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Top NCOs Support Pay, Benefits Package

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 7, 1999 – Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Eric Benken admits he was "the easiest recruit in the world." Riding home after a shift at a dead-end job, 19-year-old Benken noticed a recruiting poster emblazoned with what he jokes today he thought was a direct order: "Join the Air Force."

That's exactly what he did -- signing on the dotted line without asking his recruiter a single question about pay, benefits or retirement.

Twenty-nine years later, Benken is the Air Force's top enlisted man. And like the senior enlisted advisers of the other military services, he recognizes that today's service members and recruits care a lot about pay, benefits and retirement.

"It's the No. 1 issue," he said in an interview with Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. "It's very high on the list [of priorities] for the majority of people."

Faced with projected recruiting shortfalls and downturns in retention among mid-career service members, the military needs to respond by offering fair pay and a reasonable standard of living, its top enlisted advisers told Cohen during interviews for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

"I don't believe sailors expect to be paid what they're worth to the nation because, quite frankly, we could not afford to do that," said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Herdt. "And sailors don't necessarily even expect to be paid what they could earn on the outside, but they do expect to be compensated fairly and adequately."

The 4.4 percent military pay raise proposed in the president's fiscal 2000 budget, he said, "is going to take us a long way down that road" toward fairness.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Robert Hall agreed that the proposed pay raise - the largest in 18 years - is "a move in the right direction" and represents a "show of faith" to service members. If approved by Congress, the raise would take effect Jan. 1.

Raises for fiscal 2001 through 2005 are projected at 3.9 percent per year.

The fiscal 2000 budget also includes targeted raises for NCOs and mid-grade commissioned officers, and changes in the military pay table to make raises for promotion bigger than those for longevity.

In addition to rewarding performance, officials said these changes would better compensate people for their skills, education and experience and encourage them to continue their military service. Targeted increases will range from .5 percent to 5.5 percent, and will be in addition to across-the-board pay raises.

Hall applauded two other changes in the proposed budget: restoration of the traditional military retirement benefit of 50 percent of the high three years of base pay after 20 years of service, and changes to ensure that retirees get cost-of-living increases during periods of low inflation. These are issues he said soldiers he visits around the world raise most frequently, particularly mid-career NCOs the services are counting on to become their future leaders.

Benken said DoD's two retirement systems pose a severe morale issue. One pays 50 percent of the high three years of base pay to people who entered the military before August 1986; the other will start at 40 percent and 20 years' service for those who entered after August 1986.

He called the newer plan, known as Redux, "a disincentive" to mid-career service members deciding if they will remain in the military or leave for other, often more lucrative, private-sector jobs. "So we need to fix it," he said.

Secretary Cohen's promise to fight for a fair and equal retirement system for all military members, announced last December, inspired optimism in the ranks, Benken said. "You could see (them saying), 'Hey, finally somebody is listening. Finally we're going to turn the tide on this,'" he said. "So I think it's critical that we do that."

Hall said the proposed fiscal year 2000 budget represents a well-deserved effort to help compensate America's men and women in uniform for their daily contributions to U.S. national security.

Today's service members "do so much and ask for so little," he said. "They ask for decent pay, housing for themselves and their families and medical care and retirement benefits for the day they have to take off their uniform for the final time."

While a strong supporter of the proposed compensation package, Herdt said the bottom line in encouraging men and women to join the military and to continue their military service goes beyond dollars and benefits. He said it comes down to being part of an organization that embraces and promotes values, teamwork and loyalty.

"We can talk about compensation. We can talk benefits. We can talk of that stuff as to how we stack up against our counterparts in the civilian job sector," Herdt said. "But if you want loyalty, you want to come to one place and that's the United States military."

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