Cohen Visits Georgia Base to Gauge Problems, Morale
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga., Aug. 19, 1998 Defense Secretary William Cohen spent Aug. 17 seeing firsthand some of the problems the military is facing and why many officers and airmen are leaving the service before they've finished their careers.
The Air Force chose Moody to show Cohen some its servicewide problems because the base is one of its busiest. More than 500 members of the 347th Wing deploy throughout the year to Bosnia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
The wing has one of the Air Force's busiest operation tempos, with 12.5 percent of its people deployed more than 120 days a year and some gone 160 days or more. As a result, pilots miss out on training; officers can't complete master's degree programs or enroll in professional education courses that could affect promotions; many have to double up on jobs; and spare parts inventories shrink.
Air Force Acting Secretary F. Whitten Peters, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Eric Benken joined Cohen on the first of several fact- finding visits he will make over the next several months. At Moody, they learned about the toll on training, readiness, morale and retention caused by the 347th Wing's heavy deployment schedule. At several different stops, officers and airmen told the Pentagon delegation what's bugging them:
- A security policewoman with 10 years on active duty said she's been deployed 14 times and is doing four different jobs, covering for others currently deployed. "I need stability," she complained. "I'm going to separate."
- A communications specialist told how his unit borrowed radios before it deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Thunder.
- A group of pararescue specialists who've missed three straight Christmases at home asked Cohen when they could expect help from reserve air rescue and recovery units. A pilot from the same squadron said the unit can't maintain its combat readiness. "We're just flying to maintain proficiency," he said.
- Another pilot said she can't complete required upgrade training "because there aren't enough planes to fly."
- A maintenance boss told Cohen the wing has eight aircraft down with broken engines, because the wing doesn't have spare parts or replacements.
- The chief of security police said only two of 40 first-term airmen eligible to re-enlist have committed to second terms.
"Retention is down, based primarily on the operations tempo and overutilization [of our people]," said Brig. Gen. Gene Renuart, 347th Wing commander. "Also, good jobs on the outside offer greater stability and predictability, excellent benefits packages and good pay."
Renuart also noted that young enlistees are more interested today in retirement benefits. When they compare the military with other employers, many find the military lacking, he said.
"We need to better manage the use of our people," Cohen told the Moody security policewoman who plans to separate soon. "We probably won't save you, but hopefully we can keep others in uniform in the future."
"We are trying to reduce the operations tempo and get more predictability in the system. We're seeing signs now where erosion is starting to occur in the availability of parts, and in morale and retention," he said at another stop. "If you leave the military after just a few years, we are the big losers."
Cohen repeated an earlier plea for more rounds of base closures that would release funds for compensation plans and weapons modernization. But he mostly came to gauge the attitudes of service members. He compared his visit to the times when he was a senator and would return home to visit his Maine constituency. He said this and future visits will allow him to "get out and find out what you need to make life as good as it can be in the service."
He offered no time frame for significant change, but pledged that he and service leaders are committed to better managing "the finest military in the history of the world. We have deficiencies and we have to correct them," he said.
"The military is still one of the finest ways [people] can possibly serve their country," Cohen said. "We are aware of the stresses and strains that have come about by virtue of downsizing. So, we are trying to be more sensitive to the management of our people. We will address the issues of quality of life, including compensation and retirement. We will also address the issue of spare parts and equipment.
"It's a very serious challenge, but we have the finest people [available] to lead the Air Force and the other services into the 21st century."