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Cohen Promises Better Pay, Benefits

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

MANAMA, Bahrain, Oct. 9, 1998 – Pay and retirement. These are the top two issues service members raise whenever Defense Secretary William S. Cohen asks, “What questions do you have for me?”

Whether they’re at a stateside base or aboard an aircraft carrier here in the Persian Gulf, service members ask about the disparity between military and civilian pay and about the military’s reduced retirement plan. In reply, the defense secretary says, things will improve.

The president, Congress and military leaders are going to do whatever is necessary to keep America’s military the most ready, capable force in the world, Cohen said, Nov. 9, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

“That means satisfying your needs as well,” Cohen told about 300 sailors gathered in the aircraft carrier’s hangar. The secretary visited the ship during a seven-day, six-nation trip to the Persian Gulf region Oct. 7 to 14.

Recent congressional hearings focused on personnel issues and their impact on readiness, Cohen said. “When we start to lose good people, when we see that there are real stresses placed upon on your lives that make it not tolerable and not gratifying to you, we make the changes necessary,” he said.

Cohen attributed the military’s reduced benefits to the balanced budget agreement, which capped military spending. “I want to make clear to all [service] members, if they are upset or have questions or criticisms, they should look at the political environment in which we’ve had to operate.”

The balanced budget agreement resulted in hardship and downsizing for the military, Cohen noted, but for the nation, the end result has been beneficial. “We now have a situation where we don’t have deficits of $350 billion every year. We now have a balanced budget and we have surpluses. So we’ve made the sacrifices; now we have to go back and say let’s get it back in balance.”

For the military, competing with the strongest civilian economy in decades is a real challenge, Cohen admitted. The military and private companies both seek the most qualified people, he said. “I must be frank with you, it’s always going to be difficult to match what’s going on in the civilian sector.”

When military colleagues bail out for higher pay and better opportunities in the private sector, it places enormous pressure on service members, Cohen said. “We want to convey to you it’s important to resist that pressure because we’re going to deal with the issues most important to you. We’re going to make life in the military as attractive to you as possible,” he promised.

During the past few months, Cohen said he has queried service members about their concerns. Senior commanders and service chiefs met with President Clinton and appeared before Congress to review issues impacting quality of life, and ultimately, readiness. As a result, Cohen said, the administration plans to take action.

“We’re going to take into account the kind of pressures you’re under, operational tempo, the pay differential, the retirement plan,” the secretary said. “We will propose some changes to the pay and retirement and other quality of life issues that have had an impact in recent months.”

The goal is to present “a credible, responsible budget to the Congress and say this is what we need to keep us strong,” Cohen said. “It’s going to require some increases; how much we can’t say at this point.”

The military needs to invest for the future, Cohen said, but not at the expense of service members’ quality of life. “We are inching our way back up and getting the procurement accounts in place,” Cohen said. “We also have to make sure that we don’t have so much focus on procurement that we don’t take care of you.”

In order to have “the best equipment the world can provide,” Cohen said, about $60 billion a year is needed for procurement. Presently, $42 billion is allocated for new equipment, but by fiscal year 2001, DoD will hit the $60 billion mark, he said.

Although modern equipment is important, it does not outweigh the need to recruit and retain quality people, Cohen said.

The United States “still has the most ready, capable force in the world,” he said. “There is no one in the world who can compete with us in terms of our military might and power. We have to make sure that we keep it that way.”

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