscal 2000 budget, plus another $2.9 billion to lease, operate and maintain family housing units. "We intend to increase and rehabilitate the stock of family housing by the year 2010," he said. Defense officials also are working to eliminate permanent gang latrine barracks for unmarried service members by 2008.
Since the secretary established DoD's Quality of Life Executive Committee in 1994, there have been more than 40 major policy, resource and program accomplishments, according to DoD officials. Committees have improved access to counseling services for service members and their families, worked toward providing more financial counseling for junior enlisted, and improved recruiter and Reserve forces' quality of life.
Defense officials also have taken steps to improve morale for deployed forces, including authorizing space available travel for spouses in overseas areas and rest and recuperation leave to allow deployed families to reunite. They extended hours of operation at quality of life facilities, expanded counseling and chaplain support and added more fitness and recreation equipment. DoD also has added more computers for families to stay connected via e- mail and video teleconferencing.