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Go Ahead, Speak Your Mind -- 100,000 Will Have Chance

By Linda D. Kozaryn
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 1999 – Want to tell the Pentagon brass what you think of military life? You may just get the chance to speak your mind.

Defense officials are mailing quality of life surveys Sept. 13 to nearly 100,000 people throughout the military.

About 60,000 service members and 36,000 spouses will get to voice their opinion on everything from personnel tempo to child care. Defense Manpower Data Center officials are mailing questionnaires to individuals' home addresses.

The voluntary survey gives troops and family members a chance to make a difference, according to Gail McGinn, the Pentagon's principal director for personnel support, families and education.

"We want to know what their concerns are and what things we need to work on so that we can communicate that to the military leadership and to the Congress," she said. Compensation, education, spouse employment are areas DoD officials here have been trying to address with policy and program changes, McGinn said. "We'd like to know what people now think about those things and what we might be able to do that would make them even better."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Deputy Secretary John J. Hamre, as well as the service chiefs, commanders, state representatives and senators -- even the president, will be interested in hearing what the troops and spouses have to say, McGinn emphasized. Preliminary results will be available by spring, and all of the survey data is slated to be posted by summer on a DoD Internet Web site.

Overall, she said, survey results will affect military life for years to come. Defense officials will use the data to construct quality of life policies, programs and services. They'll cite the results when seeking congressional support for such initiatives as higher pay and better benefits. Service member and family concerns will be reflected in decisions affecting the way the military does business..

"What we'd really like is for people to fill out the survey as soon as they get it," she said. "We think it will take about 30 minutes. That's a long period of time for people to take out of their day, but this is a very important survey -- this is a big deal. This is the definitive DoD survey of all service members from all services and families."

DoD officials randomly selected people from all ranks and services to provide a well-rounded sample, McGinn noted. Those asked to complete the survey represent themselves and their peers. "We know that when people speak, we can assume they're speaking for other people who are in similar circumstances," she said. Taking the time to complete the survey "will be a great service to everybody in the DoD community."

Individual troop and spouse responses to the questions remain confidential. Names are not required on the questionnaire. "We never use any identifying information on individuals at all, and we never have," McGinn said.

DoD conducts a quality of life survey every seven years. This will be the first since the drawdown reduced the size and makeup of the armed forces. "We've got a whole new military out there that we need to look at," said Jane Burke, director of the Pentagon's Quality of Life Office. "Today's issues are probably very different from those seven years ago when we were coming out of Desert Storm and Desert Shield."

Personnel tempo is obviously a current issue DoD officials are wrestling with, Burke said. "We need to know the repercussions and how we can ameliorate personnel tempo for people," she said. "Financial management is also a very big issue. Our people are put under extraordinary circumstances when they're young and they have to move to a new place. Moving is expensive. We're looking into that, too.

Since quality of life plays a major role in recruiting and retaining personnel, DoD officials are extremely interested in what service members and their spouses have to say. "This is their voice," Burke said. "They don't have to worry. This is their chance to speak."

The 1999 survey will be DoD's first look at the thinking of a new generation, McGinn noted. "You hear about Generation X and Generation Y, and those generations are now coming into the military family," she said. "Their expectations and desires are sometimes different. It's important for us to know what the younger people coming into the military see as important, because they are the force of the future."

The 1992 quality of life survey resulted in DoD-wide initiatives, according to McGinn. Officials used the data to reinforce the value of the commissary system, for example. The survey showed the stores to be the most- used and most-valued community benefit by both married and single members, she said.

Because of 1992 survey responses, DoD officials also focused on the need for more and better physical fitness facilities, she said. The results even affected military community libraries.

"We had heard that some installations had started closing libraries," she continued. "As we looked into the survey data, we saw libraries always among the top three most popular morale, welfare and recreation programs. This information got the Congress' attention, and they asked us to put a moratorium on the closure of libraries."

The survey, McGinn concluded, is "a very powerful instrument for being able to say what's important to people and for being able to focus your money, resources and efforts in those areas."

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